What started as a small demonstration against an increase of 20 cents (barely 9 pence) in the price of public transport fares in Sao Paulo became a national mass movement which mobilised more than a million people in 80 cities. Jorge Martin analyses the protests and demonstrations that have rocked Brazil over the last week.
What started as a small demonstration against an increase of 20 cents (barely 9 pence) in the price of public transport fares in Sao Paulo became a national mass movement which mobilised more than a million people in 80 cities, after having forced the mayor of the city Haddad and the regional governor Alckmin to retreat on June 19.
The movement, however, also has a contradictory character. On the mass demonstrations to celebrate its first victory on June 20, there were also ugly scenes in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other main cities, where organised right-wing and extreme right-wing groups resorted to violence to expel from the demonstration left-wing parties, trade unions, social movements and generally anyone carrying red flags, T-Shirts or symbols.
The turning point at which the movement became national and acquired a mass character was probably on June 13, when a demonstration of about 15,000 people in Sao Paulo, the fourth of its kind against the fare increase, was brutally attacked by the Military Police leaving over a hundred injured and a similar number of arrested. The repression was similar in intensity to that of the blackest days of the military dictatorship. The police did not want just to disperse the demonstrators, but rather to attack them and teach them a lesson. They used rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters, in many cases hitting directly peoples’ bodies and heads. They even organised ambushes of the demonstrators as they roamed the streets, particularly at the symbolic Avenida Paulista.
Reporters were also on the receiving end of the police brutality, dozens of them being beaten up despite having identified themselves as journalists. Ironically, the violence had been prepared for by the major newspapers and TV stations which had described the protesters as vandals and branded them as violent criminals.
News and images of the repression started to spread like wildfire through the social media networks and also the mass media. In the space of a few hours the mood changed in the whole country, with spontaneous demonstrations against repression and in solidarity with the protests in Sao Paulo spreading to most regional capitals and beyond.
By Monday, June 17, half a million took to the streets in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, the capital Brasilia, and dozens of cities across the country. This is the biggest mass movement in Brazil in decades. The wind of the Arab Spring, of the Spanish Indignados, of the Geraçao Rasca from Portugal, the US #Occupy movement and now the Turkish uprising of Taksim has definitely arrived in Brazil.
As well as major cities, the movement is also reaching smaller towns in the interior and it is largely spontaneous. Just to give an indication, in Florianopolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, in the south, the comrades from Esquerda Marxista took the initiative, together with others, of calling a meeting of trade union and student organisations, social movements, etc., to plan and organise a demonstration on June 20, the next major appointment of the movement. Over a 100 representatives attended. Then, suddenly, a number of youth, through social media networks, called for a demonstration on June 18 and 10,000 people turned up paralyzing the city.
The youth, which make up the bulk of those participating in the movement, have been inspired by similar movements of the youth elsewhere, and social media networks, with their immediacy, have served as useful tools in the initial stages of the protest as means of spreading information, sometimes by-passing the mass media and being used to organise the demonstrations.
Economic growth: but who benefits?
Clearly, a movement of this size cannot be explained just by the increase in fares, or even as a response to brutal repression. These were just the proverbial straws which broke the camel’s back. There are deeper reasons in the conditions of Brazil, which are at the root of the present explosion of protest. The country has experienced sustained and significant rates of growth for the best part of the last ten years (with a short blip in the aftermath of the 2008 world crisis). There has been an improvement of living standards and a significant reduction in poverty levels.
This is however only one side of the picture. This economic growth was based on a series of factors which are now starting to turn into their opposite. First of all, the PT government has benefited from an increasing integration of the Brazilian economy with the boom in China, massively exporting commodities and raw materials. A policy of high interest rates to attract foreign investment has also made it very lucrative for foreign and national capitalists to speculate with Brazil’s debt. This has been combined with widespread privatisation of public assets and the development of a speculative housing bubble.
The consumer boom has been fuelled by a massive expansion of credit. Consumer debt as a percentage of disposable income has more than doubled from around 18% in 2005 to nearly 44% at the end of 2012. This is clearly unsustainable, particularly with very high interest rates. Once growth is over, this massive amount of consumer debt will hang like a massive albatross round the neck of the Brazilian economy.
The official figures of economic growth hide a massive gulf between the rich and the poor, making Brazil one of the most unequal countries in the world, where he richest 1% (2 million people) own 13% of the nation’s wealth, about the same as the poorest 50% (80 million people). National statistics also hide huge regional and racial disparities. For instance, the 2010 census revealed that while the average monthly income per capita overall was R$ 668, 25 per cent of the population lived on an average monthly income per capita of less than R$188 ($106) and 50 per cent on less than R$375. Of course averages are misleading. The average monthly income of the 10% richest was R$ 5,345.22, and that of the 1% richest was an insulting R$ 16,560.92 (US$9,354.39).
