Brazil's protests have subsided - for now

The nationwide protests of the summer have mostly petered out, but Brazil's police and government still have a lot to answer for.

At the end of August, as Brazil’s population reportedly passed the 200-million mark, the hashtag #OGiganteAcordou (“the giant has awoken”), used during June’s wave of protests, flickered briefly to life again online. The tag, a reference to the national anthem, in which Brazil is imagined as a colossus reclined on a tropical shore, was the strapline of a striking 2011 Johnnie Walker TV ad, in which Rio’s dark coastal mountains stirred into life and rose up to form a giant.

Over two months on from the protests, the suggestion that Brazil's historically placid population was finally stirring into action now seems hopelessly optimistic: less an insurrectionary “Brazilian spring” than an ephemeral June bug. Small, sporadic protests smoulder on, including a spate of actions by a newly emerged anarchist black bloc, but the majority of June’s protesters have now dispersed.

Despite historic inequality, Brazilians have tended towards non-confrontation. It’s one of the things that makes Brazil such a thoroughly pleasant country to live in; but it also means that in the years since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship, although smaller, under-reported protests over issues such as police violence, indigenous rights and housing have been a fact of life in the country's marginalised periphery, the social peace has mostly remained undisturbed.

The last time Brazilians took to the streets in large numbers was in 1992, when thousands marched against President Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned as his trial for corruption was about to commence. Corruption was again an issue this June, as the protests’ initial focus on the cost of public transport broadened to include it along with such things as perceived over-spending on the 2014 football World Cup.

Corruption is a sensitive subject in Brazilian politics, since it apparently touches every party. In the “mensalão” trial currently taking place in the Supreme Court, a string of leaders from the governing Workers Party (PT) has been convicted of paying monthly bribes to opposition Congress members, in return for support for Lula's government. Politicians routinely appear to close ranks to protect their own. In a secret ballot held on 28 August, Congress voted against impeaching the incarcerated congressman Natan Donadon, notwithstanding his 13-year sentence for stealing £2.6m in public funds. (A week later, Brazil’s lower house, assailed by criticism after the Donadon vote, rushed through a proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban secret ballots in government. The amendment will now make its way through the Senate.)

In the Senate, Renan Calheiros currently presides as leader of the house, despite his forced 2007 resignation in a corruption scandal. And at state level, in July, a multimillion-dollar racket came to light when the German company Siemens provided details of its part in a 20-year price-fixing scheme around contracts for metro construction, supply and maintenance. Those implicated include the powerful current and former governors of the state of São Paulo.

A nationwide day of action against corruption and impunity in public office was called for Brazil’s Independence Day, on 7 September. But low turnouts on the day, despite a blast of sound and fury from the black bloc protestors, seemed to confirm that it will take more than corruption to stir Brazilians back to the level of outrage that fuelled June’s largest protests. Those were triggered by a night of ill-judged police violence against a peaceful demo on 13 June, which burst onto TV screens and Facebook, scandalising the watching multitude. While the usual victims of police violence - a problem throughout Brazil - tend to be the poor, the difference this time was that many protesters were better off, well-educated and media-savvy.

The protesters were widely described by international as well as local media as being mainly “middle-class” Brazilians - and many of them were, in the sense of the term as most often used in Britain and other rich societies. Yet these people should not be confused with Brazil’s much-feted “new middle class” - workers who have recently emerged from poverty and gained access to credit, a slightly higher income, or a job in the formal economy. Although their prospects have improved as Brazil’s economy has grown, they do not benefit from access to a decent education (in Brazil, private schooling) and the kind of well-connected background that gives access to the best jobs.

Such people are Brazil's real “sleeping giant”, but it remains to be seen whether  the effects of the current economic slowdown will finally bring them on to the streets. It might. A rampant crime rate and sharp rises in the cost of living  affect those at the lower end of the income scale most acutely, and if something has changed since June, it's a new sense that street protest is valid, possible behaviour for ordinary citizens. And more than ever it is being reported, including by a flourishing new strata of independent media collectives such as Mídia Ninja, whose members routinely make their way to places such as Grajaú, an immense neighbourhood on São Paulo’s periphery that is currently experiencing a wave of occupations and protests.

The government, under the leadership of Dilma Rousseff, has kept a relatively low profile since the start of the protests. This stance, coming from a nominally  left-wing administration, has made it look increasingly out of touch. In an interview published in Folha de S.Paulo last week, the head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, Paulo Leme, raised concerns about serious problems in the Brazilian economy - and about the government’s ability, political capital o r will to tackle them: “It’s not hard to conclude,” said Leme, “in the light of the protests, that orthodox economic adjustment would not be a welcome sight on people’s TVs on the eight o’clock news.”

Demonstrators protest in Rio de Janeiro during the national strike day this summer. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution