Popular protests in Brazil

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Under the presidency of Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers Party, Brazil’s economy grew phenomenally, with vast well-developed agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and service sectors topping all South American countries.

(Brazil is one of the world’s leading “emerging markets,” known as the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

From 2003, Brazil began building up its foreign exchange reserves and reduced its hefty foreign debt by shifting to local borrowing; by 2008 it had turned net external creditor (lending more than borrowing in foreign currencies). Yet, rather than pursue an independent track in economic policy, President Lula opted to join the neoliberal globalization bandwagon with its “free-market” mantras.

Thus, when the prolonged financial-economic crisis engulfed the free-market economies led by the United States in 2008, Brazil suffered setbacks: two-quarter recession, dwindling exports, and dried-up external credit sources.

Revving up production, by 2010 Brazil registered a record 7.5% growth in gross domestic product. But the resultant inflation and the measures taken to solve it pushed the GDP growth rate down to 2.7% in 2011 and to 1.3% in 2012.

Nonetheless, Brazil overtook Britain in 2011 as the world’s 7th biggest economy. Last year, however, their positions, in GDP terms, had almost evened up at $2.4 trillion.

It’s in this context of economic slowdown – with poverty incidence at 21.4% of population (198 million), unemployment at 6.2% of a 107-million labor force (youth unemployment: 17.8%), and income inequality (highest 10% of population gets 42.9%, the lowest 10%, barely 0.8%) – that nationwide popular protests started shaking Brazil last week.

The protests began over a 20-centavo hike in public bus fares. The demonstrations were relatively small and peaceful. But after the police came in with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, the protests spread out in bigger numbers into 12 cities by Monday.

More than 200,000 people turned up in the streets and plazas, reported the Guardian, staying until night in standoffs with the police, who turned less pugnacious. And their demands went beyond the bus fare hikes, which had been rescinded upon President Dilma Rousseff’s advice.

Frustrations have been raised over poor public services, income inequality, political corruption, police brutality, and the high costs of preparations ($12 billion) for the hosting in 2014 of the World Cup (football, highly popular among Brazilians) and the Olympics in 2016.

The protests coincided with the opening in Rio de Janeiro of the football competition called the Confederation Cup, considered a sort of rehearsal for the World Cup.

As Rousseff began her speech at the opening ceremonies, she was met with boos, which she took in stride. With a tinge of sympathy, the former anti-dictatorship guerrilla (in the 1960s) who survived military detention and torture and succeeded as president her partymate Lula, affirmed:

“The voices of the streets want more citizenship, health, transport, opportunities. My government wants to broaden access to education and health; (it) understands that the demands of the people change.”

As a form of protest, civil rights groups organized a People’s Cup tournament in an urban-poor community center, simultaneous with the Confederation Cup. Participants are football teams from communities threatened with eviction and relocation by the sporting, transport, and housing developments in preparation for the two international sports events.

Some 170,000 Brazilians are at risk of losing (or have already lost) their homes through forced evictions, said Witness, a civil rights group. It cited community leaders as believing that the evictions were being pushed because land developers plan to transform their areas into upscale residences for the rich after the World Cup and Olympics.

The big construction companies had been trying to remove them, a community leader said, because “there are no more spaces in the South Zone for the upper-middle class.” Also the port area near the Maracana stadium is being developed for the Olympic media accommodation and activities, but later will be transformed into a “dynamic commercial center with two Donald Trump Towers.”

On political corruption, the demonstrators vented their frustrations over the government’s failure or disinclination to jail certain “senior figures” in the governing Workers Party, whom the high court had convicted in November 2012 for a vote-buying scheme.

“We’re furious about what our political leaders do, their corruption. I’m here to show my children that Brazil has woken up,” declared an office worker protesting in Sao Paolo.

On finding themselves in the economic doldrums, the demonstrators were both candid and thoughtful.

“My generation has never experienced this,” said a student. “Since the dictatorship (which ended in 1985), Brazilians never bothered to take over the streets. They did not believe they had a reason to. But now Brazil is once again in crisis, with a constant rise in prices. So people are finally reacting.”

“Our politicians need to see the strength we have as one people,” remarked a yoga instructor. “Brazilians tend to be too nice sometimes, they enjoy partying rather than protesting. But now something is changing.”

We’ve been getting whiffs — no, blasts — of these same frustrations in the Philippines. One wonders when we will once again, and with better results, see street protests by hundreds of thousands of people?

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E-mail: satur.ocampo@gmail.com
June 22, 2013

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