How does a social movement grow, succeed, or fizz?
June 28, 2013
In response to over a month of protests that have attracted at least one million people across dozens of Brazilian cities, and to solidarity demonstrations in other cities around the world, President Dilma Rousseff has announced a set of concessions to protestors’ demands: a one time investment of $25 billion for public transit, tougher penalties for those charged with corruption, and a national referendum on constitutional reform.
While the legally binding referendum was soon replaced by a non-binding popular plebiscite, mainly due to allegations that the former encroached on the balance of power among branches of government, these concessions represent a symbolic victory for the still nascent social movement. Moreover, the president’s proposal diverts attention from herself as the target decision-maker and redirects it toward the divided Congress.
This victory may legitimize the efforts of protestors, and even temporarily invigorate them, but their pressure will be most needed when Congress takes up its own response to the public outcry. At that moment, economic disruptive tactics, such as strikes or road blockades, can be the decisive factor if protestors hope to prevent reforms from being delayed and diluted.
Whether outside observers are interested in the politics of protest or in international sporting events, the world’s attention is focused on Brazil. Inside or outside, all of us allegedly have a stake in the transformation of our increasingly “global” civil society.
“It’s not about the national team. It’s about corruption.”
According to the Associated Free Press, 1.2 million people took to the streets across Brazil on June 20th alone. For most observers, the catalysts to these events are a public transit fee hike in São Paolo and the costs the country will incur from hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.
Indeed, the public will pay for roughly 91 percent of the World Cup’s estimated cost of $13.5 billion. As far as the Olympics in Rio, Brazilian taxpayers will outspend the estimated $15 billion spent by their British counterparts during the London 2012 games.
One stadium alone, the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, cost 1.5 billion reais (almost $700,000). Although the stadium can seat 71,000, it is unlikely these seats will be filled after the World Cup—as the newspaper Valor Economico reports, less than a total of 50,000 people have attended 57 matches held this year in the area.
Moreover, research on previous World Cups and Olympics has shown that they have a negligible impact on the country’s economic development. Even if these events do increase the short-term revenues of affluent tourism industries (an assumption in question, based on negative evidence from the Olympics in London and China), the greatest long-term impact is a loss for the majority, rather than a gain from their investment.
As summarized by Brazilian filmmaker Carla Dauden in a video she uploaded when the protests were barely starting: “Now tell me, in a country where illiteracy can reach 21 percent, a country that ranks 85th in the human development index, a country where 13 million people are underfed every day, and many, many others die every day due to lack of medical treatment, does that country need more stadiums?”
While this cycle of protest has taken aim at the disparity between exorbitant investments on World Cup renovations versus the dilapidation of basic public services, the grievances that have emerged from the streets have included wealth inequality, widespread corruption, police brutality, and low investment in social services, such as health care, education, transportation, and housing. Seizing the moment, the country’s five dominant labor unions have called for a strike on July 11 for better wages, shorter workdays, and greater pensions.
Mainstream media have focused on the visible problem, the games, mainly because they are not intended to address the abstract. However, popular discontent in Brazil is not about the tournament, but deep-seated social problems. As a protestor’s sign sums it up, “Não é contra a seleção—é contra a corrupção! (It’s not against the national team, it’s against corruption!)”
At the heart of the issue is the government’s broader pursuit of the neoliberal development model. Additional issues that stem from this include, for example, the long-term development plan in the Amazon, which includes ongoing subsidizes of hundreds of hydroelectric dam projects. For example, civil society groups have relied on international conventions on indigenous rights and domestic rulings on environmental protection to temporarily stall the Belo Monte Dam and its five subsidiary dams. Similarly, the government continues exploring more sites for off-shore drilling, and clearing rainforests to support the ethanol biofuel industry.
These are among the hundreds of social, economic, and environmental issues that have been the foci of Brazilian movements for decades. In the last month, these social forces have created for themselves the opportunity to converge. If they can mount a sufficient threat against this aspiring superpower, they also have a good chance of effecting far-reaching social change.
Brazil today is an influential producer, but also a huge consumer market; price fluctuations here can have structural, macro-economic consequences. Uncertainty for investors and even spiraling inflation may result, which would force governments in consumer nations to pressure Brazilian politicians to solve the crisis.
Within the context of the tripple-set of games–the current FIFA Confederations Cup, the upcoming World Cup, and the Olympics in 2016–Brazil will take center stage in the global arena, further raising its vulnerability. In other words, Brazilian protestors can really shake the power structure, and indeed they already have.
The President’s Response
A crucial piece of the puzzle that has been ignored in most mainstream accounts of the current protests is the president’s activist past. Dilma Rousseff was raised in an upper-middle class family from Belo Horizonte. In her youth, she joined a Marxist guerilla to fight against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In 1970 she was captured and jailed for two years, during which she joined the hundreds of thousands of Latin American leftists tortured by their governments during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Her career in government is less easily romanticized. As Minister of Energy in President “Lula” da Silva’s cabinet, Rousseff streamlined the controversial Belo Monte dam project, even though there was a court injunction that prohibited government preparations for it. In 2010, when Lula left office with the highest approval rating in the country’s history, Rousseff, by then his Chief of Staff and chosen successor, was handily voted into office.
Until recently, Rousseff enjoyed all the popularity necessary to expect her re-election next year. But the political landscape has rapidly changed over the past three weeks; therefore, this former activist’s response could affect the prospects of her presidency as well as the potential for broader social change.
Her broad-stroke reply to the protests is a particularly astute move on several levels. It could either strengthen the grassroots movement—by providing it with both legitimacy and further space to institute its demands—or co-opt it in her favor.
For movement organizers, a popular plebiscite would represent a major success, even if a short-term one. Far from the passage and enforcement of meaningful reforms, the president’s recognition of their efforts has granted activists a symbolic strength that should not be understated. From this perspective, the president is serving the role of an “elite ally”—a key target in power whose interest may overlap with those of the social movement.
On the other hand, this political maneuver—it also helps to divert attention towards the Congress. Rousseff will have to submit the plebiscite to both chambers of the legislature, where more than two-dozen parties are almost evenly divided among opposing coalitions. Lawmakers have promised to put the plebiscite out to the public before the election next year.
Prospects for Change
Like other left-wing parties in Latin America, Rousseff’s Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) has embraced the goals of macroeconomic development as dictated by the international political economy and its bottom-line logic. For this reason, they have fast-tracked projects notoriously noxious, such as open-pit gold mines, at the risk of human rights violations and long-term environmental insecurity.
Just as more presidents of different stripes defend the privatization, diversion, and extraction of natural resources, more civil society groups and spontaneous movements are finding collective outputs to express their concerns–and sometimes their outrage–about inattention to basic public needs, such as health and education. The middle and lower classes are fed up, enraged, and organizing to alter their circumstances.
The potential of these social forces is playing out in Brazil today. As we have learned from recent movements, from the Middle East to Wisconsin and Occupy, pressure can dissipate—but can be most necessary—precisely when politicians begin to formulate their responses.
Image courtesy of “Occupy Brazil” (Facebook).
Versions of this article appeared in Tikkun Daily and Socialist Worker.