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

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear