Until now, complaining in Brazil has served as a common outlet for dealing with issues like high crime and corruption. Will protests morph into a larger movement? Spread to other countries?
Rio de Janeiro
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
Now that numerous cities have decided to cancel transportation fare hikes as a result of the protests, the question remains if Brazil's protests will find a new course, and if they will have a long-term impact.
There's a lot in the media, both domestic and international, that Brazilians surprised political leaders with the demonstrations. But the truth is, I think they surprised themselves. After putting up with so much for so long, the spell was finally broken: The spell of bread and circuses, of soccer and novelas. They were capable all along of putting aside the homem cordial and the culture of compromise, and turning daily complaints into action. When police attacked innocent people, and importantly, members of the media, it was the final straw.
The shift in public opinion was swift, and critically, even Globo – the dominant news network – changed its tune to some degree. And attempts by soccer heroes Pelé and Ronaldo to appeal to protesters by telling people to "forget" the protests and saying that the World Cup cannot be held in hospitals, have backfired spectacularly in a testament to how deeply people relate to demonstrators' demands.
Until now, complaining has served as one of the most common outlets for dealing with realities like high crime, corruption, and poor public services. "Wake up, Brazil!" was a frequent lament. A typical example is that of a viral video earlier this month featured a Brazilian visiting the United States and noting the differences in prices and quality of life. It made a lot of people angry, though it garnered fans, too. In the video, he complains Brazilians "fight for stupid rights, but don't fight for the basics, like the right to health, quality of life." While one can argue that no rights are "stupid," these protests have certainly brought things back to the basics.
But now, many wonder where this is going, especially given that leaders conceded on bus fares in the country's two biggest cities that saw the largest protests. And with an explosion of international coverage, there seem to be more questions than answers.
Here, I think, are some of the important questions to think about going forward.
Will it translate, for example, into votes during next year's election?
Maybe, maybe not. But perhaps that matters less than people think. The fact that the protests have started a dialogue means there's a chance that Brazilians have a greater stake in public policy moving forward, and that maybe government accountability – sometimes woefully lacking – will improve. By talking about the varied demands of protesters, there's a chance more people will feel they have a greater stake in what's happening in politics. “Democracy is noise,” wrote Vladimir Safatle, a philosophy professor at the University of São Paulo, in Folha this week. “Those who like silence prefer dictatorships.”
On his blog, Carioca Roberto Cassano wrote that it doesn't matter that protesters don't have unified demands, or a leader. "We've created a collective Batman," he wrote, "of whose mere memory of sudden attacks and bat wings make the bad guys think twice." Politicians will now have the symptoms of those who have had their homes broken into, Cassano said. (And in a way, they did, given the protest on the roof of Congress.) They'll always be wondering if it could happen again.
Also, given that the protests did have a concrete result with a reduction in transportation fares in numerous cities, it sets a precedent that stimulates new demands, said Maurício Santoro, a Rio-based adviser to Amnesty International.
It means that not only do individual politicians need to regroup in the short-term, but political parties may need to try to build more concrete, action-based platforms ahead of next year's elections, rather than depending on charismatic leaders. "For decades, the military dictatorship forced political groups into a two-party system," wrote Brazilian journalist Mauricio Savarese on his blog. "It still takes its toil on our democracy. That is because leaders still seem to be much more important than sets of ideas – that is how politicians would stand out in the middle of the crowd then." It also means that despite historically high approval ratings, President Dilma Rousseff may have more formidable contenders next year.
On the other hand, some still doubt the protests present a threat to political parties and leaders. "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," says the latest from Reuters.
One of the really interesting things about the protests is that it has implications for the acclaimed Lula model. Many outsiders perceive Brazil as a success story, not only for the region but for the world: low unemployment, rising wages, reduced inequality, lots of foreign investment, and a growing middle class. In spite of rising inflation and sluggish growth, the overall big picture has been a good one in recent years. Much of Latin America has tended to look to Brazil as the star of the region, and to Lula as the inspiration for leaders, combining social inclusion with business-friendly policies.
"The ascent of the middle class, combined with social programs promoted by President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio 'Lula' Da Silva, seemed secure," said a Bloomberg piece yesterday. If voters take heed that Lula's policies – continued by Dilma – worked to lift people out of poverty but ultimately failed to address long-neglected problems like public services and high levels of violence, what does that mean for other Latin American countries following this model? It's particularly interesting for countries like Peru and Colombia that have also had economic growth with Lula-esque leaders, working on policies to benefit the poor but also attracting foreign businesses, but struggling with some similar challenges.