Lula, Rousseff and the PT
The government of the PT, Workers’ Party, was elected with the backing of the workers and of the organised trade union movement to which it is historically linked. When Lula won the election in 2002, this had a symbolic value for millions of workers; a former metal worker trade unionist, one of their own, becoming the president of the country!
But both Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, have ruled in a coalition with a number of parties, chiefly the conservative PMDB. While guaranteeing certain social advances, they implemented a policy of privatisations and attacked the pensions system of public sector workers. Generally, Brazil was presented as the nice, “reasonable” left alternative to the mad, radical, “confrontational” policies of Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.
There were occasions in which sections of the trade union movement clashed with the PT coalition government. But the fact that 90% of collective bargaining agreements were signed with above inflation wage rises meant that the workers continued to support Lula (and then Rousseff) and while opposing this or that policy, regarded the PT government as “their own”.
Now this has started to change with the slowdown in the economy. On March 6 this year, 50,000 workers demonstrated in the capital Brasilia in a march called by the CUT trade union confederation and others, demanding more social spending, a shorter working week without loss of pay, rejecting neo-liberal attacks on labour and employment rights and cuts in pensions, etc. Already in 2012, with the slowdown of the Chinese economy, Brazil’s GDP grew by a mere 0.5%, and worrying signs started to accumulate. For many people the first visible sign that not all is well with the economy has been rising inflation, particularly of food products.
As the government continues to pay massive amounts of money in interest and servicing on the foreign and domestic debt (which represents 47% of the budget), education, healthcare and other public services are being cut. Billions of dollars are being spent in building stadiums for the World Cup but ordinary working people are being asked to pay, with increases to already high bus and metro fares.
The World Cup for a “world player”
To add insult to injury, the FIFA has imposed a series of draconian conditions regarding the organisation of the World Cup, which the PT government has willingly accepted, including in relation to the standards to which the installations should be built. The FIFA demands include a number of very serious and scandalous restrictions of the right to strike, the right to demonstrate, etc.
The constant propaganda from the government about Brazil becoming a major world player, one of the largest economies on the planet, a “developed” country, etc., is in contradiction with the real living conditions of the majority of the people and this gap between discourse and reality is one of the powerful reasons behind the explosive nature of the protests in the last few weeks.
On the other hand, the young generation, those who are now around 20, have never known any other government than those led by the PT, while the historic movements which created it in a stormy revolutionary period of the struggle against the dictatorship are ancient history for them.
Furthermore, a large number of the city mayors responsible for implementing the fare rises which have been the immediate cause of the protests are members of the PT, notably Sao Paulo mayor Haddad. They are also indistinguishable from politicians of the main opposition right-wing party PSDB such as Sao Paulo governor, Alckmin. In fact, when the protests started at the beginning of June, they were both in Paris trying to bag the 2020 Universal Exposition for Sao Paulo.
It was PT elected politicians, as well as those from the opposition PSDB, which were directly responsible for the brutal repression by the Military Police against peaceful demonstrators. Their initial response was one of law and order. This was fully backed by the PT Minister of Justice Cardoso who volunteered to send the Federal Police to help in the repression.
It is hardly surprising then that amongst many of the demonstrators there would be a mood against political parties in general and particularly the ruling PT. This is similar to the widespread discrediting of political parties and professional politicians in other countries, and it contains a positive element, which is the rejection of political representatives which are seen as only benefiting the rich and powerful, implementing cuts against working people and personally benefiting from political office. This rejection of politics is to a large extent a rejection of bourgeois politics and its institutions.
Movement exploited by right-wing nationalists
However, in Brazil, this was cleverly exploited by the right-wing media and the right-wing parties to attempt to divert the movement towards a right-wing nationalist agenda. From June 18 the same mass media which had attacked the demonstrators as vandals and delinquents and had spurred the police to attack them, started to praise the movement while trying to mould it to their needs. People were asked to carry the national Brazilian flag and sing the national anthem, to dress in white and to focus protests on the “struggle against corruption” (which is code for struggle against the ruling PT). The building of the powerful Sao Paulo employers’ federation FIESP, on Paulista avenue, displayed a huge Brazilian flag
Particularly on the demonstrations on June 20, the growing influence of the right-wing media on the demonstrations became more visible. As well as the original demands against fare increases and for the money spent on the World Cup to be used for healthcare and education, there were also banners against abortion rights, against PT corruption and even some calling for a military coup!
It was in this context that an organised provocation, involving groups of extreme right-wing thugs calling themselves “nationalists”, some armed with knives, others carrying baseball bats, surrounded the sections of left-wing parties and trade union organisations at the June 20 demonstrations, the largest so far. Shouts of “no party” were accompanied by shouts of “out with the reds”, “go back to Cuba”, etc.
