Brazilian Ambassador, Thais Guedes Alcoforado De Moraes on the reasoning behind the protests and the current situation in Brazil.
(Photograph taken by Tiago Calazans)
Currently, Brazil is experiencing the most widespread social unrest in the last two decades. Last week over one million people took to the streets in about 70 cities across the country. In my city, Recife, 100,000 people, mostly young people, marched along the city’s main avenues holding up posters with various political and social demands and catch phrases. One of them synthetizes quite well what is happening right now: “There are so many complaints that they didn’t fit in this poster.”
So, what are these complaints exactly?
This is a question that experts all over the world are trying to answer, and they are yet to succeed.
It is important to contextualise the situation: The protests began on the 6 June, led by the ‘Passe Livre’ movement, against a 20 cent increase in the Sao Paulo bus fare. Almost every year, we face an increase in transport prices, despite noticeable benefits. Last year, in Recife, for instance, there were protests against the 13% increase in bus fares, but they were mostly portrayed as riots and the episodes of police brutality against demonstrators did not even make the headlines in the local media. This is perhaps due to the fact that the police in Brazil follow a military logic and thus are poorly prepared to ensure ‘social order’ in a way that does not violate protesters’ constitutional rights.
Mainstream media in Brazil historically tends to delegitimise the struggle of social movements by portraying protesters as criminals. So clashes between the police and the protesters are often seen as legitimate and sometimes even ‘necessary’.
On 13 June, police brutality reached new levels in repressing pacific protesters, this sparked a reaction across the country, and amateur videos of police aggression went viral on social media. A video made by a young Brazilian reached over two million views on YouTube and summed up many of the reasons behind the protests.
It became clear that the youth, organised through Facebook and Twitter, played a fundamental role in shaping public opinion and firing up the protests, as it was in this context that mainstream media had to shift its views about the demonstrations, and started to claim that they represented a healthy democratic movement.
The protests raise questions. First and foremost, do all the protesters really want the same thing? To say we want what’s best for Brazil is not enough. What I believe to be the best for my country, for example, is very different from other people's beliefs. It is an illusion to think that youth are a homogeneous group, fighting for the same interests – mainly in a country so marked by racial, socio-economic and gender inequality as Brazil. This leads us to other questions, such as: to what extent is it possible to conciliate different and even opposite demands? Are the protests an opportunity to advance social change and strengthen youth participation or can they also represent a conservative backlash?
I believe that, although the threat of a conservative backlash is real, recent developments have shown it is highly unlikely. President Dilma Rousseff seemed to have satisfied many of the protesters' demands by ensuring that the voices from the streets, however chaotic and diverse, were being heard attentively.
On 25 June, after a meeting with governors, mayors and manifestations' leaders, she announced important initiatives, such as the creation of a National Pact for urban mobility, support to the project, which aims to direct 100% of oil royalties to education, support to a law project that determines more severe punishment for corruption and a plebiscite for political reform. Likewise, the National Congress already announced that they will debate solutions for claims raised in the manifestations.
The protests take up different meanings every day, and are affected by cultural, geographic and political factors, as well as being influenced by the reaction of the local military police. However, there is a risk that the political groups not involved will claim leadership over the protests because many people do not know what they are actually protesting about.
It is true that the manifestations lack focus – it is about a myriad of problems, some of which date back to our colonial times, and thus cannot be solved overnight. But much can and is already being done to improve our country. Most importantly, politicians are being reminded that the power lies with the voters – and it seems that they are quite worried.
Our generation has never had such a prominent role in achieving social and political change in Brazil. I believe this is not only a Brazilian movement, it is global. Thanks to social media, our generation – from Egypt, to Wall St., Turkey and Brazil – has realised that we can pressure for democratic systems that are more participative and sensitive to popular demands. Our challenge now is to keep the momentum going, in order to try and forge new permanent channels that make the voice of youth heard by those in power.