"We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore": Rio's rude awakening

The protests in Brazil began as a demand for cheap public transport, but are now so much more.

Sem violência. No violence. This was what protestors were chanting as police charged them in São Paolo, firing tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, and rubber bullets.

Caught in the middle of this, Paula Martinelli found a hiding place by the São Paolo Museum of Art. A few days later she wrote to me via e-mail:

The Tropa de Choque [riot police] had closed both directions of the avenue and surveyed it periodically – filling the lanes with their vehicles, trucks, motorcycles, shields and bombs. Between breaks in the police checks, people left their hiding places in order to return to the march – our safety spot was an atrium between two buildings, until the moment we were found by a policeman who, as if we were in a video game, aimed his gun toward us and fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protest had been organized in part by the MPL – Movimento Passe Libre, the Free Pass Movement – which seeks to make public transport free through subsidies to transport companies. After the State of São Paolo raised fares in early June from R$3.00 to R$3.20, people acted on calls to join demonstrations on the streets. The first passed peacefully on 6 June. By the third demonstration on 13 June, the mood had changed. The Government attempted to quell the growing movement, and police responded to protestors with heavy force, as Paula confirms.

If the protests were just about transport fares, few would be taking notice. But the fare increase was merely the last straw –the most recent of many injustices committed by politicians against the Brazilian people. Indeed, speaking to Brazilians reveals anger with a litany of grievances which have been long embedded in Brazil’s political and economic establishment. In a message to me, Sikander Santos, who has been involved in the Rio protests, explained that, “There are so many things which have outraged the Brazilians that it would be impossible to identify one single reason for the current events.” Nonetheless, he listed a few key points which have contributed heavily towards what he termed the “dissatisfaction and total disbelief in politicians.”

Government corruption is perhaps the central point from which all other problems arise. It has existed for many years, and this has meant that the political establishment long ago lost the respect of the population. As Sikander says, “Politicians act on their own account, only defending their own interests and receiving huge salaries, wasting public funds and unlawfully enriching themselves.”

Having won bids to host the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics, Brazilian politicians have already spent billions of dollars of public money to build stadiums while the country’s wider infrastructure deteriorates. Hospitals, schools, airports, and public transport are all well below standard despite the country’s wealth and high tax rates, resulting in relatively high infant mortality, ongoing rates of around 12 per cent illiteracy, crammed public transport, and traffic-choked roads.

Outrage has also been directed towards the fact that Brazilian politicians commonly commit nepotism, and pay themselves up to R$26,700 (£7807) per month while the police are known to be equally as corrupt. President of the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities Marco Feliciano is known to be a racist homophobe, while the PEC37 constitutional amendment seeks to allow only the Federal and Civil Police to investigate crimes, excluding the Public Ministry which has been key in some important recent investigations. This is an invitation to corruption. Along with this, drug trafficking, gangs, and gun crime are widespread and poorly dealt with, being effectively swept under the carpet when officials from FIFA or the Olympics visit cities like Rio.

But according to Sikander, “The scrapping of hospitals, education, public schools, and universities, along with the dismantling of the public security system is notorious. Daily news stories of fraud, corruption, impunity, and all sorts of problems are common. It is scary and that is what the politicians want. Poverty and insecurity are part of the game – the exploitation of fear that stifles the courage of the people and prevents them from acting politically.”

Prior to 13 June, “The governor had tried to discredit the movement, saying it was formed by a small minority of vandals – we knew it was not true and had to prove it to everybody: society and the press,” Paula told me. “So we went to the streets that day trying to have a peaceful march to legitimize our requests and our movement. The government also knew this and decided to go for all or nothing – to muffle the popular clamour once and for all, or eventually have to deal with something bigger.” They chose the former.

In Franklin Roosevelt square, Paula wrote that there were “hundreds of police surrounding us. The cavalry also approached. When we were surrounded, tear gas bombs and rubber bullets began to be shot towards the crowd. Many of those peaceful protesters were trampled. I ran to the door of the church, believing that there I would be spared – bombs and rubber bullets were thrown in my direction, violently hitting the doors of the church.”

