The movement that emerged in Brazil after rising transport prices surprized the world with its complexity and sophistication. Anyone who believes that fully understands its causes and implications will be calling to deception, if not guided by mere intellectual arrogance.
It takes a good deal of sociological imagination to understand what seems like a new chapter in a wave of global discontent. What began with the Arab Spring, continued with the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street, which had its own version in Mexico with # YoSoy132, and recently broke into Turkey, has probably something to do with those million citizens who took the streets in several Brazilian cities.
Linked to new forms of activism network capable of giving voice to those who used to be silent, these protests illustrate that something important that we have not understood properly is happening with youth in urban areas around the world, unhappy with the ways of doing politics and those regimes that condemn new generations to almost nonexistence.
Two elements distinguish the Movement “Passe Livre” from other mobilizations: the first is that it did not raise its voice against a dictatorship. Quite the opposite, Brazil is a vibrant democracy similar to that of other developed countries, and even one that has implemented some of the most advanced mechanisms of participatory democracy in the world.
The second is that Brazil has not experienced a major economic crisis as other nations in Europe or North America. Not only GDP grew above 4% in the last decade. The country has also undergone a process of social inclusion through which more than 20 million people left extreme poverty; the minimum wage expanded in real terms by over 60%; unemployment dropped; college enrolment doubled and the access to credit increased.
Those who want to see in these protests the end of the “Brazilian economic miracle” –overestimated in any case– are mistaken. There is no direct link between the protests and the recent economic performance, certainly less favourable today than a few years ago. Such statements are biased, misleading and self-interested, because this is essentially a political crisis. Brazil has not grown the last two years as expected, but people have not taken to the streets because inflation is above 6% per year or the economy has slowed down, especially when the labour market still does not show any effect, real wages continue growing and job creation is still taking place.
Societies can mobilize for several reasons. At this time, what we have is a unique political juncture prior to the 2014 presidential election, the World Cup and the Olympics that will take place in Brazil in the two following years. It’s not just that the international attention is focused on Brazil and a group of insurgents has seen a window of opportunity to be heard. It’s more than that. This mobilization comes at a time when the Brazilian elites, who have always considered that their nation was destined to rub shoulders with the great powers, were to meet one of its most coveted dreams of grandeur almost regardless of the price.
With these protests an important segment of the Brazilian people are saying that this glory is not their main interest. That before being a “global player” and earn a place of power and international prestige, they want what really matters to people: efficient public services, fundamental rights and a functional state that gives them guarantees. They want another development model. Hence, the protests can be read as a triumph of intelligence, political consciousness and civic dignity over the ambitions of an elite, football banality and extravagance. Ironically, the four times champion country – where patriotism and football easily confused -, has also a society that condemns the organization of a sporting event that will cost three times more than Germany spent in 2006. The insurgents know that before significant and tangible benefits to the country and its people, the World Cup and the Olympic Games favour a minority.
Another peculiarity: unlike the Egyptians who called for the head of Mubarak or young Turks who oppose Erdoğan, Passe Livre is not a movement primarily motivated against President Dilma Rousseff and her party. It is a feeling against a general status quo, one that opposes a corrupt and corrupting political system (hence the “I do not want impeachment, I want political reform”, which one of the many banners read).
But even if the insurgents do not ask the head of Rousseff, the situation is and will be used by the opposition and the most conservative to discredit the president and undermine her authority ahead of the 2014 elections. The risk is clear: that in the end, the triumphant candidate will be the one furthest to the pattern of demands of the demonstrators, as happened with Mariano Rajoy in Spain.
Dilma’s government has shown sensitivity and political stature to recognize the value and legitimacy of this movement, especially when polls show that most citizens support the protests. Having adopted a part of their demands as it has done, Rousseff does not act by mere opportunism or as part of a demobilizing strategy. More than one of the flags risen by Passe Livre have been part of the political manifesto that the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) aimed to implement when in Government and now Dilma has returned them to the agenda. Such is the case for a political reform that regulates campaign financing and puts an end to corruption.
Despite being old proposals of the PT, none of these reforms now required by the insurgents could be materialized over the years because the ruling party was far from achieving a majority by itself. The center-right parties with which Lula and Dilma have had to ally have been one of the main obstacles to achieving them. So this crisis could provide an opportunity for transformation to a party that emerged from civil society and allied movements, but by taking the institutional path (along with a number of leaders and activists that today occupy positions in the government) lost the pulse of society and his ability to articulate expressions of political vanguard.
With the emergence of new leadership, this crisis offers Brazilian civil society the opportunity to renew its cadres. It could also serve to revitalize the PT (once a force representative of a significant number of progressive movements), to give a new impetus to the varied and imaginative forms of social participation (some already ossified) that were created during the years after the Constitution of 1988. Moreover, it could contribute in the recovery of the PT’s lost agenda by relying on the critical mass that comes from the streets. We are already witnessing some of the effects of Passe Livre: in a few days the Brazilian Congress, never known for its agility, has started to pass important reforms, some of which had spent years in the freezer.
The PT government has always displayed an ability to manage social conflict, perhaps because of its historically strong relationships to civil society organizations. Dialogue and negotiation has always characterized this interactions and and remain so. Neither Obama, Piñera, Zapatero nor Rajoy personally sat down to talk with the young “indignados” of their respective nations as Dilma did.
Now, it is not easy to process discontent, neither finding a solution to the current situation. Petista governments have so far dealt with leaders relatively “domesticated“, which belong to social organizations that, from the late eighties, began to travel on an increasingly institutionalized path and left street protests. This was in part because they found a state open to their participation. They were, however, organizations upon which the PT exerted and still exerts great influence. Today the ruling party has to interact with completely new expressions, which are organized and act more spontaneously and horizontally. It is not the same to sit down and negotiate with unions or organizations that have visible leaders or representatives than with a movement without national structure that brings together an amorphous network and diffuse expressions of discontent. Indeed, Passe Livre presents all kinds of demands – from improvements in public services, to fight against corruption and respect for sexual diversity -, some even contradictory.
It is, no doubt, a challenge that may compromise the country’s own governance. Therefore the president and the petista political field traverse today the most important test they have faced in a very long time. Rather than words, citizens will be very attentive to their gestures, from which concrete results must be derived.
Hernan Gómez has a PhD in Development Studies at IDS, where he focused his research on the PT in Brazil. He recently published Lula, the Workers Party and the Governability Dilemma (2013, Routledge, New York), based on his PhD thesis. The author thanks Peter Houtzager for the ideas provided to the present article. A previous version of this text was published in the Mexican newspaper Reforma. Translated by Ricardo Santos.