By Friday 21 June, two weeks in to what had become the largest protests in Brazil in 20 years, happening to coincide with the Fifa Confederations Cup, the activists were demonstrating a clear sense of strategy. By mid-afternoon that day, a favourite for elite weekend travel, they had succeeded in blocking access roads to Guarulhos, São Paulo’s overloaded international airport, the largest in South America. Some desperate passengers abandoned their cars on the motorway and continued on foot, lugging their bags to the terminal, only to find it paralysed.
If those passengers made it through, many of the flight crews and other essential staff did not: by 6pm, when the airport should have been at its busiest with weekend departures, the monitors were showing a long list of flights suffering “technical delay” – as though a mechanical virus had attacked the airport. By then, shock troops had moved on to the blocked motorway and not only was it impossible to enter the airport but there was a ban on leaving it.
The protesters’ blockade was made easier by the already parlous condition of São Paulo’s transport infrastructure. This sprawling city of more than 11 million people, a chaotic jumble of typical low-rise villas and huge skyscrapers, of shopping malls, sprawling slums and luxury gated communities, is, as one local commentator observed, the transport equivalent of a patient on the verge of a heart attack. It does not take much – sometimes just a drop of rain – to push São Paulo over the edge. Its potholed side streets and urban motorways clog up. For those who do ride the buses, often on long commutes to distant suburbs, it is a daily torture.
In the week leading up to the airport blockade, the city suffered serial heart attacks as protesters targeted its arteries, turning São Paulo’s flyovers and urban motorways into temporary protest playgrounds and occupying such main thoroughfares as the central Avenida Paulista. It’s not just São Paulo: so far, more than 100 cities have been affected, resulting in four deaths, scores of injuries and hundreds of thousands of reais’ worth of damage. But who are the protesters? And how did what had begun as a complaint about a small hike in bus fares become a nationwide movement?
In the search for explanations, it has become customary to point out that the protesters did not seem to match the demands they were advancing. It had all begun with Passe Livre (“free pass”), sniffily described by local pundits as a group of no more than 45 students, many of them enrolled at São Paulo’s top universities, protesting against an increase in bus fares of roughly 8p. They were demanding free public transport; as one early slogan declared, “If the fares go up, the city stops.” In the case of São Paulo, it was no idle threat.
And yet, according to the São Paulo-based news magazine Veja, these were not people who ever rode the buses: they were protesting, some reportedly told the magazine, on behalf of their family maids, who could easily spend a quarter of their monthly earnings just getting to work. If that was the case, Veja tartly observed, it might have been more effective to ask their parents to give their domestic staff a pay rise.
But Veja, like many of its well-off readers, had completely misread a rapidly moving situation. At the end of the first week of protests, the police in Rio de Janeiro unwisely did to these children of the middle classes what they routinely do to criminals, or those guilty of no crime worse than poverty: they took off their badges and beat them up. In the age of mobile-phone cameras, it proved to be an error. The images of police brutality spread rapidly through social media and fuelled nationwide indignation. The second week of protests would be very different.
By Monday evening, 17 June, people all over Brazil turned out to say: “Basta!” The call had gone out on Facebook, and tens of thousands of students responded – as did their parents. By Thursday the protesters numbered more than a million. But still the elite were slow to catch on. On Monday morning, a senior executive of a multinational company declared the planned protest “unimportant”. That evening, his journey home was blocked by a high tide of marchers flowing down São Paulo’s motorways. Astounded to see a well-dressed middle-aged man among the crowd, the stranded executive asked the man why he was protesting. “For a better Brazil,” he replied.
For the well-heeled elite, Brazil is already better. They are the beneficiaries of the past decade of high growth, wealthy enough to buy their way out of the daily inconveniences inflicted on the less well-off by chronic corruption, creaking infrastructure and high taxes. Inside a bulletproof limousine, the executive relaxes as his chauffeur negotiates the potholed roads and congestion. If he is in a hurry he can take to the skies: São Paulo is reported to have more private helicopters than any other city on earth and a helipad is an essential accessory to accompany the high-rise buildings that the boom has spawned.
Traffic is not the only inconvenience that can be distanced by wealth. Veja had devoted the edition of the week before the protests to the crime wave that São Paulo’s police seem powerless or disinclined to check: Brazil has a murder rate on a par with drug-plagued Mexico and everyone has a personal story of violent crime. The rich hire private security. The rest are at the mercy of a deteriorating public order. The rich pay for private education and health. The rest suffer the chaos of public provision hollowed out by corruption and bureaucratic indifference. Cocooned by privilege, the corporate executive was obli - vious to the mounting frustration of the middle class until its members physically surrounded his car.
It took a week for Brazil’s ruling class to understand the depth of anger in the country. Brazilians don’t do this, I was told. The ubiquitous national flags the marchers draped around their shoulders, and the home-made signs that they carried, spoke of a nation whose main collective passion is football. Brazilians, in fact, have not done this since they turned out in their hundreds of thousands 20 years ago to demand the end of the presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello, a man who once held the fiercely contested title of most corrupt politician in Brazil.