After constant and increasingly violent harassment, finally left-wing and trade union militants were forced to lower their red flags and abandon the demonstration, some of them injured. These affected PT militants as well as those of other left-wing parties (PSOL, PSTU, PCdoB, UJS, etc.) and mass organisations, including the student union UNE and the main trade confederation CUT (which had some of its flags burnt in Rio).
Even the original organisers of the protests against fare rises, the Movement for Free Passes (MPL) were forced to withdraw from the demonstration in Sao Paulo and issued a statement condemning attacks against left-wing organisations, pointing out that while their movement is non-partisan, they are not against political parties and they are part of the wider struggle of the oppressed against those at the top. As a matter of fact, the sad irony is that many of the left-wing parties attacked at the June 20 demonstrations, particularly in Sao Paulo, had been supportive of the movement from the very beginning, when it was very small and subject to brutal repression.
It would be wrong from this to draw the conclusion that the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the demonstrations in Brazil on June 20, are all rabid anti-communists or committed supporters of a right-wing agenda. Far from that. As a matter of fact, as the MPL and others have ceased to call for demonstrations and they have been called for only on a right-wing agenda, the number of participants has dropped massively, such as in Sao Paulo. In other cases there has been an open split in the movement with left-wing and right-wing demonstrations organised separately. In other towns and cities, where the movement is still mainly around the issue of opposition to fare increases, the protests are dominated by left-wing ideas and organisations. This is for instance the case in Belo Horizonte (MG) where 200,000 people marched on June 22, with a series of clear demands as well as those related to transport fares in a well organised demonstration which ended in a mass People’s Assembly to decide the course of the movement.
It should be added that the main trade unions and the CUT confederation itself, were very slow in reacting to this movement. If they had thrown their weight behind the movement from the very beginning, giving it a more organised character and linking it with the demands of organised workers, it would have been much more difficult for the right wing to attempt to take over the protests.
The need for organisation, structure, and leadership
The MPL itself is also partly responsible for what happened, as they insisted that the movement should be “horizontal”, and opposed calls to give it a more organised structure. Some even rejected the presence of vehicle-mounted sound systems so that speeches could be made and heard by all those present and decisions taken collectively. Apparently microphones and sound systems were “authoritarian”. There was also a rejection of the idea that votes should be taken to decide the course of the movement, advocating “consensus” decision making, which is the best recipe to paralyze the movement and give the minority a right of veto (the opposite of democracy). From the beginning of the movement the comrades from Esquerda Marxista and the Juventude Marxista who were actively involved in the protests argued that the movement should have democratic structures and that the mass organisations of the workers, youth and students should take a step forward and get involved.
Instead of that what we had was a small group of a few dozen people in Sao Paulo, meeting after each big demonstration to set the date of the following one. Hardly a democratic process when protests already involved tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands. In the end this lack of organised structure and of a formal democratic process for taking decisions allowed the right-wing media, with powerful resources at its disposal, to play a dominant role in setting the agenda. The semi-anarchist ideas which already played a negative role in the Occupy movement in the United States and others, in Brazil have proven to be a complete disaster.
An urgent task in Brazil is to organise the defence of the right of left-wing and trade union organisations to freedom of speech and demonstration, which they won in the struggle against the military dictatorship. The comrades of Esquerda Marxista have taken the initiative of calling united front meetings in Sao Paulo, Joinville and other places.
This should go hand in hand with the mobilisation of the mighty power of the Brazilian working class to make sure that the most pressing demands of the workers and youth are met, in relation to healthcare, education, labour and employment rights, public transport and others.
The Brazilian revolt has shown the bankruptcy of the class collaboration policies of the leadership of the PT, alienating it from a new generation of youth entering the struggle and throwing its own supporters into a state of confusion. Even now, when president Dilma pretends to have listened to the voice of the streets, she is still firmly embedded to respecting the limits of the capitalist system. The first of “five agreements” which she has promised is an “agreement on fiscal responsibility”, meaning cuts in the budget in order to guarantee the payment of the huge state debt to the banks and speculators. The aim of putting this as the first point in her proposals is to send a clear message of “responsibility” to the “markets” (capitalists and multinationals): “I will continue to pursue policies in your favour”. Even her proposal to dedicate 100% of oil contract royalties to the education budget does not address the crucial question of what are the terms in which the oil contracts are being given to multinational companies. Right now, the oil contracts are extremely favourable to the private companies which will get 82% of the profits and only pay 8% in royalties.
The inspiring movement of the Brazilian youth has proven one thing: the struggle pays and what only ten days ago seemed impossible has been achieved. If the youth are joined by the organised trade union movement, then, nothing can stop them.