Global Issues

Tahrir Square, Brazil? No, not yet: TED Fellow Juliana Machado Ferreira on the demonstrations in Brazil

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Overhead photos of Brazilian cities. Photos: anonymous, from Facebook

In the past week, vast protests sparked by a bus-fare increase have rocked Brazil, taking its leaders – and the world – by surprise. TED Fellow and conservation biologist Juliana M Ferreira offers an insider’s perspective on what led to this transformational moment.

With all the eyes of the world on Brazil due to the upcoming World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016, the view of the last few days, especially on June 17th, was a little different from the world’s stereotypes of Brazil: happy and beautiful people partying and dancing semi-naked samba, and enjoying soccer matches while sipping caipirinhas.

What the world saw was the explosion from pressure that had been accumulating for a long time. News agencies claim that altogether, 250,000 people were protesting that day in many Brazilian capitals. However, photos show that this number was actually much higher. It started when local governments raised bus fares by some cents (different values in each State). In Sao Paulo, the fare went from 3.00 to 3.20 Reais, the equivalent of 10 cents in the US. The first protests were organized by a movement called “Free Pass,” which advocates for free public transportation to guarantee citizens’ right to move freely. These first protests, however, gathered fewer people and were less organized, more violent and more linked to some political parties than the one that happened on June 17th. In these first protests, some protesters vandalized public and private properties. However, when police responded with apparently unscrupulous violence, all eyes in Brazil began to turn to this movement, and people from all walks of life started to join the movement to protest police violence, for the people’s right to protest and reduced fares or free public transportation.

However, this is the social networking era. And just as it happened in the Arab Spring, protesters in Brazil began to self-organize through social networks, calling more people, persuading friends to participate. The movement changed and became more spontaneous, less violent and definitely not headed or organized by political parties. With more people joining the protests, the list of claims grew and became less focused. People were not protesting anymore for the 10 cents raise on bus fares. All repressed disappointment exploded in the voices of Brazilians from very different backgrounds.

Young people don’t see any opportunities in their future and more experienced people are disenchanted with politics after a lifetime of fights against military dictatorship for democracy and direct elections. Older Brazilians have hoped for so many times and for many years that the political situation in Brazil would change, but instead, the politicians in power are the same, political parties seem to have lost connection with any ideologies and only function as sellers and buyers of political support for funding or positions in the government.

Brazilians are also watching powerlessly as inflation increases and the government manipulates numbers to deny this obvious fact. The state’s expenditure is as high as ever, and we have never had this many appointed positions (just the president’s cabinet has approximately 20,000) and ministries/cabinets (we have 39 now). There is widespread corruption in all levels of power, and public resources are used for personal or parties’ interests and in exchange for companies’ financial support during elections. Politicians in Brazil have very high salaries and unbelievable privileges such as cars, drivers, plane tickets, apartments, immense cabinet funding, right to employ several assessors and lifelong benefits, just to mention a few.

Brazil is organizing the most expensive World Cup of all time, building overpriced stadiums that will not have much use in the future, while public education, health and security are hanging by a thread. Our country also has one of the highest tax rates in the world. At the same time, there are virtually no public services. Some can pay for private services and those who can’t are left helpless. Programs that were created for wealth distribution became tools used to buy votes and mass manipulation. The government is clearly focused on infrastructure development, ignoring technical information related to environmental conservation or energy, for example, making decisions based on political interests that are completely ignorant about technicalities involved in these decisions.

Brazil is also known for the almost complete lack of independence between legislative, executive and judiciary powers, the most basic principle of democracy. The last maneuver of the government in this direction is the infamous PEC37, a proposal (overturned two days ago in response to the protests) to change Brazil’s constitution to restrict just to police forces the prerogative of investigating law infractions. This would restrict the ability of the “public ministry” (the Brazilian body of independent public prosecutors, working both at the federal and state level) to perform investigations. Such restriction only exists in a few totalitarian countries and would have meant a significant regression in our democracy. Lastly, the opposing party is mute and, in reality, practically inexistent, becoming accessary to this situation.

The cherry on the top of this cake was the trial of the “mensalao,” one of the biggest corruption schemes of all time, in which the government paid congressmen and senators in exchange for political support. Defendants that were convicted by the Supreme Federal Court not only are not facing their penalties, but some of them, after the conviction, were tenured as federal congressmen with all benefits.

So for many Brazilians, the protests are now much more than just about the public transportation problem. The biggest difference that I see in comparison to the Arab Spring is that our movement lacks one clear demand, such as that the president resigns, for example. Even if he did, this would not change a single thing, as the vice-president, the president of the congress and all in line of succession are as bad as or worse.

In a sense, these protests are more of a wake-up call for citizens to show all their discontent, and to show politicians that Brazilians are done being manipulated, lied to and robbed. However, the movement still needs to mature and become a force with political results. In my opinion, the only way for things to start changing substantially in Brazilian politics are long-overdue political and fiscal reforms. Otherwise, there is the possibility that we will just go back to the lethargy we were in up to now. I hope not, from the bottom of my heart and for the future of my beloved nation.