Brazil is not a country where people protest. It is not a country of revolutionaries.
As Mauricio Savarese explains in this clear and didactive blog, Brazilians abhor violence and they avoid it all costs. If your cause embraces violence then you’ve lost. The only way to win in Brazil – and that means by getting the larger public behind you – is through peaceful protest and negotiation.
That’s one of the reasons the reaction to last Thursday’s protest and police violence in Sao Paulo are so interesting.
Lots of people are asking whether this wave of protests can really be over a 20 centavo rise in bus fares. (20 centavos is about 10 cents or 7 pence.)
Phillip Vianna in this CNN blog says “it is the uprising of the most intellectualized portion of society.” Marcelo Rubens Paiva in today’s Estado de Sao Paulo says the protests are “a collective revolt against the state that treats individuals as a nuisance, the enemy.” And the RioReal blog suggests that “the twenty centavos could represent a tipping point in Rio’s general panorama, as citizens wake up to authoritarian government and a longtime lack of dialogue.”
I’d love them to be right. Rubens Paiva’s definition of how the state treats its citizens is certainly spot on.
Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services in return. Their politicians represent big interests and treat voters with little more than contempt. Corruption is ingrained, a part of the country’s culture and fabric.
No one protests. No one gets angry. Anti-corruption demonstrations rarely unite more than a few thousand people. (Clicking a button on facebook doesn’t count as anger, or protest.)
Brazilians can’t be bothered taking to the streets because they know that unless the protests gain nationwide scope they will be ignored. And they know that won’t happen because most people don’t see the point. It’s a vicious circle. “Why bother demanding change; nothing changes so why bother.”
But there’s an awful lot of wishful thinking going on in some of the analysis. It is way too early to say last week’s protests mark a turning point. They could very easily peter out. If there is more violence then support will erode and the protesters will be marginalised.
Is this the start of something? Are Brazilians waking up? Have they finally decided enough is enough?
I certainly hope so and I do think it is inevitable, sooner or later. As incomes grow, people will start demanding better treatment.
When enough Brazilians can make the trip to Miami and see they can buy a white tshirt in GAP for $8 dollars, rather than pay $30 for the same inferior quality garment in Sao Paulo and Rio they might be shaken into action. Last week’s protests might be the first sign of that.
But I am not convinced that moment has arrived.
A lot will depend on the character of the next week’s protests. If they are hijacked by the same extremists, who often glob onto anything anti- then they will fail. The middle class will take fright and abandon them. And without middle class lending their voice en masse they are doomed.
If they can get lots of people out on the streets, from all sectors of society, and if they can demonstrate peacefully, even in the face of police provocation, then they might be on to something and the optimistic predictions of a paradigm shift might be realised.
Next week is going to be very interesting.