Protests End but Challenges Remain

Ok, it may be a bit premature to declare the end of Brazil’s protest movement.  After all, we’re still on the count down clock to the World Cup and then the Olympics.  With Brazil on the world stage for a short time, many undoubtedly will want to take advantage of the spotlight.

The protests of the past 10 days have been very healthy overall and a tonic for Brazilian society.  The last time we had something on this scale was in 1992 with the impeachment of Fernando Collor.  Before that, protesters were calling for “Diretas Ja” (direct elections) in 1985.  And, before that, you had to go all the way back to the 60’s and the military dictatorship when there were student-led demonstrations in defense of Jango (President Joao Goulart – Brazil’s civilian president) and the conservative counter-movement in defense of tradition, family and property, and ultimately in support of the authoritarian military solution that only ended in 1985, partially because of public protests.

In the the 1970’s and 1980’s, the objectives of protesters were  easier to identify.  Military generals were in uniform and wearing dark sunglasses.  There was censorship, arbitrary acts and political arrests on the part of the military sometimes followed by torture.  Direct elections and a constituent assembly were the immediate goals of protesters on the path toward democracy.

Almost 20 years after the end of military governments, Brazil is still under construction or as the protesters have stated on their placards: “Please excuse the noise, but we are building our country.”  Indeed, civic movements, public pressure and a renewed interest in power (politics) contribute to the institutional building process.  This is a  slow process. Those impatient have to recognize that things take time, especially given Brazil’s political history and heritage.

The protests will come and go.  They will slow down now as the Confederations Cup comes to an end and as those in the streets see that their message has been delivered.  The diffuse nature of the movement also contributes to the sporadic nature of the protests.

It has been great to see so many groups demanding recognition and change. However, there is a tendency, especially on the part of the press, toward (mis)characterization of the movement by emphasizing the more sensational.  Certainly, the Parade of Sluts (Desfile das Vadias) provokes a certain prurient interest. But that is probably not the lasting thrust of the movement.  Perhaps the groups protesting against the homophobic president of the Congressional Human Rights Commission are more spot on.

Brazilians love to joke and increasingly the “passeatas” are becoming the target of cartoonists and humorists.  This is also fine but indicates to me that the movement is being taken down a peg in terms of “seriously” contesting the regime.

Civic participation in Brazil is more active now.  However, polling and analysis of the protesters shows they are wealthier and better educated than average Brazilians.  This, in turn, shows that mass participation is probably more sporadic than many want to admit.  Moreover, political fissures between the left, right and within left and right are becoming more and more visible.  There are a lot of people out there calling for things such as the closure of Congress and the revocation of Congressional terms.  These people seemingly fail to recognize the role of parties and the validity of elections in the democratic process.  When people step back and soberly evaluate, the limited nature of street protests becomes more apparent.

All in all, the protests will ebb and flow more in reaction to immediate events.  They will likely slow now and reemerge as next year’s Cup approaches.

Games, Fun and Excitement (protests) in Brazil

Well, the first round of Confederation Cup games has successfully concluded and to the amazement of many, things came off pretty well.  Brazil soundly defeated a tired Japan team 3 x 0 in Brasilia.  Dilma was roundly booed, as were the other “authorities”.  Rio got to see Italy push past Mexico fairly convincingly at 2 x1 with a full Maracana.  Spain defeated Uruguay 2 x 0 and showed why it is ranked number 1 and will be a very serious contender for the title next year.  The game in Recife had a minor glitch after the keys to one of the arenas were lost.  Finally, Tahiti debuted with its first goal on the big stage of international competition but the Nigerians prevailed 6 x 1 in Belo Horizonte.  All in all, the stadiums pretty much functioned as expected but there were some glitches like the 3G not working in Brasilia.

Outside the stadiums, the picture has been a bit different.  Sao Paulo attempted to raise bus fares by about 10 U.S. cents. Fare hikes usually draw attention. But now there have been large and, at times, violent conflicts.  Sao Paulo has been the epicenter, but the protests have spread to other Brazilian cities, including Rio, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and Salvador.

There is a small organized group calling for free public transportation and most people see this as fairly romantic and unrealistic. But the movement has been a catalyst for more generalized discontent.  Everyone sees the soccer tournaments as a world stage with lots of media potential.  Brazil’s government also continues to suffer from a lack of legitimacy, even now 25 years after the end of the military dictatorship.  This discontent hangs around in spite of regular elections and is driven by the perceived lack of responsiveness of the political class to the “real needs” of the “people”.

Young people, students, and some politicians are taking up the banner that the World Cup is wasteful and that Brazil has other priorities.  Indeed, protests that began over bus fare hikes have grown to include striking teachers, policemen, and other public servants who are unhappy over poor salaries and awful working conditions.

