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"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.

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

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