The protesters who took to the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities last night are to be congratulated on a significant victory.
Few people imagined that after the violent police crackdown on Sao Paulo’s protesters last Thursday an even greater number would come out in sympathy just four days later.
But they did just that and across Brazil hundreds of thousands of people, most of them peacefully, expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Exactly how many people took part in the protests is impossible to know. But estimates suggest 65,000 people took to the streets of Sao Paulo, almost twice that in Rio and smaller, but still considerable, numbers made their presence felt in Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Porto Alegre and dozens of other towns and cities.
The big question is what happens now. The protesters have the wind at their backs, so what will they do? They have called another march (in SP at least) for Tuesday night. Will they call more? Enter in to talks with authorities? As yet no one knows.
A lot of that depends on exactly what they want.
The unrest was originally sparked by a hike in bus fares and many of the protesters come from the Free Fare Movement, a group that wants free public transport for all. That’s an unreal demand. No serious country provides all its citizens with free public transport.
But since then the demonstration has expanded to include broader issues. One major complaint is the cost of hosting the World Cup and the Confederations Cup, the second of which kicked off in six Brazilian cities on Saturday.
One of the challenges facing the movement’s leaders is articulating a message beyond that of, ‘We want better treatment and more rights.’ And until they do that it will struggle to achieve anything concrete.
Anyone who has spent any time in Brazil knows that people are treated abysmally. As I said here last week, Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services. No one respects no one. Complaining is futile and the deck is heavily stacked against anyone who raises their voice in anger. (Which is one of the reasons a more generalized outrage hasn’t taken hold until now.)
Brazil deserves great credit for lifting 40 million people out of poverty over the last decade. But ironically, that class of newly enfranchised people might be a cause of the unrest.
- More people can afford to buy cars and hundreds of new cars pour onto the streets of Sao Paulo each day. But the government hasn’t invested in infrastructure like roads or highways and public transport is underfunded and inefficient and an unappealing alternative.
- More people can afford health insurance but the companies selling them not only provide a risible coverage, they fight tooth and nail to stop their clients from getting the treatment they are paying for, sometimes with tragic consequences.
- More people have cable television but just try calling up and complaining about the service or trying to cancel it. The companies sadistically force their clients to jump through online hoops in order to hold them to costly contracts.
- More people have cell phones and Brazilians pay some of the highest rates in the world. But calls frequently cut out, the signal is patchy, and after sales service is a joke.
- More people have banks accounts but banks charge abusive interest rates – 237 % a year for credit cards – and they sneak additional charges onto bills, and treat customers more like waling wallets than valued customers.
- Education is a joke. A tragic joke.
In short, there are lots of reasons why Brazilians should be angry.
The other big question is how politicians will deal with the crisis. What possible answers can they provide? Not only are they discredited, they cannot hope to provide quick solutions to resolve long-standing infrastructure issues.
They are in bed with the multinationals and conglomerates whose consistent mistreatment of and disdain for their customers is a complaint I hear every single day from Brazilians.
It is hard to see how they can provide quick and satisfactory answers to the questions above.
And last but not least, Are Brazilians going to see this through to the end?
Brazil is not a politicised society nor one where memories are long or protests lasting. In neighbouring Argentina, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest graft and they do it again and again and again.
Brazil’s media will play up the violence and they will play up the fear. If political parties try to hijack the movement it will lose its credibility. The middle class must get involved and stay involved.
If Brazilians really want to see change they will need stamina and resolve. They may have to shout themselves hoarse over and over and over again. If this is really going to turn into something lasting then Monday night is not the end. It is only the beginning.