In 1990, Collor became Brazil’s first directly elected president, following the end of the military dictatorship that had ruled from 1964 to 1985. He resigned two years later in an attempt to forestall impeachment. Although the senate disqualified him from holding elected office for eight years, he avoided prison, and in 2006 he was elected, as a friend of mine put it with heavy irony, um senador da nação – a senator for the nation. Like Collor, other notoriously corrupt political figures have managed to escape prison by taking advantage of the weak legal system, with its delays and obfuscation.
When the trade unionist and leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) Luiz Inácio da Silva – Lula – was elected in 2002, Brazilians invested him with all their hopes for change. But ten years on, despite a notable redistri - bution of wealth that lifted many of Brazil’s poorest out of poverty, the pattern of corruption had not changed. Nor had underinvestment in public services, despite personal tax levels on a par with Scandinavia’s. A series of corruption scandals forced several of Lula’s closest aides from office, while his unpopular son’s rapid ascent to the ranks of Brazil’s millionaires added to middle-class indignation.
Lula remains popular, as does his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, who had held no elected office before being parachuted into the presidency in the 2010 elections on the strength of his endorsement. But the myth is beginning to fray. Last year the federal court convicted 25 aides, representatives and congressmen, for both the PT and allied parties, on charges of buying votes to get government legislation passed. In April a judicial investigation into Lula’s own role in the corruption scandal began.
The PT also lost ground in local elections last October, despite personal appearances on the stump by Lula. Voting is compulsory in Brazil, but more than 20 per cent of voters in recent elections have spoiled their ballots. Most of those who spoiled their ballots are young – the Facebook generation that is now out on the streets.
So deep is the discontent that the unthinkable has happened. In this most footballcrazed nation, at a time when Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, the mood has turned against an event that the government anticipated would secure its place in the hearts of Brazilians for good: next year’s Fifa World Cup. We need schools, not more football stadiums, the marchers are chanting.
Friends listed the complaints. The stadiums had cost twice as much as the original budget for the tournament and though the sports facilities had been built the promised transport links had not. An ostentatious national stadium had gone up in the federal capital, Brasilia, a city with no team in the top division. And though the World Cup had been marketed as an event for the whole nation, the cost of the tickets was far out of reach for all but the wealthy. As the opening game of the Confederations Cup began at the Brasilia stadium, a few hundred protesters burned tyres outside. A week later, as many as 60,000 attempted to break through a cordon of riot police to storm the Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte, where Mexico were playing Japan. When the Brazilian football hero Pelé told fans to forget the protests and enjoy the football, he was greeted with derision.
Dilma’s ratings had begun to slide even before the protests. The crisis has exposed her poor political instincts. As the demonstrations spread, she – and the entire political class – seemed paralysed. On 18 June she flew to São Paulo to consult Lula. Two days later the PT made its worst blunder: a message went out on Facebook calling on the PT faithful to turn out at the demonstration in São Paulo that evening and create a “red wedge” on the Avenida Paulista. The attempt to coopt the protests was misjudged and it went badly wrong. The PT turned out in numbers, red flags flying, to be met by anger from the crowd. To chants of “No political parties here!” the flags were torn down and the “red wedge” ignominiously scattered.
For the old left, accustomed to think of itself as the champion of the underprivileged, the rejection of the PT on the streets of São Paulo was a profound shock. It resonated in conversations across the city. At the offices of one NGO, two old friends argued fiercely with each other. One was convinced that the demonstrations had taken an ugly turn, that they were out of control, that anarchists and dark forces were bent on creating chaos that would give the right an excuse to intervene. The other pounded his fist on the table as he disagreed. For him, the voice on the streets was Brazil’s best hope.
In another office across town, a left-leaning lawyer echoed the fear that the demonstrators’ rejection of the PT showed that the people were being manipulated by extremists – anarchists or fascists, or both. To the suggestion that the protesters felt that politics as usual had failed them, she replied angrily: “But politics has delivered. There have been real gains through politics.”
She had a point. If these events signal the beginning of a Brazilian revolution, it is a revolution of rising expectations, born among people who have benefited from the PT’s redistribution of wealth. Now they are judging the party for what it has failed to deliver – cleaner politics, investment in public goods and an effective and fair judiciary.
On Monday 17 June, the mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, refused to reverse the bus-fare rise. Two days later Haddad and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro capitulated, following the example of Porto Alegre, João Pessoa, Cuiabá, Manaus, Natal, Recife and Vitória, where the authorities had already backed down. Haddad reportedly spent much of Thursday puzzling over his budget, trying to find the money to fund this enforced generosity. But by the time the bus-fare rise was rescinded, it was no longer about the buses. Perhaps it never had been. When Dilma addressed the nation, late on Friday, her speech was judged too little, too late. The following day, 250,000 people were back on the streets. Far from bringing the protests to an end, it seemed like just the beginning.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net