Brazil’s back to the future

Brazilians take the streets of London and remind the world that the “country of the future” is still crippled by the old problems of the past

Right now Brazil is seeing the largest street protests of the past 25 years – they have even reached European cities like London, Berlin and Dublin. The masses are fed up of the façade nation, of the plush and fake colours painted by government and the media. They want the world to see beyond the veneer. They want to paint the rainbow black. The momentum suggests that these demonstrations will grow even bigger.

It all started in São Paulo 10 days ago because of a R$0,20 (ca. 5p)bus fare rise. The police attempted to muffle these demonstrations with violent action, and hundreds were hurt. The media portrayed the protesters as vandals. The population responded by energising masses in every corner of Brazil and the world, mainly through social media such as Facebook – a major embarrassment for government, the police and the media. Such grassroots initiative is unprecedented in Brazilian history.

The movement agenda and geography quickly expanded. This week hundreds of thousands took the streets in many cities of Brazil and the world, and for a plethora of reasons. BBC1 claimed that Brazilians are complaining about the extravagant costs of the World Cup. My friend Andréa thinks that people are demonstrating against president Dilma. Most picketers in London see it as call for better education, healthcare and security, as well as a cry against corruption. Some are protesting against the PEC 37 legislation, which transfers powers from the judiciary and the Public Ministry (the body of independent public prosecutors) to the police. Others are fighting for the removal of Marco Feliciano – a Christian fundamentalist, racist and homophobe who was recently elected Head of the Parliament’s Commission for Human Rights and Minorities. The list goes on.

These demonstrations are not superficial and misguided; they are not a capricious whim. Picketers in London last night chanted “we are out on the streets and it’s not carnival”. This is an explosion of pent-up frustrations and the denouncing of Brazilian contradictions to the world. Many militant left-wingers feel that the Worker’s Party government has let them down and the country’s economic growth has not converted into tangible improvements for the population. It’s a vast and encompassing statement – but also a poignant and serious one.

Brazilians are tired of being portrayed as a growing economy and a waking giant, while the vast majority of the population are still denied their basic needs. Only the wealthy have access to good healthcare and education (Brazil ranked second last in the OECD education ranking just three years ago). Violence is on the rise, and it could soon reach pandemic proportions (Brazil has the highest number of murders in the world, at more than 40,000 a year). The rich are bloated in their miserly little world, confined to bullet-proof cars and prison-like mansions, while the poor are battling for survival.

To add insult to injury, politics are poisoned with corruption and horsetrading, and even the president Dilma – a former guerrilla-fighter during the dictatorship in the 1970s- is being accused of leniency and hypocrisy. She was booed last week at the opening of the Cup of the Confederations i n Brazil.

The London protest last night protest was boisterous, vibrant and contagious. It took place at the Old Palace Yard, opposite the Houses of Parliament. The spontaneous, harmonic chanting was almost incessant. Pundits waved flags from the windows of the buses driving past and even a motorcade of Brazilian “motoboys” (motorbike couriers) made an impromptu appearance. This is remarkable for a static demonstration. Scotland Yard – a force with a tradition for muffling and kettling peaceful protests – did not allow Brazilians to demonstrate on the streets. Picketers could only use the pavement and were even made to wait for the green light at pedestrian crossings when marching just a few blocks from the Houses of Parliament to the Brazilian Embassy on Trafalgar Square. A bit like handling schoolchildren on a field trip. None of this prevented the enthusiastic crowds from voicing their woes and their demands in a peaceful, light-hearted, yet earnest and zealous way.

The messages on the placards were highly humorous and creative, a reflection of the Brazilian spirit and demeanour. They ranged  from the amusing “enfie os R$0,20 no SUS” –  a word pun meaning both “transfer the R$0,20 to the health system” and “stick the R$0,20 up yours” – to the more descriptive “London is supporting the Brazilian protests”,  “sorry for the inconvenience, we are rebuilding Brazil” and “the giant woke up”. Turkish protesters also showed up with banners in order to express their support.

The whitewashed image of Brazil portrayed in some media is largely based on the modest economic achievements (such as the overtaking of Britain as the 6th economy in the world) compounded with the pomp and circumstance of the impending World Cup and Olympics. These events have translated into few benefits for the population. Instead, they caused the Brazilian real to become the most overvalued currency in the world (according to Goldman sachs), inflating the property bubble and making life even less affordable to most Brazilians.

I hope that demonstrations will continue to escalate until our demands are heard. Brazil needs to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and the illiterate before claiming the coveted “country of the future” accolade. Hopefully this will happen in the foreseeable future – and we won’t have to jump on a time machine like Marty McFly.

The government response

Later in the day this piece was published, the São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad and the state governor Geraldo Alckmin announced that the R$0.20 rise in public transport would be called off.

Two days later, on June 21st, president Dilma Rousseff gave a speech on TV committing to “five pacts” in response to the demonstrations. They include more investments in education, healthcare and transportation (particularly the royalties from oil drilling in the Atlantic), a plebiscite allowing Brazilians to reform the political establishment and impose heftier sentences for corruption – as well as a more generic pledge of increased financial responsibility.

Since then, demonstrations have diminished in size and frequency.


  1. Victor Fraga

    Hi Drew,

    Police violence was just the catalyst for the demonstrations., but not the root cause.

    Also, I have seen BBC reports about the police abuse in the Sao Paulo protests, so they were neither unaware nor opted to ignore the facts.

    I would hazard a guess that most media knew of police violence but opted to focus on the wider frustrations instead.


  2. Drew White

    I got so fed up of hearing on international news channels that “what had started out as a protest over a 20 centavos price rise soon grew to encompass general frustration over transport and anger about corruption”. It meant they had totally missed *why* people in Sao Paulo were so annoyed about the rise in the first place.

    BBC mentioned that “as protests turned violent police responded with rubber bullets and sprays” – yet they weren’t even aware of the 7 journalists injured along with plenty of members of the general public which seemed, pretty clearly, to be the catalyst for the protestors to get angry at the Military Police handling.

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