Brazil: Aftershocks of the 2013 Protests


By Andrew Kragie. 

A year after a wave of mass demonstrations shook Brazilian politics to its core, experts said that the protests have resulted in a few real changes—stopping short of the “structural change” that demonstrators demanded. National dissatisfaction with the status quo reared its head in 2013 and shaped the topsy-turvy elections of 2014 that yesterday resulted in the narrow re-election of Dilma Rousseff.

The protests began on June 6, 2013, when a small group of young people took to the streets of São Paulo to oppose a 20-centavo (8.5 U.S. cents) increase in the city bus fare. By June 20, over 1.5 million Brazilians were on the streets in 100 cities across the country, according to The Economist.

The initial protests were coordinated by a small leftist group called the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL; Free Fare Movement). The protests were focused on the fare increase in São Paulo. According to Rodrigo Constantino, a right-leaning columnist for the national newsmagazine Veja, the MPL was associated with the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party). Constantino said the PT initially approved of the demonstrations because São Paulo’s government was controlled by opposition parties. Soon, however, the protests “spread like wildfire.”

Brazilians across the political spectrum agreed that the turning point came on June 13. Bia Barbosa, a Brasília-based employee of the left-leaning Internet freedom advocacy group Intervozes, said that prominent newspapers published editorials that day that asked for police action to quash the protests. Popular opinion had paralleled the elite media opinion until that point; the protests and their accompanying transit delays were not popular.

That changed on June 13. São Paulo military police responded more forcefully to the protests that night. Over two hundred people were injured, fifteen of them journalists, including a photographer who was blinded in one eye. Constantino agreed that police excesses—especially their extensive use of rubber bullets—propelled the protests into the national spotlight. He said the average Brazilian came to sympathize with the MPL and view the police as “a fascist institution.”

A PT-affiliated congressional aide, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used, said that media coverage immediately shifted after the journalists were injured. “The focus changed from looking at vandalism at the protests to highlighting the protesters’ demands and the police’s brutality.” The aide said newspaper editorials showed a “change in tone” that had a large effect in Brazil’s elite-driven political culture.

On June 19, the usually conservative Folha de S. Paulo newspaper published a poll of São Paulo residents. While on June 13 only 55 percent of residents approved of the protests, by June 18, 77 percent had come to approve. The proportion that said they opposed the protests fell from 41 percent to 18 percent. Barbosa said that after June 13, the movement “ceased to be a protest of the left and became a protest of everyone.”

The same newspaper surveyed people who said they had attended the protests. The results showed that the demonstrators were overwhelmingly unaffiliated; while 47 percent of Brazilians say they don’t identify with any of the country’s many political parties, fully 84 percent of protesters said they did not prefer any party. Three-quarters had higher education, contrasted with one-quarter of the total population. About a fifth were current students, and over half were younger than 25. Reflecting the demonstrations’ growing support, 71 percent of those surveyed said they had participated for the first time after June 13.

As the protests multiplied, protesters’ demands also multiplied. What began as a focused opposition to a single fare increase in a single city became a diverse array of what Barbosa called a “diverse set of grievances.” In the Folha survey, 40 percent of respondents said they were protesting public corruption, 30 percent against police brutality, 27 percent for better public transit, and 24 percent against politicians in general.

The congressional aide said demands centered on transportation, education, healthcare, and corruption. Some protesters demanded prison terms for the many legislators and executive-branch officials who had been convicted in the mensaleiro vote-buying scheme; that scandal was only the tip of the iceberg in a country where over 200 sitting congressmen had been charged with crimes ranging from embezzlement to assassination. In the run-up to the 2016 FIFA World Cup, one popular sign called for “FIFA-quality hospitals.”

Others called for the government to dedicate to 10 percent of GDP to the country’s notoriously mediocre public education. (As The Economist wrote in 2009, “God may be Brazilian… but he surely played no part in designing its education system… [W]hen it comes to the quality of schools, it falls far short even of many other developing countries despite heavy public spending on education.”)

