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Brazil has a long history of top-down reforms that have inadequately addressed the profound inequality that divides the country. The mass demonstrations, provoked by public transportation fare increases and World Cup costs, are finally calling attention to issues that cannot be solved by minor changes, indicating things might be different this time.
In order to address the systemic inequality beneath Brazil’s idyllic image of samba and soccer, there must be a social and political rupture. The billions of dollars already being spent on the upcoming 2014 World Cup have rightly angered millions of Brazilians who live without social infrastructure and lack basic public goods.
People of all political inclinations have taken to the streets in major cities around the country. Police violence against demonstrators in São Paulo at the beginning of the protest triggered nation-wide mass demonstrations with a broad range of demands targeting all forms of social inequality. The state reaction to the movement has brought to the surface 500 years of repressed anger and frustration towards deep inequality.
Brazil has long been one of the most unequal places on the planet and is haunted by a history of slavery and oppression. Five centuries ago the Portuguese colonizers killed and enslaved millions of indigenous inhabitants to enrich themselves with minerals and sugar cane. Soon after, Brazil became the largest African country outside of Africa, receiving nearly 40% of all slaves brought to the entire American continent . This economic system based upon the slavery and oppression of black, indigenous, and poor people lasted for almost four centuries. The legacy of slavery is present in our daily lives; for example, virtually all middle-class and upper-class housing is built with small attached rooms for the domestic servants, very much resembling the slave senzalas attached to masters’ mansions .
The first reform in Brazil came in 1822 with independence. Not a great change in practice, and certainly not a rupture. The Brazilian ruling class declared independence from Portugal while keeping the royal Portuguese family in power . The son of the king of Portugal was immediately declared emperor of the newly “independent” empire of Brazil, and when he fled the country his royal son took charge.
The second reform came in 1888 when landlords officially ended the slave system. Again, change without rupture. Brazil was the last country in the world to end slavery, a top-down phenomena of bowing to English pressure to expand its trade empire. No problem at all for the rich, they were already exploiting cheap immigrant labor under harsh conditions similar to serfdom  .
The third reform came one year later in 1889 when the ruling class declared the Empire’s transformation into a modern capitalist republic. No popular movements, no popular participation; just a simple business deal among the rich  .
The fourth reform came in 1929 when Getulio Vargas put an end to the political deal between the elites of São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. Vargas came from the south of the counrty and used his political leadership and military command to orchestrate a coup d’état against the landlords that had been controlling the federal government since 1889 — but Vargas himself was a landlord. Again, change with no rupture. Under Vargas from 1930 to 1945 the economy was industrialized, and to a degree nationalized. Vargas enacted the labor legislation that is still in place in Brazil today, while at the same time repressing communists and other challenges from below. The presidents that followed him also maintained the same order. ‘Order and progress’ was the motto. Industrialize and guarantee that the powerful remained powerful  .
This began to change slowly in the early 1960s when João Goulart came into office and modestly expanded workers’ rights. Goulart’s leftist inclinations and approximations with Castro and Mao were the last straw that the ruling class was waiting for. In 1964 he was removed from power in a military coup that established a dictatorship for the next 21 years. The army repressed popular demands by force and imprisonment, thus ensuring continuing profits for the rich.
The decades of military dictatorship destroyed any hopes of land reform and of a decent public education system for the masses. Brazil became even more unequal in both urban cities and rural areas. A single family could own more land in Brazil than the total area of a Western European country. Just try to imagine what it means for a single person to own as much land as Belgium while having control over the press media, TV channels, and voters  . These capitalist landlords were the so-called coronéis.
One of these coronéis, José Sarney, became the first civilian president in 1985 after the end of direct military control. No popular votes, just a political arrangement among the rich to withdraw the army and install the rich and powerful in office. As with every other major episode in Brazilian history, the people were again under a system commanded from the top. Sarney still currently presides over the Senate.
It was also during the period of military dictatorship that the first wave of truly bottom-up social movements formed. Beginning with the general strikes in the state of São Paulo, Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) led popular mass demonstrations against oppression and inequality. The developments from 1978 to 1989 were a major shift in the fight for social democracy  . Interestingly, these movements arose at the same time as the neoliberal agendas of Reagan, Tatcher, and Mitterand were taking hold of developed countries. The Workers’ Party set the exact opposite agenda with its general strikes: it was time for social democracy in Brazil. Another reform without rupture.
