Under the scorching Rio de Janeiro sun and only metres from the famous Copacabana shoreline, even the most committed of Sunday’s demonstrators seemed to give in to the indolence of the place, with an often surreal result: a handmade placard calling for the president’s impeachment in one hand, a refreshing caipirinha in the other.
And even if this did not feel like your usual carefree Sunday stroll down Copa’s Avenida Atlântica, it was nowhere close to the enraged and politically conscious crowd that shook the country just over two years ago.
So who are these new protesters? And how did Brazil erupt in massive anti-presidential demonstrations across the country, only two months after President Dilma Rousseff was sworn in again?
The answers go back to June 2013, when the largest protests in more than two decades started with small-scale action by the Free Pass Movement against an ostensibly modest rise in public transport fares. But in the face of Brazil’s minimum monthly wage of about 720 reais (£150), an increase of 20 centavos (or 0.2 reais) a trip is not as modest as it seems. Indeed, the real is worth so little in a city that is expensive even by European standards that living here is, as an online campaign has put it, a “sur-real” experience.
As in the European south, Brazil is about to be trapped by the unrelenting demands of global capital
As the 2013 protests came and went, and those accused of leading them were prosecuted with a shocking zeal, Rousseff secured a narrow re-election and could have been excused for hoping that the worst was over. But not quite.
The Petrobras oil scandal broke out on the eve of the election. In the year since, a continuing investigation into the Brazilian oil giant has unearthed solicited donations from Petrobras executives to politicians across the spectrum on a large scale – with even the ruling Workers’ party (PT) treasurer, Joao Vaccari, charged with corruption. The fallout persists as a very real obstacle in Brazil’s efforts to head off recession and, more importantly, it has deepened a crisis of legitimacy for Brazil’s elites, reinvoking the image of a political system that is both massively corrupt and out of touch.
Standing as we are between the heavily protested 2014 World Cup and the under-prepared 2016 Olympic Games, the timing could hardly be more explosive.
This is why dismissing Sunday’s demonstrators as merely disgruntled rightwingers, as some have, is as easy as it is shortsighted. Even if the protests were largely called and backed by the right, many of the participants didn’t strike me as diehard rightwing ideologues. Sunday happened to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of military rule in Brazil, and perhaps most of the protesters who were calling for military intervention have had no first-hand experience of life under a military regime.
In fact, many of the young Brazilians who took to the streets were disgruntled rightwingers, pro-dictatorship advocates, and possibly both. But to stereotype them as such inhibits a vital understanding of this generation, one that has experienced the uncertainty and harshness of a truly global crisis. As in the European south, Brazil is about to be trapped by the unrelenting demands of global capital. And just as neighbourhood gentrification the world over prices people out of their homes, in Brazil “gentri-nation” is altering livelihoods, suffocating the political spaces where we act and restraining the social spaces where we live.
How can we protect ourselves against the dismal effects of this crisis? We must not underestimate the very real threat of military or other reactionary forces returning to suppress social discontent, nor should we overestimate the capacity of social-democratic domestic politicians, such as Rousseff’s damaged PT, to bring about positive social change in what is a global crisis.
But more than that, we must recognise the common structure and source of our grievances. If not, we’ve put almost down to chance how these grievances are expressed – and the rejection of politics as a whole, rather than just politicians, may very well cause the chilling military-friendly demands of the sort expressed in Brazil on Sunday.