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Restless in Rio
A protest begun by a small bunch of people during the Confederations Cup has become the catalyst for a nationwide movement. And, it may end up with a lot of winners.
It's that time of the year when the sun is tepid, colleges are about to shut for the winter break and the football season is over. It's this time of the year when all of Brazil comes out on the streets to celebrate Festa Junina (June Festival). In the villages, they light bonfires and dance around them in their high boots and big hats. In the cities, they block roads, put up big tents, bring out their drums and trumpets, play games, drink and set up stalls that sell typical Brazilian food like chicken croquette, meat risolli and sweetcorn cake. It's that time of the year when the difference between rural and urban areas dissolves into street parties. The Brazilians take this old Catholic festival as seriously as the annual Carnival.
For the last 10 years, another ritual has been happening in some cities at the same time as this festa. In the month of June, after the government made annual revisions of metro and bus fares, a few dozen activists of the Free Pass Movement (MPL), a group born at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005, would gather in city centres, shout slogans in support of elimination of all transport fares, exchange angry words with cops, inhale some tear gas, get ignored by the media and go home. So this year too, when the Sao Paulo state and city governments announced a hike of 20 centavos (US 10 cents), the MPL activists came out. But this time, with the country hosting the Confederations Cup, cops were in a hurry to send them home. On June 16, in a congested area of Sao Paulo, as some activists smashed buses and shattered storefront windows, the cops fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at them. From then onwards, every evening, the city's main avenue - Avenida Paulista - turned into a battlezone between cops in heavy gear and activists with covered faces.
With the tear gas sneaking into the leafy neighbourhoods of Jardims - just off the Paulista - after sundown and stories of police violence buzzing on social media, the evenings at the avenue began to wear a different look. With each passing day, as the numbers swelled, the MPL activists were lost in the crowd of young students with high-end cameras, smartphones and trendy apparel. They were upset with PEC-37, a proposed bill in Congress that would take away the prosecutors' power to tackle corruption. Joining them were gays, lesbians and drag queens upset with Marco Feliciano, a senator who proposed legislation that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disorder. There were others too: doctors, teachers and workers who wanted better salaries;green activists who wanted fewer cars on the country's roads;middle-class housewives angry with the government for spending $15 billion on World Cup stadiums and people demanding better schools and hospitals. Then professionals clowns and Hare Krishna preachers too arrived on the scene, though they weren't protesting against anything. Then came the vandals who wanted to loot everything, and the neo-fascists who wanted to take the country back to its past.
On Tuesday, the number of people out on the streets reached 1. 6 million, and the media - with crews on choppers in the air - jumped on the story. With 24x7 television coverage and 200 million posts on social network, it seemed the whole country was on the boil. But it was not. Jesse de Souza, sociologist and the author of New Brazilian Middle Class, says it was basically a middleclass show. "Initially, the protests were dominated by leftist groups, but then it was hijacked by the conservative middle classes who love to see themselves as champions of democracy, thinking very superficially that all the problems are caused by 'corrupt' politicians even as they themselves exploit the poor, " says De Souza.
Actually, Brazil now has two middle classes: one old and dominated by whites;the other new and more black or mixed-race. Between 2003 and 2011, as its economy boomed and the government spent lavishly on social welfare, more than 45 million people have joined the Brazilian middle class. From a nation of the starkest economic divides between the super rich and super poor, Brazil is now officially a middle-class majority country, with just 12% poor in its 200 million population. When the protests were looking like Festa Junina in tony areas of big cities, the new middle class just kept away from the protests. "Our life was never better than it is now. I don't want to protest anything. I think the rich people are just creating confusion, to stop all social welfare, " says Marcello Perreira, a taxi driver in Sao Paulo.
The new middle class ignored the rallies but as the "movement" slowly became a magnet for the expression of all frustrations, the poor came out with their own sets of demands. From their shacks on the hills of Rio de Janeiro, they walked to the city centre with placards that demanded the cleaning up of polluted beaches, improvement in public day care facilities, salary raises, and an end to police brutality. This is something new in Brazil. "There were demonstrations even in towns with 20, 000 inhabitants, and in the poor neighborhoods of greater towns. These are the biggest political protests we have witnessed since 1992. Never before we had so many rallies in small towns and neighborhoods, " says Renato Janine Ribeiro, a professor of ethics and philosophy at the University of Sao Paulo. "But it's impossible to say what influence, if any, these protests will have on next year's federal and state elections. "
It may or may not have any impact on the elections, but the protests are already influencing the country's policy. Last Saturday, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff offered new, radical plans to improve the country's public transport, education and healthcare system. On Tuesday, she took her battle to Congress by offering a national referendum on political reform to check the problem of campaign finance and to make corruption a "heinous crime". Later in the day, the controversial bill PEC-37 was rejected by Congress. On Wednesday, when Brazil was playing Uruguay in the Confederations Cup semi-final, members of Congress were discussing the bills that had been pending for years. They have already cancelled their winter vacations next month.
It started with tear gas and pepper spray but may end as major gains for ordinary Brazilians. This country never had a Festa Junina like this.
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