Socialist Workers Party: Protests across Brazil target worsening social conditions

Published in The Militant in the July 8, 2013 issue. The Militant is the official weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party. 

Protests Across Brazil target worsening social conditions

Gov’t backs off bus fare hikes, fails to stem actions

AP photo/Felipe Dana
More than a million people across Brazil have taken to the streets, sparked by government bus fare hike. Above, June 21 protest in Rio de Janeiro. Sign reads, “The people have awakened.”

By Seth Galinsky 

The size of protests sweeping Brazil took both the government and initial organizers by surprise, revealing widespread discontent over worsening economic and social conditions.

The protests began in early June after the Sao Paulo city government announced transit fare hikes of 7 percent to about $1.50 a ride and other city governments followed suit. On June 13 as many as 10,000 people protested in Sao Paulo and 2,000 in Rio de Janeiro, as preliminary soccer competitions for next year’s World Cup were opening. Anger over the $14 billion being spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup soccer games in Brazil, while health care and infrastructure deteriorate, helped fuel the protests.

In Sao Paulo police fired rubber bullets and tear gas, injuring at least 100, and arrested more than 120, according to CNN. But instead of intimidating protesters, actions grew and spread. On June 17 more than a quarter million took to the streets in 12 state capitals, including 100,000 in Rio de Janeiro.

Mayara Vivian, a waitress and geography student and one of the founders of the Free Pass Movement, which initiated the protests, told the New York Times the group has been organizing actions demanding free public transportation since 2005, but rarely drew more than a few hundred people. “One hundred thousand people, we never would have thought it.”

Mayors back off fare raise

The actions continued to grow, even after nine city mayors, including in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, agreed to roll back the fare raises. Protesters added fighting corruption and improving health care and education to their demands. More than a million people in over 80 cities across the country joined protests June 20, the largest since 1992 actions against the government of then President Fernando Collor de Mello.

Many brought homemade signs. “If my child gets sick, I can’t take him to a stadium,” read one. “Lower the fare, charge it to FIFA’s account” was a popular chant, referring to the world soccer governing body.

For millions in Brazil, where the official minimum wage is about $300 monthly, the 10 cent fare increase means less for food and other basic necessities.

Although a large proportion of protesters “are middle-class students, the problem of transportation affects everyone except those who have helicopters,” Vanessa Barbara, a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo who backs the protests, told theMilitant. “And everyone is talking about it: in buses, in the streets. People who were never interested in politics before are taking positions and discussing these issues.”

As the protests grew they drew in a wide variety of political forces, including small groups of anarchists and rightists.

According to Spain’s El País daily, hundreds of members of the ruling Workers Party tried to join the June 20 protest in Sao Paulo but had to leave after they were booed, insulted and threatened. Members of the Free Pass Movement formed a human chain to protect them. Other socialist parties were also reportedly harassed. “We repudiate the acts of violence that were employed against groups in today’s demonstration,” the Sao Paulo chapter of the Free Pass Movement said in a statement later that day, “the same way we condemn police violence.”

While the two main union federations, Forca Sindical and the Workers Party-affiliated CUT, both issued statements expressing support for the protest movement, for the most part they did not organize to join the demonstrations.

Since 2003, when former union leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidency, Brazil has been governed by the Workers Party. Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s protégé, took office in October 2010. Rousseff was arrested and tortured in the 1960s for her activities in a guerrilla group fighting against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship that came to power in a 1964 coup.

The U.S. big-business press has heralded Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country with some 200 million people, as an “economic miracle.” They point to the last decade of economic growth, double the rate in the U.S., and to the Workers Party-led government’s financial and tax policies designed to strengthen local capitalists against foreign rivals. The government lays claim to lifting 40 million people to the middle class.

The Workers Party government has also expanded Bolsa Familia, a program that gives cash to low-income families, on condition they prove their children attend school and get regular vaccinations. More than 12 million households receive the subsidies, which is supposed to guarantee a minimum income of about $35 a month.

Rising unemployment

But official unemployment has climbed for the first four months of 2013 after declining to a record low at the end of last year. The official inflation rate rose to 6.5 percent at the end of June.

And despite the last decade of growth and transfer payments, Brazil is still marked “by one of the most unequal distributions of wealth and income in the world,” according to Bloomberg news.

A day after the massive June 21 protests, Rousseff issued a nine-minute prerecorded speech in which she promised to listen to “the voices of the street,” come up with a plan to improve public transport, use 100 percent of oil royalties for education and bring in thousands of doctors from abroad to improve health care at state clinics.

The president also said that “the government cannot accept that a violent and authoritarian minority destroys the public and private patrimony” and instructed the police to continue containing vandalism.

Rousseff met with leaders of the Free Pass Movement June 24. “We are not satisfied,” Free Pass leader Vivian told the press after the meeting. “If they have money to construct stadiums, they should have it for no cost fares.”

The next day 2,500 residents from two working-class favelas marched to the residence of the governor of Rio de Janeiro state. According to El País, owners of luxury stores in the neighborhood closed up shop when they heard they were coming.

“Those who are used to being caught between the violence of the drug dealers and the police carried out the most peaceful march since the start of the street protests,” said the big-business daily, surprised at what it called “one of a thousand paradoxes in this awakening of Brazil.”

“When Dilma [Rousseff] was in the favela she promised us improvements in public health infrastructure,” student Erica dos Santos told the crowd. “It hasn’t happened. The child care center doesn’t operate and the attention at the public health post is abominable.”

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