Honestly I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the protests going on all over Brazil. To those of you who know me personally, I’m sure that strikes you as a little strange. Here’s the thing: despite my fierce love of grassroots organizing, I wasn’t sure that I had anything meaningful to add to the conversation. I’m finally old enough now to know to shut up and let others do the talking if I’ve got nothing new to say.
We watched the demonstrations unfold every night on the evening news and we discussed them like the expert armchair politicians that we are, but did I have anything extra and insightful to add over and above what everyone else was saying? Not so much. Moreover, the closest protests were in Belo Horizonte, our state capital. Here in our little town we’ve been pretty insulated from all the chaos (which I’m sure my parents are delighted to hear).
That is, until last Monday I stumbled across this on the streets of Teófilo Otoni:
Students had taken possession of one end of the main plaza and the municipal building (the salmon-colored building in the photo). Protest organizers were giving speeches off the balcony and from a car loudspeaker in the street. Traffic was gnarled for blocks. Federal Police officers swarmed along the periphery watching to see that nothing got disorderly.
In comparison to what has been happening in São Paolo and Rio and most other major cities of Brazil, this little local protest is tiny and calm in comparison. But was big by our small-town standards.
For those of you who don’t follow Brazilian politics closely, here’s my attempt at a quick summary of what’s happened to date:
The protests started in the major cities about a R$0.10-$0.15 rise in the cost of bus fares. Which to the outside observer might seem somewhat silly in a country where corruption happens every day and the general population pays sometimes up to 30% in sales taxes and receives in return inconsistent and often woefully inadequate public services and infrastructure. People had reason to take to the streets long before this. They started marching over the equivalent of 7 U.S. cents? But if you’re someone who rides those buses every day, maybe three of them to get to and three to get from work, then that’s a daily increase of not R$0.15, but R$0.90. And if you’re one of those people who only makes the minimum wage of R$600/month, you can see how an extra R$20-25/month just to get to work might make you upset. Like Marie Antoinette’s classic “Let them eat cake,” the bus increases were fuel needed to fan the embers of an already outraged population. (for further and far better analysis of this outrage than I could ever offer, start with this post on Eat Rio and watch the below clip)
We sat in our armchairs back here in the interior wondering what would happen if people got their demands? Would they go home? Would the politicians be able to do what they normally do, which is throw some concessions, make some robust speeches, and then everyone forgets about it by the next election and the same group of cronies who created the problem in the first place get re-elected for another term? Within a week President Dilma came on national television and praised the protesters, stated that she heard their demands, and outlined a series of reforms and ambitious new initiatives that she would use to address the complaints about lack of quality education and health care. The bus companies in many of the large cities dropped their fares back down. “So far, Brazilian politics as usual,” we observed from our sofa.
And then something interesting happened. No one went home. The protests grew in size and spread into new areas of the country. The air has the feel of the Occupy movement in the USA.
Every night the half-hour nightly news show on TV Globo has had the same format: for fifteen minutes news reporters seriously interview protesters who point to the money being spent on the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games as a contrast to what such investment dollars could do for those who still are underfed and they show images people who demand an end to corruption, better health care, and better education; for ten minutes they gravely describe the rampages of vandals and hoodlums who are attracted to the protests as an excuse to do what they like to do: destroying public and private property; and then the last five minutes of coverage cuts to a smiling, glowing reporter who describes who’s won the latest Copa das Confederações soccer game (advertised as a friendly, warm-up to the World Cup), and then the show’s over. It’s happened so many nights in a row that it’s almost formulaic at this point. The stark contrast, especially given that so many are outraged at the expenditure of public dollars towards the upcoming Cup & Games, almost makes you wonder if someone back there editing it together this way on purpose.
So that brings us to how we ended up with our own local protest here in rural Teófilo Otoni. And here’s what’s even more interesting to me—here they’re not protesting the buses, they’re not protesting the Games. They’re protesting that the local “Restaurante Popular” (the local soup kitchen) needs to be re-opened. Bravo. Hit ’em where you can make a difference.
Also this week major routes to the interior have been blocked by truck drivers who are demanding elimination of a new tax on how many wheels/axles they have on the road. It looks like they’ll get it. Residents in small towns south of us have set up other roadblocks to protest local corruption (they tried one on our town last week, but unfortunately the local organizer had previously ignored/pissed off some major community leaders and now no one showed up to his party–oops. Small town politics at its best). With only a few trade routes that come north from São Paolo, Belo Horizonte, and Rio, this has had a slight slowing effect on our economy. It remains to be seen what will happen to us if the protests on the highways continue.
It’s good to see the local campaigns demanding specific reforms. It’s even better to see the Brazilian populace finally get mad enough to not take it anymore. It’s good to see the politicians cave and offer concessions so quickly. With as many reasons to be angry as there are days in the year (make a list, take your pick), this has the potential to last a long time. Brazil needs it to last, if they’re going to claim their role as a first-world nation. The money needs to go where they say it does—to health care and education and environmental protection and infrastructure. People need to feel that their politicians are accountable to them every day of the year, not just at election time when someone wants their vote. I think of it as adolescent growing pains. Heck it’s ugly and awkward, and Brazil may even fall on its face as it tries to run towards the World Cup and the Olympics, but it’s got to go through this if one day it wants to play with the big kids.