The Myth of Unified Unrest in Brazil

A March 15, 2015 protest in São Paulo, Brazil.

March 15, 2015: A protest in São Paulo drew more than 1 million participants, demanding an end to impunity and corruption and the departure of President Dilma Rousseff. (Photo by Radio Interativa.)

by Rebecca Tarlau and Liz McKenna

If you’ve been following the headlines about Brazil over the past several years, you’ve no doubt heard about the twin political and economic crises that have beset the proverbial país do futuro. After nearly a decade of boom years fueled by the commodity trade with China, select social and consumer spending, and the discovery of pre-salt layer oil fields, the Brazilian economy came to a screeching halt. The Brazilian real has fallen sharply since July 2011, when one US dollar bought 1.56 reais, to today, with one US dollar buying 3.85 reais. The outlook for 2016 is bleak: the economy is expected to shrink by three percent next year. Last week, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) updated the IPCA, Brazil’s equivalent of the Consumer Price Index, which measured inflation at 7.64 percent last month, the highest value since 2003. Energy giant Petrobrás lost 60% of its market value amid a massive scandal known as the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) involving government officials from all of the country’s major political parties and a cartel of private contractors. And finally, impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have proceeded on two separate fronts: faulty government accounting and misspent campaign funds.

Against this grim political and economic backdrop, Brazil has also been in the international headlines for the waves of protests that took the world by surprise in June of 2013 and subsequent moments of anti-government unrest throughout 2015 (concentrated on March 15, April 12, August 16). A common misunderstanding about these protests is that they reflect a united tidal wave of unrest in Brazil, culminating in recent demands for Rousseff’s impeachment. This trope about the current Brazilian moment is simplistic and misleading. A closer look at the still-unfolding protest events reveals them to be more reminiscent of an intense class dispute among particular organized sectors rather than a united and popular call for the end of Workers’ Party (PT) rule.

Most sources trace these waves of protest back to June 13, 2013, when military police in São Paulo used batons and tear gas to end a small protest organized by the Free Fare Movement (MPL) against increasing bus fares. Images of the scene circulated on social media and, four days later, one hundred thousand people were in the streets calling for free public transportation, decrying World Cup spending, and demanding political reforms. Internationally, these protests were interpreted as being part of a global trend of protests that were spontaneous, horizontal, and leaderless in character. The common catchphrase in the Brazilian case became, the “giant has awoken,” implying a now-activated public ready to exercise their voice.

Was this a new moment in the history of Brazilian social mobilization? Not according to many long-time activists, who have been struggling for rights since the mobilizations for a return to democracy in the early 1980s. However, there are several key differences between the 2013 protests and the social mobilizations of the previous three decades. First, many of the 2013 demonstrators were youth and middle class citizens fed up with the false promises of a “pragmatic left” that had attempted to appease both the upper classes and the poorest sectors of Brazil. Educational access has increased, but without the accompanying economic opportunities that the middle sectors expected. Second, there was a strong anti-establishment sentiment in the streets, against both parties and traditional social movements. In fact, party and social movement flags were often banned from the streets and a staggering 96% of probabilistically sampled June protest participants did not claim affiliation with any political party. Third, the June 2013 protests seemed to spark a conservative countermovement, attempting to direct the anger in the streets towards the Worker’s Party government. As Miguel Borba de Se describes the 2013 protests, “The movement is a battlefield. It highlights all the contradictions of Brazilian society.” Thus, as opposed to the organized social movement mobilizations of the previous decade, the June 2013 protests encompassed a range of ideologies, perspectives, demands, and opposing interests.

Fast forward to 2015. On March 15, 2015, between 210,000 (according to Datafolha) and 1.1 million people (according to the Military Police) marched in São Paulo calling for the President’s impeachment.  On April 12, hundreds of thousands of more protesters took to the streets throughout Brazil. The nominal reason for these protests was the Lava Jato scandal. Some of these protesters could be heard chanting Cold War era anti-communist slogans, and a minority even called for a military coup. The protesters placed the blame for the recent economic slowdown squarely on President Dilma Rousseff.

An impeachment protest in Brazil in early 2015. One banner is in English and another protestor is holding up a sign that says S.O.S FFAA, which is a reference to the armed forces (army, military, and navy). The protestors are dressed in Brazilian national colors, a typical feature of the 2015 impeachment protests.

An impeachment protest in Brazil in early 2015. One banner is in English and another protestor is holding up a sign that says S.O.S FFAA, which is a reference to the armed forces (army, military, and navy). The protestors are dressed in Brazilian national colors, a typical feature of the 2015 impeachment protests.

An impeachment protest in Brazil in early 2015. One banner is in English and another protestor is holding up a sign that says S.O.S FFAA, which is a reference to the armed forces (army, military, and navy). The protestors are dressed in Brazilian national colors, a typical feature of the 2015 impeachment protests.

What is clear is that the 2015 impeachment protests are very different from the 2013 earlier protests, which themselves were very different from the mass mobilizations that social movements have led for the past three decades.

A quick glance at some figures on the demographics of the April 2015 anti-government protesters illustrates that they were highly educated, overwhelmingly white, and aligned with the oppositional political party.

