Brazil has changed immensely since Julia Michaels moved there 30 years ago, but the change came slowly. She sees recent protests as a pivotal shift.
Rio de Janeiro
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
When I first came to Brazil, in 1981, hit parade American songs took six months to show up on the radio here. When I first came, working-class people over 30 had false teeth. Now, they sport braces.
Last year, I tried to explain to Alessandra Orofino, the young co-founder of the successful new Meu Rio digital activism group, how much the country has changed.
“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I wasn’t here to see it and I’m here now, and I want change now.”
Who are the protesters, people who have taken to the streets all over the country, at long last? There’s great variety. [Earlier this week] on television, I saw teachers in Juazeiro do Norte whose wages had been cut 40 percent. Discovering their mayor at a bank branch making a deposit (!), they surrounded him. Hours later, the police safely escorted him out.
From what I’ve watched on TV, read on Facebook, and, last Monday night, seen on the streets of Rio myself, the protesters are mostly young men in their twenties, students. Not workers. So why are they protesting?
I bet the mayors of Rio and São Paulo rue the day this past January, when they bowed to President Dilma Rousseff’s request that they put off the bus fare hike for six months, to help her keep inflation down. If the fare hike had taken place then, the students would have been on vacation…
As I said in my last post, the fare hike is a painful reminder of Brazil’s two-tiered socioeconomic structure, where rich and poor each have their own health care, schools, transportation, and public safety solutions. Many of the protesters may not use the public health system and may have gone to private schools. But they take buses. And though they may not make the hours-long commute of a maid, waiter or gas-station attendant, they also feel the oppression of a system that provides poorly-managed, inadequate service at a real cost unknown to passengers.
The fare hike reminded them that this is the case in every aspect of life here. And, while workers, especially those with the long commutes, don’t have time to march in the streets, the students do.
I’m not saying they’re a bunch of altruists, marching for workers.
They just feel the inequality in their own skin – and they know, consciously or not, that a country with a system like this one won’t go far. That makes a difference in their futures.
Why didn’t bus-riding students speak up before? Brazil has become a middle-class country. When it was a country of haves and have-nots, what was the use of complaining about injustices? Now, when Brazilians feel more alike than ever before, the system’s logic looks more skewed than ever before. No one invests in change until change begins to look possible.
President Rousseff’s government, and every one that preceded hers, probably back to colonial times, is stitched onto the top of a society where you don’t know the real costs (nor the real back-room deals) of poorly managed, inadequate public services. She’s said the protesters’ gripes are legitimate and deserve to be heard – and this is the right thing to say.
But … how is she going to fix, as fast as Alessandra Orofino would like, the nations’s schools, hospitals, police, buses, trains, highways, and metro systems? Not to mention airports.
Her government is built on shaky political alliances that involve a lot of bone-tossing, and I imagine she and many other politicians, at all levels, will try tossing bones to the protesters. Already, some mayors have lowered bus fares.
The world holds many surprises for us: who ever thought it possible to take down the Berlin Wall in 1989? Who ever thought that hundreds of thousands of Brazilians would wake up to the inequities and injustice in their country? In the 30-plus years I’ve lived here, until last week, I thought change would continue to occur gradually. But you can download a song almost instantaneously now, and you can get a movement going without using personalist politics – collaboratively. Leadership is no longer as crucial as it once was.
So maybe, just maybe, the dialogue that comes out of the unrest will get us somewhere, a little less slowly than I thought. #CHANGEBRAZIL