What is going on in Brazil?
By Alex Apsan Frediani, on 23 June 2013
Together with my Brazilian friends and family living in London, we cannot stop following the posts, videos, tweets and news about what is going on in Brazil since the demonstrations in the streets of São Paulo on June the 6th and spreading to the main urban centres of the country. We cannot also help starting most conversations we have at the moment by commenting on the latest news. Even after spending hours talking and reading about it, it is still hard to answer the question: what is going on in Brazil? While hopeful and excited about the level of social mobilisation around equitable access to urban infrastructure and services, we are also extremely worried about the more recent turn of the events towards a conservative agenda.
Picture 1: Demonstrations in London
Since the demonstrations that impeached the president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992 we probably have not seen the public sphere so much dominated by political debates, rather than football or soap opera. Everybody is talking about it, everybody is having to position themselves in one way or another. This is also the result of a long-term mobilisation story around universal access to transport through free fares. After a series of decentralised actions (including the demonstrations in Salvador in 2003 in Florianopolis in 2004), in the 2005 World Social Forum the Movimento Passe Livre, MPL (Free Fare – but also translated as Free Pass – Movement) was formed. A charter with basic principles was developed, which included independence, non-partisanship, horizontality and decision-by-consensus. National meetings were conducted to generate strategic plans. Local groups consolidated and political pressure was successfully exerted through studies and street demonstrations. During August and September of last year the MPL organised demonstrations in Natal (Rio Grande do Norte), March this year the movement took thousands to the street of Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul). Then in the beginning of this month, the movement responded to the plans of increasing the price of bus fare in São Paulo by organising the demonstrations on the 6th of June, which brought 5,000 people to the streets.
For me, these activities provide examples of how social movements are contesting the commodification of city services. One of the major references of the movement is the engineer Lúcio Gregori (municipal secretary of transport of São Paulo between 1990-1992). Lúcio designed during his mandate the Project Free Fare, never implemented but which aimed at subsidising the cost of public transport through a reform of the progressive property tax. His argument is based on the idea that the high costs of the tariffs is prioritising the support towards automobile industry and bus companies over the movement towards sustainable and equitable cities. By subsidising public transport and reducing tariffs, citizens would opt for collective transport services rather than individual cars, minimizing traffic and maintenance costs of roads. Importantly, Lúcio argues that financially the project free fare is viable, however it needs the political willingness that is not in place, hence the need for social mobilisation and pressure by civil society organisations.
Picture 2: Illustration used by MPL
However, since the initial stages, protests increased in amount of supporters but also concerns. Apart from transport tariffs, the various signs seen in the demonstrations have condemned a series of issues, including the costs caused by the forthcoming world cup, as well as the controversial constitutional amendment number 37, which would prohibit public agencies from carrying out criminal investigations. Such claims are important demands to keep Brazilian government under scrutiny and deepening public debates and democratic practices.
Picture 3: Protests in London with demands beyond bus tariffs
The Brazilian government responded to the voices of those in the street. In a televised announcement on the 21st of June, the president Dilma Rousseff called for meeting with activists, mayors and state governors to discuss about the demands of protesters. In particularly, urban mobility would be a major theme of deliberation. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo mayors also responded by scraping their plans to increase prices of bus tariffs in the short term
Apart from those exciting citizenship claims through debates of transport and urban mobility, we have also seen a series of worrying elements that we perceive to be counter productive to such claims. Firstly ‘violence’ has been unfortunately dominating a lot of the discussions. Just after the first protests since the 6th of June, the major media corporations did not hesitate to focus their news around the violence generated by a few protesters, therefore criminalising the activities in the streets. In the meantime, on-line various videos were shared by protesters and journalists showing the outrageous reactions of the police force using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowds shouting: sem violencia – without violence. Videos also show police shooting people recording the events in the streets and in buildings.
When the activities in the streets of the country started getting momentum, the position from the major media corporations, especially Globo, changed radically. From criminalising uprising, they started to provide ‘reasoned’ arguments, mostly associated to corruption of current government, to legitimize activities. Many comments on-line have accused such shift to demonstrate an opportunistic attitude of the right-wing/conservative elite in Brazil, tapping into and co-opting events, shifting the agenda from urban mobility towards a debate on corruption with the intention to destabilise the PT (workers party) government.
Also worrying is how the mood of the crowd in the streets started to shift. As numbers increased and causes for mobilisation started to multiply, the national anthem has become a key shouting bringing protestors to a united voice. The article by journalists Camila Petroni and Debora Lessa of the journal Brasil de Fato outline the dangers of the emergence of this problematic nationalistic mood, which often is associated to militarization and reminds us of worrying times of our history during the 60s and 70s military government. Therefore, many have argued that the demonstrations have become compromised, losing coherence, depth and clarity due to this attempt of the right to sabotage and co-opt activities. Others have argued that this is the nature of current uprisings: multiple, decentralised, unpredictable, difficult to explain as a whole, and evidence of a new form of networked society.
However profoundly worrying has been the reaction in the streets of São Paulo in the celebration following the announcement of the mayor saying that the bus tariff would not go up. Those who went to celebrate using their party or organization’s banners and shirts (i.e. PSOL – Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Socialism and Freedom Party – that thas been involved with the MPL since its first steps) were kicked out from the marches. Protesters argued that they would not like such groups and organisations to profit from what has been the ‘people’s demonstration’. This rejection to the role of such groups in the organisation, mobilisation and future dialogue with government officials is naïve and limits the potential of protests to move beyond an outburst of grievances and influence concrete policy and practices of governance. Furthermore, and even more worrying, those claiming to be of no-association and no-party have also been accused of belonging to organised right-wing and military groups.
As a result of such recent events, the MPL has said that it would not be involved in the organisation of future demonstrations. Journalists and bloggers are calling protestors to localise their discussions. As it happened also in Spain, the call is to consolidate the debate and critical thinking in neighbourhoods and hubs of dialogue. The editorial piece of the magazine Forum (which was created during the World Social Forum of 2001 in Porto Alegre) asked activists to replace in the short-term demonstrations with meetings to deepen the debate, work out differences and share perspectives before going again to the streets.
The above description is one of the many readings of the situation. It is quite surprising that the media in the UK is not engaging with such reading and has not been trying to capture complexities and the contradictions of the schizophrenic nature of the uprisings in Brazil. It is impossible to attempt to make any analysis of what could happen, but I see exciting and worrying scenarios: if the progressive activists move out from the demonstrations by prioritising localised discussions, the conflict in the streets might end up dominated by right-wing groups, with dangerous prospects of militarization and confrontation with the current government. But on the other hand the confrontations with fuzzy purposes might phase out with time, and what is going to be left are the seeds for a much more constructive and profound mode of civil engagement. What is going on in Brazil? I am not sure, but definitely it is uncertain, exciting and worrying all at the same time…
Alexandre Apsan Frediani is a lecturer at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and co-director of Masters in Social Development Practice.
 See videos that went viral on-line outlining the major arguments against the World Cup: ‘No, I am not going to the world cup’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZApBgNQgKPU and Brazilian ex-footballer and now politician Romario arguing that FIFA has established a estate within the Brazilian estate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMhL-K2kBxQ.
 See article on this: http://cafecomnata.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/ei-reaca-vaza-dessa-marcha/
 See post by a demonstrator that got kicked out from the celebrations: http://socialistamorena.cartacapital.com.br/querem-desestabilizar-o-brasil-nao-vou-compactuar-com-isso/
 See list disseminated through facebook: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=538407982884717&id=149047141820805