Brazil: Half riot, half carnival
Pent-up anger has exploded. Millions have taken to the streets. Eddie Ford looks at the sorry results of the coalition politics pursued by a once much vaunted Workers Party
Enormous spontaneous demonstrations have erupted all over Brazil. Protestors have clashed with police on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, Belém, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, etc - reaching a climax on June 20 when over a million people turned out to vent their pent-up grievances against the government and societal injustices of every kind. Police tactics have been predictably brutal. Rubber bullets and tear gas have been routinely deployed, often indiscriminately and at close range.
The initial trigger for the outbreak of mass anger was the announcement of a massive hike in bus fares, perhaps up to 20% in some places. In a city like São Paulo, for instance, many workers are forced to spend - or waste - two or three hours each way getting to work on the public transport system. Watch your life drain away. Round-trip bus fares in that city can amount to about 18% of a minimum wage earner’s total income - possibly more if they need to take more than one bus (São Paulo is the most expensive city for public transport in Latin America). Therefore any price increase would be crippling, let alone at the levels proposed by the authorities. To add insult to injury, the buses are often overcrowded, dangerous and unreliable.
One of the organisations that participated in the protests is the Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre), whose origins stem from a 2003 protest in Bahia that became known as the ‘bus revolt’. Students and workers blocked the streets for 10 days to successfully halt a fare increase. Then in 2004 the ‘turnstile revolt’ in Florianópolis also pushed back a proposed hike and protestors repeated the feat in 2005. In the same year the movement was ‘officially’ ushered into being at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.
As you expect would, the Free Fare Movement is composed of multifarious and competing political groupings and trends, including grassroots activists of the Workers Party - its most prominent member being, of course, the current president, Dilma Rousseff. Describing itself as an “autonomous, horizontal and non-partisan social movement”, it believes that transport is a “universal right” and “questions the very logic of the policy of fares” - which by definition “subordinates public transport to the profits of entrepreneurs” and means “treating mobility as a commodity, not a right”.1 In order to “open up the city” the movement demands free public transport. A demand we should replicate in the UK.
Clearly, the bus crisis highlights the gross inequalities of Brazilian and global capitalism. Encouragingly, protestors in Taksim Square sent messages of solidarity - a gesture reciprocated in the Brazilian protest of June 24 with dozens of Turkish flags and placards bearing pro-Taksim slogans. There are parallels between the two countries. As in Turkey, Brazil suffers from extreme levels of economic inequality - the rich and well-connected, it goes without saying, having benefited disproportionately from the ‘economic miracle’. Masses of people feel alienated from the system and are finding ways to express their discontent.
One particular focus of discontent has been the 2014 World Cup. Twelve stadiums are being built or renovated at huge public cost, a project that benefits the construction companies and TV stations rather than hospital and schools - or the clapped-out public transport system, for that matter. It is estimated that the government will end up spending at least $13.3 billion (31 billion reals) preparing for the event, not to mention a similar or greater sum on hosting the 2016 Olympics. A double burden. But the oligarchs of Fifa and the International Olympic Committee demand nothing less. Rousseff was bequeathed both games by her predecessor, Lula da Silva - a poisoned chalice if ever there was one.
Further rubbing salt into the wound, everyone knows that the new gleaming stadiums will become white elephants - money flushed down the drain. Any idea that the games will ‘boost development’ or ‘accelerate infrastructural investment’ is mendacious. Just look at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The huge stadiums that were constructed are now hardly used. If anything, the Brazilian situation has the potential to be even more egregious, given that some of the new stadiums will be built in cities with minor teams. For example, the new Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília, which on June 15 hosted the opening game of the Confederations Cup (a sort of dress rehearsal for the World Cup), has a capacity of 70,000 - but the capital’s teams rarely attract more than a few hundred fans. Similarly, the lower-division sides in Cuiabá and Manaus will struggle to fill a fraction of their 40,000 plus-seater stadiums. A crazy waste of resources.
Nor do the Olympics or World Cup succeed in generating an increased interest or participation in sport: quite the opposite - even if the IOC is now supposed to include ‘legacy issues’ as one of its preconditions for the assessment of hosting bids. Closer to home, there are now fewer adults playing sport regularly than before the London 2012 Olympics. Statistics produced by Sport England, whose aims include “helping people and communities across the country create a sporting habit for life”, show that, of 29 sports that recorded a change in once-a-week participation figures, only nine showed an increase - while 20 suffered an actual decline.2 And, while 15.4 million people played sport at least once a week in April 2012, a year later that figure has declined to 15.3 million. Comically, a central plank of London’s bid to host the games was to “inspire a generation” to play more sport. Yeah, right.
