Brazil’s protests: Not quite a ‘Tropical Spring’

Monday June 24 2013

By Brian Winter

Brazil’s blossoming protest movement is a coming-of-age for what had been one of Latin America’s most politically disengaged youth populations, but does not appear to constitute a major threat to governability or established political parties.

The protests, which gathered steam last week and saw some 200,000 Brazilians demonstrate in a dozen cities on Monday, are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Their broad rallying cry, which includes opposition to corruption and recent bus fare increases, has appealed to virtually any Brazilian with a grievance - and there are plenty of problems to go around.

Yet, at least for now, the movement appears to be far more “Occupy Wall Street” than “Arab Spring” in terms of its motives, demographics and likely outcome.

That is, the protests are a noisy sign of discontent among a swath of the population that is on average richer and better educated than average Brazilians. A survey of demonstrators in Sao Paulo on Monday by polling firm Datafolha indicated they were three times more likely to have a university degree than the rest of the population.

The protests have spread quickly, and generated perhaps outsized buzz, in a country that has one of the world’s highest usage rates of social media - 81 per cent of respondents told Datafolha they heard about Monday’s protest via Facebook.

Their novelty has also been important, as Brazil does not have the recent tradition of political protest seen in Argentina, Venezuela or even Chile. The use of teargas and rubber bullets by police inexperienced in crowd control has added to the shock value and pushed even more sympathizers into the streets.

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As such, the protests have become a nationwide phenomenon and could lead President Dilma Rousseff and other politicians to make limited concessions on relatively small issues, such as bus fares, and bigger ones, such as the quality of public spending.

They may continue to grow in numbers and disrupt daily life in Brazilian cities - perhaps for months to come. The protests also add to the sensation that Brazil, after a decade in which seemingly everything went right, has become bogged down in rising inflation, crime and social unrest.

But the movement is just as notable for what it is not.

Unlike the unrest that swept the Arab world earlier this decade and Turkey more recently, the protesters are not targeted at a specific leader - or even the federal government.

Just a quarter of demonstrators told Datafolha they were protesting against politicians - behind bus fares (56 per cent), corruption (40 per cent) and police repression (31 per cent).

Brazil is a vibrant democracy with a variety of parties, most of them left of center. The country’s current leaders - many of whom cut their teeth protesting a military government in the 1970s and 1980s - appear eager to compromise with the protesters and, eventually, try to co-opt them.

Rousseff, herself a former guerrilla, made a carefully crafted statement this week praising the protesters for their “greatness.” One senior official in Sao Paulo said: “We have to learn from this. We’d be stupid not to listen to what these people are saying.”

But the numbers have not been as large as they may seem to outsiders, considering Brazil’s huge size.

To use one comparison, Monday’s total nationwide turnout, the biggest so far, amounted to about 0.1 per cent of Brazil’s population of nearly 200 million people. Tuesday’s follow-up protest in Sao Paulo rallied about 50,000 people in a metropolitan area of some 20 million.

The movement is also not a sign of massive, European- or Arab-style discontent with the economy. Unlike countries where protests or alternative social movements grew big enough to deeply shake the established order, Brazil does not have a problem with unemployment among youths or the population at large.

In fact, Brazil’s problem is the opposite: Near-full employment and rising wages are driving inflation of about 6.5 per cent a year, which is the root cause behind the bus fare increases that originally triggered protesters’ ire.

The writer filed this article from Sao Paulo