Economic Worries Stoke Brazil Protests

It was an apparently innocuous twenty-centavo rise in the cost of a bus or metro ticket in São Paulo at the beginning of June that initially sparked mass protests that have since swept through at least twelve Brazilian states. On Monday 17 June, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets in São Paulo and Rio alone, in protests larger than any since those against President Fernando Collor in 1992.

São Paulo protest on Monday 17 June. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The good-natured atmosphere seen at the São Paulo protest on 17 June turned was replaced by violence at other protests, with police accused of brutality towards protesters and journalists. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) demanded the increase to be reversed – which they achieved in a number of cities, including São Paulo and Rio – but their call for both free and better-quality public transport has yet to be met – meaning the wave of protests are likely to continue.

The protests, which many protesters said are “not just about 20 centavos!”, have taken a much wider form and now represent a general platform for Brazilians to vent their frustration and show their displeasure at the state of the country, whether it be the country’s multi-billion-dollar hosting of the World Cup and Olympics, poor public services, particularly health and education, or rampant political corruption.

But despite the diversity of the slogans chanted, many have been united by a concern for Brazil’s economy: the rising cost of living, particularly food and services, have hit Brazilians hard.

Even though incomes have gone up, Brazil’s new middle class has been demanding more from public services, and with billions of reais of public money being spent on World Cup preparations with public services remain poor, the 20-centavo rise in bus fares appears to have been the final straw.

A survey of families by O Globo newspaper also reported many seeing expenses go up forty percent in the last year, despite the government’s official annual inflation figure of 6.5%.

Even though the rise in bus and metro fares has been reversed in most cities, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) says it will continue its fight until quality public transport is delivered. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Even though the rise in bus and metro fares has been reversed in most cities, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) says it will continue its fight until quality public transport is delivered. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Given Brazil’s economic track record in the 1980s and early 1990s, some have pointed to concerns over inflation as the main problem to be debated.

Alexandre Macchione Saes, Professor of Economics at USP, says that those using the inflation argument are generally politicians: “Yes, the economy in general has not grown much lately, but unemployment is low and people’s spending capabilities have generally increased – people can now buy things they couldn’t buy before.”

“The only real objective argument that can be carried at these protests is about public services – education, health, public transport – things objectively of poor quality.”

For Tabiner Domingues Marques, an economics student at the University of São Paulo (USP) who has been to every one of the São Paulo protests to date, it is all about the quality of public services and galvanizing a new generation to become politically active to change the face of Brazilian politics: “People are coming to the streets because victories won over the last decade in terms of income growth and distribution have not been accompanied by an increase in quality in public services.”

The government has certainly been caught out by the number of people taking part in the mass demonstrations: President Dilma has tried to get protesters back on side by praising the protest spirit and even mimicking the protest’s “People have woken up!” slogan, and other politicians are likely to try to score personal goals from the protests, analysts say.

The big question now for the protesters is, with almost daily protests planned and no central leader yet assuming control, do the disparate movements marching together have enough steam to carry on galvanizing the population into demanding a change in Brazil, and if they do want to see real change – what their next move is.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.

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