The greatest victory of the Workers’ Party came in 1988 with the institution of a new Constitution. This was probably the first major victory truly organized from the bottom up  . The Constitution institutionalized the rule of private property, markets, and capitalism. It also guaranteed the rights of workers and many other progressive reforms while these victories were being chipped away by the neoliberal agenda elsewhere in the world.
The partial victory was so significant that every government that followed in office systematically tried to undo it. Due to explicit media manipulation, Lula, the union leader who led the Workers’ Party, lost the 1989 presidential election. It was the end of the social-democrat dream in Brazil. Once more, the ruling class managed to keep their government in power. From 1990 to 2002, Brazilians faced subsequent waves of neoliberal reforms that aimed at destroying all the popular gains obtained from 1978 to 1989  . Beginning in the 1990s, the neoliberal era brought privatization, high unemployment rates, massive layoffs, world record-high interest rates, bailouts to banks, trade and financial liberalization, and de-industrialization . Once again, the system of inequality preserved its five-century hold on Brazil.
The rich and powerful have maintained their dominance through five centuries of Brazil’s history, managing challenges with a mix of repression and reform. Half of the Brazilian population has insufficient access to clean water, sewers, and decent education. Even now in the twentieth-first Century most are functional illiterates. Some Brazilians are among the richest people in the world, and live a life as if they were in Switzerland; but among us there are also the poorest in the world—the majority that continues to live a life not substantially different from the times of open slavery .
The five-century history of Brazil is undoubtedly a history of oppression, of the very rich against the masses of the poor. We were systematically told that the government had no money to invest in education and healthcare. Paradoxically, from the same mouths that spoke those words there came the message that they would invest billions and billions to prepare the country for . . . soccer. The portrait of a Brazilian that loves sport above all else clashes with the chant “fuck the World Cup” now heard on the streets .
Now the streets are on fire all across the country. The original demand was to lower bus and subway fares; but against this history of inequality and exploitation, high bus fares and police violence triggered something much deeper. We all know that there is something fundamentally wrong in our country. So, what you see on your screen is the problem that the rich have created for themselves. It is the outcome of 500 years of unmet popular demands.
São Paulo is now the scene for daily riots ignited by the question of inefficient and expensive transportation. The city’s public transportation system has been in the hands of the state since 1946, operating efficiently with well-paid drivers and staff. In the early 1990s Luiza Erundina, the city’s first leftist mayor and member of the Workers’ Party, advocated a no-fare system. Her plan was to finance a free public transportation system for all by taxing business and wealthy households. This plan prompted rebellion by the rich. The bourgeoisie lobbied, campaigned, and undermined Erundina’s plan to redistribute the costs of transportation. She lost the battle. Even worse, Paulo Maluf, her corrupt right wing successor, privatized bus and subway lines all at once in 1995.
Following the familiar neoliberal script, Maluf shifted the ownership of the public transportation system in Brazil’s largest city to private mafias that formed a cartel to control fare prices . The three enterprises that control the transportation system in São Paulo own the largest number of public buses in the whole world. The public transportation business in Sao Paulo is simultaneously one of the most inefficient and profitable enterprises in Brazil . Ostensibly regulated by the city government, the bus companies’ books are black boxes that few have dared to open. Marta Suplicy, the last mayor that openly discussed the subject, had to start wearing a bulletproof jacket in public.
Residents of São Paulo typically spend hours going to and coming back from work. A poor person that lives in the sprawling outskirts of São Paulo spends an average of three hours commuting to work every day inside noisy, packed, and expensive buses, subways, and urban trains. Transportation costs in São Paulo are the highest in the world relative to wages. Residents of São Paulo must work ten times as many hours as residents of Buenos Aires to pay for transportation, and more than twice a worker in Paris . With the privatization of the system, drivers lost their benefits, faced reduced compensations, and had their labor unions severely undermined.
The Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre, or simply MPL) arose as a response to this ongoing crisis. Some eight years ago the MPL began organizing workshops, collective discussions, and demonstrations all over the country. Its militants are mostly university students and other young people involved in various social movements. Working outside Brazil’s party system, free from electoral pressures, the MPL created a horizontal organization with the goal of fighting for a no fare policy in urban centers as part of a broader vision for social justice. The MPL was the spark behind these historic demonstrations.
What began as a targeted campaign for free public transportation in a city with chronic transportation issues soon became entangled in a much broader and diffuse outcry for social justice. The MPL and the violent police response have somehow led the masses to finally speak out about inequality. Mass demonstrations now pop up in stadiums hosting the Confederations Cup, highways, and streets of major Brazilian cities, and even around the National Congress and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brasília. Protests are also occurring in business centers, middle class neighborhoods, and slums.
It is difficult to characterize the movement and the situation is changing quickly. This is not a communist takeover. The movement is not radical and not sufficiently politicized. So far, it has been a scream against the immense inequality and oppression that Brazilians have suffered. There is also the increasing threat that reactionary groups could hijack this political moment. After the backlash against police repression during the early marches, conservative forces shifted quickly from repression to co-optation. Subsequently, virtually all the media and the right-wing parties have been in favor of the demonstrators, and attempted to use them to their advantage against the Workers’ Party and the federal government, substituting a nebulous anti-corruption platform for other demands. A quick look at the newspapers Folha de São Paulo, Estado de São Paulo, and the broadcasting network Rede Globo is revealing. Conservatives are turning the protest on its head. Left-leaning protesters struggle for more radical reforms while right-wingers use reactionary campaigns against government corruption to weaken the center-left Workers’ Party. With a weak leftist vanguard and no clear political drive, the demonstrators have the potential to set the stage for a broader reactionary political response.
Despite these manipulations, the demands from the streets call for a rupture, and not reform of the old institutions. This is a rare outcry in Brazil’s 500 years of profound inequality. Brazilians finally appear to be tiring of minor changes that have brought no systemic rupture.
Workers’ Party governments have brought change since Lula assumed the presidency in 2003, but it was partial and compromised. Lula shifted the income distribution to help the miserable: more social programs, higher minimum wage, and higher employment rates. This was made possible by a favorable international scenario that allowed him to help the poor without confronting the interests of the rich. Brazil’s huge trade surpluses generated the funds to finance social programs without compromising the gains of the bourgeoisie. However, the world financial crisis beginning in 2008 undermined the conditions for this scenario. Dilma now faces a different challenge. To help the poor she will have to confront the rich. With recent cutbacks of government expenditures and low GDP growth rates the dispute between rich and poor becomes a zero-sum game. The poor want more social programs, more government investment, and more income redistribution. However, the Dilma administration has failed to deliver.
Recent events have crystalized the Workers’ Party separation from the mass movements from which it originated. No new political vanguard has emerged to represent the people’s concerns. The door remains open for right wing hijacking of popular unrest.
The situation is very fluid and the outcome remains uncertain. The traditional political leaders are stunned, and have proven they don’t know how to react. The Workers’ Party is held down by the burden of the political compromises that it has made with the bourgeoisie during the past decade. Fernando Haddad, recently elected mayor of São Paulo, and Geraldo Alkmin governor of São Paulo, resisted rescinding the fare increase as demanded by the Free Fare Movement until over 100,000 flooded the streets. Unfortunately, the decision to cancel the fare increases will come at the cost of shifting even more public money through subsidies to the private transportation cartels. In the end the population is paying for the fare hike anyway through taxes.
The very rich are also unquiet. They are expecting to get billions in profits from the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Transnational capitalist corporations such as FIFA are aware that escalating demonstrations might affect their gains. Ironically, soccer might turn out to be not so profitable in the country known to be its most fervent supporter. Pharaonic stadium projects stand in sharp contrast to the lack of hospitals, decent public transportation, and schools for the masses—the same masses that will not have money to purchase the extremely expensive tickets. The bread and circuses policies have finally produced their own opposite, discontent. Who would have thought of that in Brazil?
Tomas Rotta is a PhD candidate in the economics program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was raised in São Paulo, Brazil.
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