360° Analysis

Brazil: The Headless Revolt


June 25, 2013 20:45 EDT

Genevieve Zingg speaks to Brazilian journalist Felipe Machado about the 2014 World Cup, the free-fare movement, and the protests rocking Brazil.

Genevieve Zingg: Why have protests broken out in Brazil?

Felipe Machado: The protests were originally against the 20 cent rise in bus fare. The increase caused one or two smaller protests to break out on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo. The protests were initially organized and carried out by the free-fare movement known as the MPL (Movimento Passe Livre), a Brazilian social movement that advocates the adoption of free fares in mass transit. It’s a very young group, made up of university students, 19- and 20-year-olds, who used social media – Facebook, Twitter, and so on – to organize the protests.

The protests closed down the avenue but started to get violent. At the third protest, police started to shoot rubber bullets into the crowd. Older people, people who weren’t even part of the protest, were shot with rubber bullets. The protests were strongly repressed but instead of frightening the demonstrators, this brought more people out. People were seeing the violence and police repression on YouTube and other social media sites; seeing police blaming everything on the protestors when they were partly responsible for the damage and violence. People came out in droves, rioting against the police, and the movement spread all over Brazil.

It became something really interesting. Something curious happened. Suddenly, it became a movement not just about the 20 cent bus fare increase, but about everything that is wrong in Brazil. The government has money to invest in World Cup stadiums, but no money for healthcare, education, transportation, and public infrastructure. The protests spread very quickly because of social media and the Internet, but the MPL lost control of it. The movement has no head. The head is the Internet. It’s a very organic protest, a mix of many different groups with many different demands, a reaction to the World Cup expenditures, to the broken education and healthcare systems.

Amidst all this, amidst all the chaos, there are criminals making it even more complicated by taking advantage of it. Breaking things, setting fire to things, looting, stealing, just making everything more chaotic and difficult to control.

Zingg: Who is protesting?

Machado: It’s really interesting. There are no parties involved in this; the Workers Party tried to go into the streets and be part of the movement but they were thrown out, rejected. There is no single party involved in the Brazilian protests, and the protestors and independent citizens fight every party who tries to claim it.

Zingg: Do you think the protest will peter out or continue and leave a lasting impact?

Machado: What kind of impact is really hard to say, but there has already been one. The president, Dilma Rousseff, went on TV and invited protestors into the head of the government to talk about what’s going on. There is already an impact because she met with the MPL, the free-fare group of university students, and ceded the 20 cent bus fare rise. Kids, young kids, talking to the president. But nothing serious came of it; no fare at all is not believable; it’s too much to ask, and they left saying bad things about the president, about how she’s not prepared, not good. It’s difficult. If you don’t know who is protesting how can you talk to them?

The president had another meeting — really a symbolic meeting — with 27 governors of states and mayors of the capitals. Rousseff said she wants to hear what they want and their opinions, and proposed a pact to get together and discuss. But what can come out of a meeting? It’s 60 people in a room, really just a speech from her to them. Nothing has really come out of it yet. There is no short-term solution. She’s proposing political reform, but that will take six months to a year and next year are the elections. It’s really messy. July 1 is supposed to be a general strike, and on July 11 there will be another one. Everyone is trying to do something but no one is doing anything connected to each other. It’s hard to draw anything from it. This can weaken the country — having events, strikes, and weekly protests. It could continue until 2014, the year of the World Cup and the next presidential election. And FIFA has already said if Brazil can’t keep the players safe, they will cancel or relocate the World Cup. It’s a dark scene.

Zingg: People ascribe the failure of governance as a reason for the protests. Do you think that is true?

Machado: No party has emerged as the opposition. They are all pushed back. People who go and say they are a part of it are pushed out. But how can you transform the political system if you are not a part of it? If you are not in a party, how can you change the system? It’s hard to think of a solution without the political players. But society — the demonstrators, the protestors — they don’t want the political players involved at all. Que se vayan todos – it’s an expression from Argentina that means “Let’s get rid of them all.” And the opposition doesn’t want to push too hard in case of kick-back. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen but no one is taking any action. The government doesn’t know what to do. They can’t propose anything because there are so many demands and everything is pushed back by the people. The answer should come from society, but society is not organized enough to do anything. The MPL had the fare increase cancelled and said they are out of the protest because they got what they wanted. But then they came back in with new demands. It’s not only the young people now, it’s everyone: parents with kids are marching, old people are marching. It’s chaotic but optimistic and a little bit violent; but the majority are facing it in a positive way.

Zingg: Brazil faces a huge corruption problem. It has spent twice the amount as Germany and South Africa on the World Cup. The people have been left with the bill while contractors prosper. Do you think this issue has reached a tipping point?

Machado: The Confederations Cup is smaller than the World Cup, with only eight teams. But it created a window of opportunity for the movement. Many international journalists are here — other countries are here too, Spain, Italy, Japan and so on – and it created a window.

The World Cup didn’t start as an issue but it has become one. When Brazil was chosen as the country for the World Cup, everyone said it would be paid for by private companies, businesses, and sponsors. But then the Brazilian government lent money to build brand-new stadiums or paid for it themselves. They are spending billions of dollars on a private event which will be so expensive that it is only really for the rich, and will be very profitable for FIFA instead of Brazil. Everyone is angry that the government said at first they wouldn’t be spending public money, but then spent billions on it. It’s become a very strong issue. Brazil plays against Uruguay on Wednesday and big protests have been organized against the game and against the World Cup. It’s an important paradox that a football nation is against the Cups. Brazil is a symbol of football; football is symbolic for us. An event as big as the World Cup should be a good thing to stimulate the economy. But it has become the bad guy. Everyone is a villain and the World Cup has become one too.

Zingg: FIFA is projected to make a $1.1 billion profit from the 2014 World Cup, and has few plans to help develop Brazil’s infrastructure. What does this mean for the credibility of FIFA and Brazil’s enthusiasm for the World Cup?

Machado: The people expected spending on infrastructure, roads, better connections from airports to cities, and subways, but the government spent all the money on the stadiums and not infrastructure — FIFA demanded that. We have stadiums, good stadiums, but FIFA demanded better ones. There was no money from private companies and corporations; they invest in the stadiums, but not in infrastructure for Brazil.

Zingg: How much of a role has inequality played in triggering these protests?

Machado: Only economic inequality plays a role. I covered the World Cup in South Africa and there were hidden racial tensions, but in Brazil we don’t have that. It’s not about that. It’s only economic, against the government. They did such a bad job organizing the World Cup – the finals take place in one year and there are no new roads, just stadiums. We had good stadiums. Lasting infrastructure would have provided long-term benefits for Brazil. What will the stadiums do for us when the World Cup is finished?

Zingg: Protests have broken out in many parts of the world in recent times, the latest example being Turkey. Are the Brazilian protests part of a larger trend?

Machado: It has a connection. Every country has their own reasons, and most of them all started from very specific demands. In Turkey, the shopping mall in the square; in Brazil, the bus fare. But then everything that’s wrong comes out of the closet. You can establish a pattern in these protests — although they are very different. In Brazil, it’s very economic, similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement against the big bank systems. Brazilians like these protests because they can say what they want, but there are so many demands that it’s not as specific as other protests around the world. The unifying factor in the Brazilian protests is probably political reform. Everyone wants political reform, but that can mean so many different things to different people. Ultimately, it’s against the government’s bad investment of public money. It is a demand to rebuild Brazil.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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