Brazil, held up as an economic success story over the last decade, has been shaken by a massive revolt triggered by transport fare rises. Henrique Sanchez and Sean Purdy examine the roots of the rebellion and assess the political challenges ahead
Until quite recently, Brazil was experiencing a climate of euphoria. This was partially because of improvements in the conditions of workers and the poor with low unemployment, a moderate increase in salaries and a popular government income supplement program for the very poorest families.
But it also stemmed from a highly manipulated image of success orchestrated by the federal government of Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party (PT) and supported by the mass media. After all, the bankers and rich have gained disproportionately much more than the moderate gains for the working class in the last ten years, with record-breaking profits and Brazilians entering the top-ten list of the world's richest people.
This sense of progress began to unravel slowly in the last year. Economic growth slowed. The federal government began to privatise airports and ports with the support of the conservative opposition. It cut social spending and rammed through paltry salary increases for federal public servants. This led to several serious strikes of workers in hydroelectric mega-projects in the north of Brazil. The federal government also faced growing criticism from black and indigenous people, the LGBT population and others for unprincipled sell-outs on social policies as the PT kowtowed to right-wing parties that form part of the governing alliance.
One thing has not changed and, to a certain extent, has deepened during the presidency of Lula (2002-2010) and three years of the Dilma government: the precariousness of employment and, principally, the poor quality of public services such as education, health and transport.
The federal government of the PT and state governments ruled by traditional right wing parties have invested billions in the World Cup in the last few years: expensive stadiums were built or old ones upgraded to follow the standards of FIFA, the ruling body of football infamous for transforming the sport into a big business and its involvement in corruption schemes.
Transport as a battleground
This contradiction between enormous public investment in the World Cup and the failure to resolve inequality and the poor quality of public services in the country indicated the fragility of the "euphoric mood" peddled by the government and the media.
It was no surprise that the spark for the popular revolt was the increase in public transport fares in almost all Brazilian cities this year. In the first months of 2013, victories by social movements in Porto Alegre and a few other Brazilian cities against transport fare increases already signaled the possibility that popular mobilisations could bring victories.
In São Paulo, where the municipal government is ruled by the PT and the state government ruled by the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), the main right-wing opposition party to the PT, decided to act together in the beginning of June to increase fares on buses, subways and trains.
Immediately, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) in São Paulo, a social movement in defense of free public transport, called protests to demand the cancellation of the increase. This sparked a popular revolt initially condemned by the government, the PT, PSDB and their allies as well as by the mass media.
The MPL was founded at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005. Without links to the parties and inspired by autonomist political theory, the group is organised horizontally in a decentralised manner across the country. The demand for an immediate cancellation of the fare increase with direct actions such as blocking the main roads of the city with barricades and mass protests won the support of students and young workers despite police brutality and the arrest of dozens of activists.
The violent police repression of peaceful protests in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro against the fare increases on 13 June, and a protest in Brasilia against public spending on the World Cup turned a localised struggle of young people into a national revolt with widespread support and demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in the main cities.
Massive popular pressure forced governments in São Paulo, Rio and numerous other cities to revoke the fare increases within two weeks after the protests began. This was a great victory that inspired a new layer of activists, gave confidence to the working class and the poor population of the possibilities of collective action and marked a crisis in the legitimacy of Brazilian governments and the traditional parties.
Reaction of Dilma
In the wake of the protests, president Dilma invoked emergency meetings with her ministers, state governors and mayors, and on 21 June made a national televised appearance where she promised to improve public services, pledging that all royalties from petroleum exploration would be devoted to education. She proposed measures for political reform and the control of corruption.
On 24 June, she met with representatives of the Free Fare Movement in São Paulo. The activists presented an open letter with biting criticisms of her social policies, demanding free fares and an improved public transport system, an end to police brutality against the poor and the vicious repression of indigenous peoples as well as offering solidarity with all social movements and unions involved in the mobilisations.
On the other hand, right-wing forces and the media, who had condemned the popular revolt against the fare increases, began to change their colours in an attempt to weaken the radical political content of the mass movement and co-opt it for its own interests with an abstract "anti-corruption agenda".
In the huge celebratory demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio on 20 June, the day after the fare hikes were revoked, small groups from the ultra-right took advantage of the unpopularity of the traditional parties in an attempt to generalise an "anti-party" sentiment, physically attacking activists from the left-wing parties and the social movements. As in Egypt and Greece, it showed both the possibilities and dangers as the mass movement expanded.
The ruling PT has also attempted to defuse the radical politics of the movement with minor concessions and promises of reforms, attempting to get the protestors off the streets and into controlled negotiations with governments.
It's not yet clear what the future holds, but several developments have shown the way forward for the movement. New popular organisations in the poor outlying areas of the big cities have organised with a concrete set of demands that separates them from the right-wing and the media as well as the PT government. They demanded free fares, an end to police brutality and the demilitarisation of the police, against rising rents and house prices, no money for the World Cup, education and healthcare of the "First World" and reduction of the official workweek to 40 hours without a salary reduction.
Left wing parties, unions and social movements have also met in united fronts articulating a common agenda of strikes and protests around the country with many of the same demands as the organisations in the poor neighbourhoods as well as calls for land reform, the democratisation of communication and against privatisations. On 25 June, the main trade union federations, including those that are traditionally allied to the PT government, called for a one-day general strike on 11 July to force the government to attend to the demands of the popular and working-class movement.
The anti-capitalist and radical left in Brazil has a pivotal role in this process to organise and mobilise around politics that counter the priority given to the bankers and big capitalists by the Dilma government. We need to maintain our own identity in relation to the disputes between the PT and the traditional right, establishing alliances with the political organisations and social movements that put themselves in the left opposition camp to the PT government and to capitalism as a whole.
Henrique Sanchez and Sean Purdy are activists of Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in São Paulo.
Henrique will be speaking at the Marxism 2013 Festival in July.