On June 15, the Confederations Cup kicked off with an overwhelming display of “joga bonito”(pretty game). The Brazilian soccer team hypnotized and dazzled the nation in their 3-0 victory over Japan. Yet the next day the streets were not filled with fans celebrating the Brazilian victory, nor the successful completion of the first FIFA event in the country. Instead the country erupted in protest. From the streets to the Twitter feeds, the Brazilian people affirmed, “the giant has awoken.” The giant is the people, whom will no longer stand idle while government spendsbillions on World Cup stadiums and preparations, while our schools are in decrepit conditions, our hospitals underfunded and undermanned, and our public transport unbearable and overpopulated.
Protests have spread throughout Brazil, with millions taking to the streets in Rio, Sao Paulo and other major cities. The catalyst for this outrage was a 20 cent increase in bus fares in Sao Paulo. It has quickly become something more, and many in the movement have adopted the slogan “#it is more than 20 cents”. This last straw has pushed the country into a continuous state of protest for the past few weeks.
President Dilma Rouseff has attempted to identify herself with the movement, supporting peaceful manifestations and ensuring she is listening to the voice of the people. Her words do not seem to have been heard by the military police who have fired rubber pellets at peaceful protesters. These actions have only given weight to the arguments of protesters, and made their resistance more powerful.
The driving force behind these protests are middle class students, yet as time continues there is an overwhelming amount of support from all areas of civil society. The evangelical church has been particularly active, quoting Isaiah 1:17, clearly making this political movement about human rights, not policy agendas or power struggles. The rhetoric has not evolved into one of division; there are no racial, social-economic or religious lines. The opposition is corrupt politicians, and the issues are those of governance. Government has a responsibility to uphold justice and a just public order, and Brazil has failed to do so.
The protests are derivatives of a growing middle class, a history of government corruption and public mistrust, and a higher cost of living. The protests are a necessary and justified way to bring awareness to years of corruption and injustice propagated by the government.
Brazil is fertile soil. It has a developing economy with tremendous untapped potential, a robust and established rule of law, and united populace. If the burden of corruption is lifted, Brazil could become the leader in Latin America that we have so long waited for. With that said, we must understand the perils of such movements, especially in the 21st century.
The similarities to the Arab Spring are astounding. Manifestations started due to one particular incident, and have snowballed to include all types of movements. There is no formal leadership guiding the protests, nor is there rising opposition or alternatives. There is no call of action, no systematic, orderly, simple request. Instead it is asking for a change of mindset, one that focuses the nation and its politicians to place people first.
While the majority of protests remain peaceful, violence continues to escalate with the growing size and obstruction of the proverbial Giant. There are two types of transgressions: one that is connected to civil unrest, and the other that has to do with opportunistic criminal behavior. The ladder is a number of assaults to store fronts and thefts during these manifestations. In certain cities “arrastoes” have occurred, where armed thieves go through a large crowd taking everything there is within a certain group. Both policemen and thieves have been killed during these incidents.
The former has been due to growing combativeness of protests. Manifestations have been aimed at literally stopping the country dead on its tracks, as major highways like the Dutra, which connects Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo (Brazil’s two largest cities), have been blocked on the 19th, 20th and 21st of this month.
It is important to note the actions of most protesters during these violent actions. Social networks are littered with calls for peaceful protests. In the city of Santos, perhaps the second most important port city in Brazil, protesters sat down in order for the police to quickly distinguish those who were disturbing the peaceful nature of protests. Some created human shields around storefronts that have been broken into in order to ensure that the thieves do not leave with any merchandise.
The nature of these protests mirror others that have occurred quickly, with incredible numbers and mobilization through social networks, yet ultimately lack a clear vision and fizzle out without accomplishing anything. How distant the Occupy Wall Street movement now seems. How distant the hope for Egypt now seems.
Brazil must learn from these examples. For meaningful change, civil society must take shape and strong leadership must arise. The movement is a major step that highlights the maturity of democracy in Brazil. Whether the giant is truly awake, we do not know yet. What we do know is that justice is not achieved through a protest. Rather, justice is an ongoing, arduous process that can only be achieved with capable and honest politicians, a vibrant civil society, and a knowledgeable public.
-Naama Mendes is a graduate of Gordon College with a degree in political science and economics. He is currently living and working in higher education reform in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Danilo Pontes.