During this protest, police were indiscriminate in their attacks, hurling tear gas bombs into the middle of traffic jams, hurting many who weren’t involved in the demonstration – women, children, and the elderly. The rubber bullets smashed windows and property, the damage of which was then blamed on protesters. Dozens of people were arrested just for bringing vinegar, which helps counteract the effects of tear gas.

Following these events, however, Brazil saw a change in attitude towards the protests, with the movement after 13 June becoming more diverse and attracting many more people. Despite this, it didn’t stop the establishment continuing to try and silence the demands of the people.

On 17 June Sikander took part in the march in Rio from Candelária to Cinelândia along the Avenida Rio Branco with around 200 000 others. “The people of Rio have a lot of humor, they like to sing and dance, and did so for most of the march,” said Sikander. This went on for a few hours, but then when the demonstration had almost reached Cinelândia “a gang of thugs armed with shirts covering their faces went ahead of the people and attacked a group of police officers who ran to the safety of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro (ALERJ)."

Soon, molotov cocktails were exploding on the steps, and ATMs were smashed. But Sikander believes this was a pre-planned action: “There were more than 100 rioters against 40 unarmed police officers.” They had no weapons, which is strange in such a situation. Sikander wonders if they had been ordered by superiors to leave their weapons behind. As the attacks continued, reinforcements were called, “…but they did not come. There were no police to defend the police. The dreaded Tropa de Choque arrived almost two hours after the start of the conflict. It seems strange, that delay – very strange. But not for me. The State Security is run by the Governor [Sergio Cabral]. The same corrupt Governor hated by the middle class – the middle class that is now mostly in the demonstrations. Such planned actions expose the entire criminal scheme of this government.” Sikander stated that, “the order was to allow the conflict so that the demonstration could be dispersed…Several videos posted show police shooting upwards. It was a kind of theater…staged with the sound of gunfire to intimidate.”

Over the past week Brazilian politicians have slowly begun to comprehend the force of this movement, but despite reversing the public transportation fare increases in a number of cities, protests have not ceased. In fact, they are spreading across the country and are meeting further violent suppression by the police. Cutting R$0.20 from transport fares will not stop Government corruption, and Brazilians remain extremely angry with how much money is being spent on the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. At the same time, inflation is rising while wages are not, meaning many millions of Brazilians are affected by the increasingly high cost of living, drawing stark attention to the fact that Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Many people in Brazil fought against the military government from 1964-85, which was involved in numerous assassinations, disappearances, cases of torture, and false imprisonment. Today, as Sikander told me, Brazilians along with many others across the world, are fighting to liberate themselves from “capitalist fascism, corruption, and inequality”. Though perhaps the movement is too disparate and idealistic for politicians to be able to cater to every participant’s demands, they must nonetheless make a real effort to free their country from corruption and prioritise effective public spending above the short-term greed of private enterprise.

Another particpant in the São Paolo protests, Paula Valério, wrote to me that these protests mark a critical point. “Although I love my country, I have always been a harsh critic of Brazil and Brazilian culture – for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I do not believe in a future without education, and we, as a nation, never truly invested in it, so I saw no real way of changing things. I felt powerless. Now, these movements have opened a door for change – they are making me hopeful and proud!

“Everybody is in the streets. We all want changes. But there’s no real leadership. The Movimento Passe Libre will not be a leader for all the changes, and I don’t think they should be. So there are two great dangers. The first is that it will all just fade away, because we won’t be able to organize ourselves. The second is, if people find a leader, what kind of leader will it be?”

Brazilians have accepted "bread and circuses" in favour of substantive democracy for too long. “We are a peaceful people indeed, [but] this has also caused us to passively accept a lot of absurd political decisions,” said Paula Martinelli. Democracy is more than just elections, and with these protests, Brazilians are showing they have the power to demand that politicians deliver on their promises. “The spectacle of growth is a fraud. The World Cup spending has not improved the infrastructure. These twenty cents represent yet another cost for the people who already have one of the world's highest tax burdens. It is no wonder that the slogan of the movement is ‘the people have woken up.’ We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore.”

Names have been changed to protect identities

A demonstrator holds a road name sign during clashes in downtown Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain