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Poverty, Police Violence and Wasted Public Funds: Brazil's Perfect Storm of Discontent

The protests roiling South America's biggest country are a reaction to an insensitive, unresponsive government.

A woman in Brazil demonstrates against a bus fare hike.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Araújo/Flickr


Brazil has been roiled by protests in recent weeks. At first, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest bus and subway fare hikes and demand free public transportation.

Rather than scare people off, the heavy-handed police reaction helped stir things up. In Sao Paulo alone, 235 people were arrested last Thursday - many for carrying vinegar to minimise the effects of tear gas. Reports abounded of police brutality and provocation, including a policeman  caught on camera vandalising his own vehicle.

Brazil's corporate media, which until then had vilified demonstrators and called for  forceful policing, changed its tune when seven journalists working for one of the country's biggest newspapers were hurt. Two of them were  shot in the face with rubber bullets. Protesters went home chanting: "Tomorrow it will be bigger."

Indeed it was bigger. Monday saw hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in more than 20 cities. More than 100,000 people hit the streets in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Brasilia, the capital, protesters occupied the parliament, though they left the area peacefully after some time. 

Police violence is a structural problem in Brazil. But the fact that Brazil is presently hosting the FIFA Confederations Cup, and thus is preoccupied with its international image and under  special rules agreed with FIFA, makes the situation much worse.

Protests against human rights abuses and misuse of public funds in the  preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics - which took place  over the weekend - were again heavily repressed. 

Qualitative and quantitative demands 

The government's reaction to the protests have intensified the demonstrators' anger and given focus to a number of diffuse and relatively independent grievances.

There have been two kinds of struggles in Brazil in recent years. On the one hand,  indigenous peoples in far-flung corners of the country have fought against the encroachment of agribusiness and big government projects like the Belo Monte dam on their land and livelihoods, while the urban poor have resisted rampant property speculation.

These are the ones who have not benefited from Brazil's rapid growth in recent years; they are victims of what we might term quantitative development.

On the other hand, many urban Brazilians have risen up to advocate on issues like public transport, cycling lanes, public space, the environment, intellectual property, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, et cetera: struggles around the quality of development. 

While these two types of struggles involve very different constitutencies, the struggles themselves are not unrelated.

In both cases, the government's standard response to its citizens' complaints has been to dismiss them as naive or disingenuous particularisms in the face of Brazil's economic growth and wealth distribution projects, ignoring their universality.

These qualitative demands are universal in that they are ultimately about the production of new commons and new rights. Although the public transportation protesters have mostly been young, educated urbanites,  polls indicate that they have popular support - hardly a surprise in a country where the quality of public transportation is so low and its cost so high  in relation to the average income.

At the same time, the government’s claims to the universality of its project appear dubious when one sees Brazil's most marginalised groups, such as indigenous people and favela dwellers, dispossessed in the name of development - losing their  houses, their  livelihoods and sometimes  their lives while private fortunes are being made.

Besides, it is not difficult to see the connections between  poor communities affected by the oil industry and the government-subsidised swelling of Brazil's private automobile fleet and disinvestment in public transport; or between the erosion of public space and the exclusionary "urban regeneration" projects spurred by the major events the country is slated to host in 2014 and 2016.

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