What has happened? What began on June 6th as a small group opposing a 20-centavo (8.5 US cents) increase in bus fares has grown exponentially in both size and scope. On June 20th alone, at least 1.5 million Brazilians took to the streets in over 100 cities across the country. It is a peaceful movement, although there are looters on the fringes who steal and vandalize at some large demonstrations. Protesters have occasionally clashed with police but law enforcement seems to have learned that the protest will stay peaceful as long as they accompany marches without trying to disperse them.
This is the first major protest movement here in over 20 years, since millions took to the streets in 1992 to demand President Collor´s impeachment for corruption. The demonstrations have shattered the image of Brazilians as apathetic and unengaged citizens willing to put up with poor results. A social media-obsessed youth are using Facebook and other sites to organize and galvanize; signs read “Saimos do Facebook (We’ve Left Facebook)” and a popular Twitter hashtag is “#VemPraRua (#ComeToTheStreet).” The whole country is riveted. The main newspaper for Salvador dedicated all but two pages of its news coverage to the protests, although soccer still got an almost equal number of pages. Politicians are bewildered and terrified.
Why are they protesting? The first gathering sought to prevent an increase in bus fares; one of the movement’s coordinating groups is the Movimento Passe Livre or Free Fare Movement. Over the next week the motivations diversified: weak public transport in general, outrage at police brutality, disgust with massive spending for the World Cup and Olympics (one sign said, “If your child is sick, take her to the stadium”), low-quality public education, low-quality public healthcare and expensive private healthcare, and really unbelievable corruption in a country: almost 200 sitting congressmen have been charged with crimes from siphoning funds to contracting hit men. Not “accused of.” Charged in court by the government. Understandably, trust in government in 2012 was at a pitiful 33%, low even for the developing world.
A Folha de São Paulo survey provided good data on the June 17th protests in that city. The most popular reasons people gave for demonstrating: the bus fare increase (56%), corruption (40%), police violence/repression (31%), for better transport (27%), and against politicians in general (24%). (Respondents could give multiple answers, so this doesn’t total to 100%.) Over the past two weeks the focus on bus fares has diminished to focus more on education and health.
People resent their massive tax bills when they see unpaved roads (only 14% are paved nationally), overcrowded hospitals, and exclusive public universities. The tax burden here is impressive: as Brazilians say, you have to work 4 months of the year just to pay the government. Taxes and government revenue account for over 37.5% of GDP. In the US, with its massive military spending and ballooning safety net costs, that number is 15.1%. Latin America’s other large economy keeps it to 23.8% despite a war on drug trafficking organizations and serious social expenditures. Even Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez led a vast expansion of the state, still only takes in 34% of GDP in taxes. People feel that they’re being robbed by corrupt politicians, and I can see why. As The Economist put it, Brazilians
pay the highest taxes of any country outside the developed world (36% of GDP) and get appalling public services in return. Violent crime is endemic; crack cocaine is sold and consumed openly in every big city centre. A minimum-wage worker in São Paulo’s centre whose employer does not cover transport costs (an obligation for formal employees) will spend a fifth of gross pay to spend hours a day on hot, overcrowded buses that trundle in from the city’s periphery. But this is nothing new in a country of gaping inequality—and in fact economic growth in the past decade has brought the biggest gains to those at the bottom of the heap.
Who is protesting? The same Folha survey of the São Paulo marchers on June 17th gives a picture of who has taken to the streets. They are young: 53% were under 25. They are educated: 77% attended college, compared to 24% of all Brazilians. They are middle class: the country´s poor have greatly benefitted under the past decade of Workers´ Party governments, and the wealthy have done well thanks to a strong economy. The middle class feel maligned and they are demanding action from politicians. Most importantly, they do not support any political party: 84% said they were unaffiliated, versus 47% of the general population. This is a movement largely of the young, the educated, the middle class, and the politically unaffiliated. But they have the support of the general population, much like the Occupy movement did in the US: “[p]olls suggest that three-quarters of Brazilians back the protests.”
Has anything changed? Mayors have scrambled to meet with the movement’s leaders–to the extent that there are any actual leaders. Several big cities have canceled bus fare increases or proactively reduced bus fares. In Salvador, my city, the mayor received a letter with demands yesterday. He said an actual free fare is impossible but that 24-hour service might be feasible; he also demanded that bus companies submit their budgets for government review. (The bus companies are privately owned–surprising in a country where many banks and the only oil company are all state-owned.)
The national Congress voted to dedicate 100% of oil revenues to education and health. President Dilma Rousseff, known to all by her first name, has spoken to the nation on TV, convened emergency meetings of governors and mayors, and met with student leaders. She’s reminded them that she herself was a protest leader and tortured prisoner during the military dictatorship that only ended in 1985. On Tuesday, she proposed five “pactos” to address protesters’ demands. They include new investments in education, health, and transportation as well as a commitment to desperately needed political reform.
A treat for anyone who’s stuck with me this far: this New York Times interactive graphic shows and translates protest signs that range from angry to inspiring to ironic.