One expert said the diversity of demands was a function of the protests’ decentralization. Cristiano Faria, the director of Internet initiatives for the Brazilian House of Representatives, said the demonstrations were “spontaneous, heterogeneous, and liquid.” He said their central characteristic was a questioning of traditional power structures, from political parties and the media to labor unions and business. The National Congress itself, where Faria works, was the target of protests. On June 17, hundreds of demonstrators occupied Congress’s roof. (See photos at the top of this story.)

Faria said the symbolic taking of Congress made the protests immediately relevant for legislators. “Politicians were really scared,” he said. Congress moved to act on one major demand. They discussed political and campaign-financing reform, topics that have been on the table for twenty years. But the committee Congress established never reported out, so the proposal went nowhere.

Faria said governmental efforts to respond to the protests were hindered by their lack of clear leadership. Rousseff offered the traditional PT response by inviting the protest’s leaders to a summit in Brasília, the capital. Faria said the movement’s response was essentially: “But we have thousands of leaders.” Though the president did meet face-to-face with some movement leaders, it proved hard to negotiate with a “disparate, uncentralized movement.”

The Brazilians interviewed for this article said some changes had resulted from the month of protests, which fizzled out once the Confederations Cup soccer competition began in early July 2013. “In the past year, a principal change was a new perception among Brazilians that it’s important to assert one’s rights,” activist Barbosa said. President Dilma Rousseff proposed “five pacts” that addressed transportation, health, and corruption. According to Barbosa, “these responses were not sufficient.”

Barbosa said the pacts included “various things that were already planned” by the ruling PT, but “taken off the shelf” in an effort to answer protesters’ demands. Constantino, the right-leaning columnist, went farther. He said the PT made “opportunistic use” of the demonstrations to advance long-planned agenda items. Rousseff, he said, “faked a response.”

Faria said the demonstrations did have a few concrete effects. Congress defeated PEC 37, a bill that would have further limited which agencies can investigate sitting congressmen; he said the bill was on the road to passage until the protests erupted.

He also pointed to the end of the secret impeachment vote. Only the Brazilian Supreme Court can convict sitting legislators, but even a conviction does not automatically remove them from office—that depends on a vote of Congress. Previously, that vote had been taken in secret. Protesters began to chant slogans against the secret vote, which created a new pressure for legislators. They voted to end the secret vote. A representative who had previously been allowed to hold onto his seat in Congress—despite the fact that he was convicted and jailed—was then removed from the legislature.

The congressional aide added that several cities did in fact lower bus fares, although many reductions were only temporary. In São Paulo, she said, the city government added new bus lanes. Barbosa declared that “there were no structural changes.” But, as one lawyer in the city said, “one year out is too soon to tell.”

The tumultuous month did have broader effects. Barbosa said middle-class Brazilians normally trust the news media, though the levels of trust have moderately declined over the past ten or twenty years. She suspects that the decentralized protests, originally criticized by the media, have accelerated the decline in trust. (Barbosa pointed out that even the lower levels of trust in media remain higher than those in the United States, France and England; she hypothesized that the trend might actually be a sign of democratic development.)

Faria got his job because of the protests. Searching for new ways to increase citizen participation, Congress began the e-Democracia initiative, which he now directs. Citizens can submit questions in real time during congressional hearings or debates. He started a project called WikiLegis that allows crowd-sourced legislating (mostly involving subject-area experts). When the Congress passed the Marca Civil da Internet, a bill of rights of the Web, the final law mentioned one e-contributor as an author.

The most unpredictable factor in the wake of June 2013 is the rise of the “sem-partidos,” citizens who reject all existing political parties. While Constantino claims there is an opening for a new party on the right, Barbosa sees a danger that average citizens might transition from anti-party to anti-democracy. On the fiftieth anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military coup, she said, there were small gatherings in favor of a return to authoritarianism.

Constantino said the protests accelerated a widespread increase in citizens’ rejection of politics and traditional parties. Given that voting is mandatory in Brazil, he expects many blank or null ballots in the October presidential election. The congressional aide said that this summer, polls predicted up to 30 percent of voters would intentionally cast invalid votes.

Given the lack of concrete changes resulting from the massive protest movement, Faria predicted that more demonstrations were still to come. He even welcomed them, saying, “I think we need to continue with more waves of protest.”


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