Meanwhile Fifa, being an utter law unto itself, does not have to make any such consideration in deciding which country should stage the World Cup. Just go with the money. Indeed, with characteristic sensitivity, Fifa has announced the expectation of record revenue from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship for 2014 - none of which will go to Brazil’s public coffers or improving conditions for the working class. Perhaps summing it up perfectly earlier this year, Fifa general secretary Jérôme Valcke said that “less democracy is sometimes better” for organising a World Cup. He might be right. The command-and-control approach that Fifa likes to bring to the staging of its premier flagship event - and main cash cow, of course - is far closer to that of a dictatorship than a democracy.
No wonder the masses are in a state of rebellion. Roads to football stadiums have been blocked by angry crowds, protestors have thrown volleys of stones at Fifa offices, Confederations Cup posters have being ripped down and burned. There have been Twitter and Facebook campaigns for spectators inside the ground to turn their backs when the national anthem is played and several of Brazil’s national team have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators - one popular slogan being ‘First-world stadiums; third-world schools and hospitals’.
Amidst all these protests, Fifa president Sepp Blatter went on television to make an appeal: the demonstrators “should not use football to make their demands heard”, he declared. Anger in Brazil was further fuelled by the 72-year-old Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) when, on June 23, he told everyone to “forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let’s remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood”. His comments went down like a lead balloon, especially given the national team’s distinctly lacklustre performances this year. People took to social networking sites to express their fury at Pelé, citing the hundreds of millions it cost to build the stadiums and telling him to try visiting a hospital to see what sort of condition they are in.
Another central complaint, obviously, has been against rampant governmental corruption. For years federal prosecutors have been investigating the biggest corruption case in Brazil’s history, the mensalão cash-for-votes scheme that involved top aides of Lula da Silva flagrantly buying off members of congress to vote through legislation. Last year, Brazil’s supreme court convicted two dozen people in the case, which was hailed as a watershed moment in the fight against corruption. But the defendants have yet to be jailed because of endless appeals, a delay that has enraged Brazilians. Even more infuriating has been the proposed legislation known as ‘Pec 37’ that would limit the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes. Essentially, this would have assigned the power to conduct criminal investigations exclusively to the notoriously corrupt police, thus removing the role of federal prosecution service from the evaluation of criminal charges. Pec 37 was widely seen, quite correctly, as a shield for corrupt politicians.
However, maybe feeling the pressure from the streets, congress on June 25 rejected Pec 37 by 430 votes to nine. Also, congress voted to use all the royalties from newly discovered oilfields - expected to produce tens of billions of barrels of crude oil over the coming decades - for education and health. However, many of those oilfields are located on the ocean floor. The process of extracting from such depths carries huge risks and requires new technologies, which will take quite some time.
Furthermore, the authorities are beginning to backtrack - at least for now. Officials in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have announced that bus and subway price rises will be rescinded and, following an emergency cabinet meeting, Rousseff gave a 10-minute prime-time speech in which she promised to create a “national plan” for urban public transport. On June 26, in another manoeuvre to defuse the protests, the government said it would hold a referendum on whether to establish a constituent assembly - perhaps as early as September 7. This referendum, apparently, would focus on more “straightforward” proposals for political reform and would address various “concrete questions”, such as campaign financing and so on. In reality, the referendum is a wretched sop which must be rejected by all consistent democrats and socialists.
Not so long ago, large sections of the left were promoting Brazil as a model to emulate. Here was a country, we were told, which had defied the neoliberal consensus and developed an alternative economic strategy - leading to an economic boom. You see, Keynesianism does work. Just as enthusiastically, the Workers Party of Brazil - along with Communist Refoundation in Italy - was promoted as the model for a ‘broad’ and ‘non-dogmatic’ party of the left. Evidence for this, it was claimed, was the way it hosted and organised the World Social Forum - allowing for ‘consensual’ and ‘non-hierarchical’ decision-making.
Nonsense on sticks, of course. At the WSF, the WP leadership and its allies precisely used the ‘consensual’ but non-democratic and non-accountable mechanisms to bureaucratically manipulate the whole thing from beginning to end - it got all the results it wanted. The same goes naturally for WP’s much lauded ‘non-dogmatism’, which in practice meant the rejection of every working class principle. Hence it has steadily drifted to the right, now committed to running capitalism instead of challenging it. WP has held the presidency for 10 years and is part of the 11-party ‘For Brazil to keep on changing’ coalition, which after the 2010 parliamentary elections gained 352 of the 513 seats in the chamber of deputies, as well as 54 of the 81 seats in the federal senate - granting Rousseff a comfortable majority in both houses. She has used this to attack the working class, not empower it. Communists, on the other hand, argue that you should never form a government or enter a coalition unless you have a realistic chance of implementing the minimum programme - based on working class power and beginning the transition to socialism.