Demographic Characteristics of April 12, 2015 Protestors
Source: LAGE Laboratory, Ecology Department, University of São Paulo

 Table 1_Monthly IncomeTable 2_EducationTable 3_Race

As Oliveira writes, “These [2015 impeachment] protesters “perceive themselves as engaged in a life-or-death struggle to protect Western civilization (narrowly understood as being sustained by the twin pillars of economic liberalism and cultural conservatism) against the specter of a scheming authoritarian left.” The current target of this life-or-death struggle is, of course, Dilma.

Despite international media attention on this hostility towards President Rousseff, the current political moment should not be characterized as united unrest against the president. To the contrary, many labor organizations and social movements have begun their own counter-protests. On August 20, groups like the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), the National Union of Students (UNE), the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), and the PSOL staged anti-austerity protests in response to the August 16 anti-Dilma protests. On September 5, thousands of delegates from these organizations came together to found a new national coalition, Frente Brasil, which seeks to defend democracy, the rights of workers, structural reforms, and national sovereignty. The increasing class dispute between these mobilized social movements and the anti-Dilma groups was evident on September 22, when a group of protesters harassed the national leader of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), João Pedro Stédile, upon his arrival at the Fortaleza airport, shouting: “Ô MST, vai para Cuba com o PT!” (MST, Go to Cuba with the PT!). This open antagonism to the MST and Cuba, and Stédile’s response—which is that he supports Cuba without chagrin—is illustrative of the increasingly convoluted political divisions in the country.

A anti-austerity protest in São Paulo on August 20, 2015. The large banner reads “Stay, Dilma” and the UNE balloon in the background stands for União Nacional Estudantil, or National Student Union. As opposed to the impeachment march, most protestors are dressed in red.

A anti-austerity protest in São Paulo on August 20, 2015. The large banner reads “Stay, Dilma” and the UNE balloon in the background stands for União Nacional Estudantil, or National Student Union. As opposed to the impeachment march, most protestors are dressed in red.

In terms of event counts, the organized left has had more labor strikes and protests over the past few years than any other time since the fall of the military dictatorship. However, these mobilizations have been smaller in size than the anti-Dilma demonstrations, which, while less frequent, have rallied larger numbers of people in the wealthier metropolitan regions of the country. In light of the best evidence we have about both the head counts and demographics of these two types of events, the poor and working masses largely stayed at home. Why is this so?

On the one hand, political apathy and demobilization is the rule, rather than the exception in Brazil. Additionally, the anti-PT protests do not seem to resonate with many poor and working-class people. Public opinion polls show that the Brazilian underclass was less likely to approve of recent protests than upper class respondents, even the June 2013 protests, which were more socioeconomically diverse than the 2015 impeachment protests.  Over the past decade, extreme poverty has been reduced by 75 percent and overall poverty is down by 65 percent. Inflation-adjusted minimum wage has doubled. As Pitts argues, “a message decrying working class gains is not politically feasible.”

On the other hand, people are feeling the fallout of the economic slowdown—which disproportionately affects the poorest segments of the population—, and there has been a shift towards less popular support for President Rousseff. In December of 2014, 50 percent of families who earned up to two minimum wage salaries supported her presidency. In August of 2015 this number fell to ten percent. This decline represents concerns about both the real and media-inflamed economic crisis. However, the masses are still on the fence about the political future of their country. As Pitts writes, “A June [2015] survey revealed that 48% of Brazilians would still consider voting for a PT candidate, while only 39% ruled it out.”

The international media’s portrayal of unified unrest in Brazil is a myth. Here, we have highlighted three points that are critical for understanding the complexity of the current Brazilian conjuncture. The first is that Brazil is in the midst of a political and economic crisis, but not one that can be explained by the ruling party’s graft alone, a position Andres Oppenheimer advanced recently in the Miami Herald. (For a more nuanced analysis of the causes of Brazil’s current interregnum, see João Alexandre Peschanski and collaborators’ recent analyses in Revista Cult.) Second, the 2013 and 2015 waves of protest were far from homogeneous: the former represented a battlefield of interests, and the latter was organized by elite and right-leaning leaders who marched under the banner of impeachment and anti-corruption. At the same time, the organized left and labor unions continue to take to the streets, advocating for fairer labor practices and against recent austerity measures. Finally, the working-class masses, on the whole, remain demobilized. Each of these components reflect a fragmented left and an equally fragmented, albeit energized, right. No side is currently strong enough to win, and the result is a political stasis ripe for media manipulation.

Brazil’s crisis thus consists “precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” as Antonio Gramsci famously wrote in the Prison Notebooks. For the “new to be born,” the left may need to find a voice that “is both steadfastly critical of the PT’s [Workers’ Party’s] transgressions and is as engaging as the new right” as Patrick de Oliveira observed earlier this year.  If the foregoing analysis is correct, impeachment would hardly prove the antidote for what ails Brazil.

Rebecca Tarlau is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Education at Stanford University, affiliated with the Lemann Center for Educational Entrepreneurship and Education in Brazil.

Liz McKenna is a Doctoral Student in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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4 Responses to The Myth of Unified Unrest in Brazil

  1. Pingback: One Year Post-Temer: A Conservative Shift, the Left Response, and an Uncertain Brazilian Future | Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley

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