More diffusely, there is general unrest due to all of Brazil’s well-known weaknesses, including too much corruption. The high cost of living and prices increasing even more during international soccer events in Brazil, including the high costs of tickets to the games, have cast a spotlight on inequality in Brazil.

Add to this the shortage of good roads and schools, the lack of doctors and health-care professionals, paltry pensions for private-sector employees, and a minority of overpaid and underworked high-profile public sector executives (known as ‘Marajas’ in Brazil), and the list seems nearly endless.

The attempted bus fare raise coalesced this diffuse malaise with the aid of social media and even the regular media which cannot afford not to publish the sensationalist pictures of instances of police brutality and depredations (some caused by protestors but some caused by the very forces which are suppose to be protecting public order).

The question everyone is raising, including high-ranking government officials,  is where all of this is headed.  President Dilma, wisely said today that peaceful protests are legitimate.  So far the workers unions, largely allied to the state and the PT, have not joined the protests.  (How much they might benefit is unclear as workers in the formal sector have “vale transporte” or free subsidized use of bus service already).  So without more massive popular support and without union resources, the federal government can push the problem back on to the state and municipal authorities who are in charge of local services.

Right now, the movement is too diffuse and there is no clear leadership and the goals are not well articulated.  There are no generals to overthrow.  There is only a popularly elected leftist civilian government which only partially can deliver the demands of protestors and others in Brazil.  The Confederations Cup, World Cup and Olympics may seem like bread and circus, especially to the traditional middle class, but most people are proud that Brazil has the events and are willing to put up with the accompanying waste and the ongoing opportunities for illicit gain.

Until Brazil’s political culture evolves to a much higher level of maturity, it is unlikely that the current protests will have much impact and little will remain after the tear gas has cleared, except the very slow process of institution building.

So if you are going to the games, plan around the protests.  If you are out protesting, be prepared to run from the police, their batons, smoke bombs and tear gas.  If you are part of the police force, please don’t kill anyone and that goes for the protesters as well. There may be groups out there seeking to create a martyr.  I hope Brazil is beyond that, but you never know.

When it rains, it pours….Bad news in Brazil….

This has been a complicated week for Brazil:

Neymar was sold to Barcelona, the Selecao tied England at home, at Maracana 2×2, the economy continues to be on the skids and, I suppose, the bad of the bad: President Dilma had to cozy up with VP Joe Biden.

Topic by topic:

Maracana was made available only at the last minute when a judge’s order had to be overturned so that the unfinished stadium could be released for safe use by spectators.  The game was fun and complaints about the lack of completion were pretty much taken in stride.  Even FIFA had to acquiesce and accept the fact Brazil will have substantial completion of stadiums and infra-structure on its own terms.  By the way, I think a lot of people are hoping to make money with the World Cup but, of course, all of the major tasks have been pretty much allocated.

On to the economy, where Brazil has reversed its interest rate cuts with two quick increases and the SELIC is back to 8% (still historically low by Brazilian standards).  The measures were taken by the Central Bank and with Dilma’s apparent blessing as the polls show her numbers declining as inflation goes up.  Certainly, inflation has been outside the acceptable band and may now come down again to the target range.

The problem is the effect on consumers and producers.  With the cost of money rising, will people continue to consume and will industry recover?  So far the signs are not good.  The weaker real though may help increase some manufactured products on the export market but the Real is at 2.1 and still significantly overvalued.  Brazil’s trade surplus is declining to historic low levels and may even turn into a deficit.  Brazil’s Central Bank predicts GNP will show another decline with growth tagged at 2.9% or less for 2013.  Personally, I think it is going to be less.

Slow growth had to complimented by Joe Biden’s smile (a bit amarelo) as he made the now obligatory visit to the favela and finally brought Obama’s personal invitation to Dilma to the state dinner.  She barely made it in before Putin. I suppose Brazil does still have a better reputation than Russia.

Biden spouted off typical platitudes and hyperbole, saying that trade between Brazil and the US could reach 400 to 500 billion in a couple of years.  Good luck. Brazil has potential (eternal potential) but it only traded a little more than 60 billion with the US last year and the US is still protectionist in the agricultural world, the one area where Brazil has shown brightly in the last couple of years in spite of all the infra-structure problems and custo Brasil.

Biden’s security in the favelas looked worried as did the Brazilian special forces.  Not sure that is a normal or good sign.  Security in Brazil and specifically “na Cidade Maravilhosa” (read: Rio de Janeiro) remains a big concern and the international papers will pick on this issue any time an American woman get raped or a German tourist gets shot as we recently saw.

I don’t want to end on a bad or pessimistic note.  Actually, the clouds perhaps presage a bright future and the Confederations Cup will be a great success as Brazil gradually makes progress in its own way and at its own pace.  Things really are much better than they were during the military governments (1964-1985).  We have a vibrant democracy, a generally free press, economic growth (slow and retarded) and slowly decreasing inequality.