Brazil has long been known for its people’s political apathy. Or at least we see ourselves that way. For that reason, this current series of protests has been celebrated by all social classes as proof that we are not actually that passive. What is clear to anyone that goes to a demonstration, unfortunately, is that less passive does not imply more informed. In fact, it seems to me people are joining the protests as a way to instantaneously fulfill their desire for political involvement, since real political knowledge takes too much effort.
First, a brief background. The protests started in São Paulo as a reaction to a twenty centavos increase in the bus fare. That 7 percent increase converts to 10 American cents, but hurts a little more due to lower overall income than in the U.S. The first protests, which took place about three weeks ago, were organized by the MPL (Free Pass Movement). The phenomenon became the center of national attention after Thursday, June 13, when the police reacted brutally to peaceful protestors, with tear gas and rubber bullets, hitting even the media in the process. Ever since, the protests have gained momentum across the nation.
Fueled by citizens reacting to police violence, the protests have also become a response to endemic national corruption and poor general administration. The ticket price increase was repealed last Wednesday. The protestors, claiming that “it’s not just the 20 centavos,” haven’t stopped.
Let me clarify that overall I find the situation positive. It has stimulated public reaction. But it is not the prelude to a new age of political awareness. The “awareness” leading people to the streets is the broad anger with the rampant state of corruption and poor civic investments (in particular, investing in an over-budget World Cup, three times as expensive as the previous one, at the cost of public services), but this awareness is hardly backed by significant knowledge of specific governmental actions. We have grown up hearing that politicians are corrupt, but few air grievances for specific cases.
The problem is that the anger is channeled at any and all politicians and governmental institutions, regardless of individual actions. In the protest I joined, I heard demands that the same mayor that lowered back the ticket prices leaves his position. I heard cries of “protest against the government” and “shut down the Congress.” The last time the latter happened was at the authoritarian takeover of the military in 1964. A shocking amount of people are vying for the impeachment of the president, elected in perfectly legitimate conditions and free of crimes that would validate such action. Few people understand the distinction between the executive branch and, say, the judiciary. Instead, they propose the president of the Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa, celebrated for recently convicting many involved in the Mensalão corruption scandal, for president of the nation.
This lack of serious thought is also seen in the atmosphere of the protests. There are clear ideological contradictions and a surprisingly celebratory style. One of the chants went, “I’m happy today because I’m fighting for my country.” I was confused — I was there because I was not happy. Others said, “Fuck the World Cup,” while wearing the national soccer team’s shiny yellow uniform.
National symbols like the soccer shirt were prevalent. Brazilian flags were everywhere and people sang choruses of the national anthem. One of the largest signs read, “My party is my country.” This is an expression of the general call for a nonpartisan movement. A friend of mine was physically attacked for holding the flag of a leftist student movement.
Nationalism is what led Europe to fascism and Brazil to the ‘64 dictatorship. One of the first measures in that nascent regime was to extinguish all parties by decree. I don’t think we will end up with another military dictatorship, but the thoughtlessly angry protestors would probably receive a coup d’état with celebration.
Again, I’m glad this is happening. Getting back the twenty centavos is unprecedented. If the protests were not in the news, I would have written this column to say that, yes, Brazil is now doing something about its politics. But that we can see in the international media, so I chose to talk about the problems I saw from inside.
I ask anyone that has participated in similar popular demonstrations in other countries to tell me if they have experienced anything like I did. The people have spoken and hopefully will continue to speak. When it comes to political awareness, however, we still have a long way to go.
Gustavo Lisboa Empinotti ’15