In preparation for FISL (where I hope to be speaking next week), I have been continuing to try to understand the protests in Brazil, which are now regularly bringing crowds the size of a European town onto the streets. They aren’t really about “bus fares” — and as far as I have been told are free of violence by the protesters apart from a statistically insignificant number of them. With so many people on the streets, there are bound to be a few disorderly encounters; to focus on them is try to distract from the real issues.
The real issues every Brazilian friend I have spoken to cares about relate to a sequence of governments failing to address structural issues and widespread corruption, and even perhaps joining in. The protesters are people just like you and me, who just won’t take it any more and are peacefully but loudly saying so.
So an example, shared with me by a dear friend: In this Guardian article, they mention PEC 37, a proposed constitutional amendment that would stop federal prosecutors being allowed to perform any investigation apart from what the police tell them. Given the police are widely mistrusted, this is seen as an attempt to pull a curtain across the corruption at the heart of state and federal government, rather than to expose it to daylight.
The protests are attracting 6 and 7 figure crowds because everyone knows about this corruption problem. It’s why the health service doesn’t get fixed; it’s why the World Cup stadium in Rio was so expensive; it’s why taxes for ordinary people are so unfair; it’s why justice is slow and beyond the reach of many. All of those issues are symbolic for a section of the protestors, but the protest is not about them; it’s about the failure of Lula, and Dilma after him, to reform the administration of Brazil.
The bus fare rise was a symbolic last straw. After spending an unimaginable amount of money on a stadium Rio (and all the other cities where one has been built) doesn’t need, bus services are so badly funded that the only way to keep the (very bad) buses on the road is to raise fares. Every Brazilian can see the bitter irony that the state can afford the World Cup but not properly-funded bus services so many need to live.
The President has said she’ll stop fare rises and bring in doctors to help in hospitals. But every Brazilian I have spoken with understands that’s treating the symptoms and not the disease. The problem is not the bus fares; it’s the lack of investment in infrastructure. The problem is not a shortage of doctors; Brazil has many excellent and dedicated doctors who are paid too little. It’s that hospitals are under-resourced to the point that the treatment is inadequate. Bringing in more medical staff from Cuba will just mean there are more people struggling to make an inadequately-resourced hospital fail less.
What’s needed is a root-and-branch clean-up of the political system so that the people can get the society they know Brazil — with its oil and other natural resources as well as it’s half-miracle of a newly-vibrant middle class economy — can afford. I’ve no idea who advised her to make a speech that, to ordinary Brazilians, was as insulting as it was shallow. But she needs to get back to her roots and listen to the people if she doesn’t want to find herself impeached. It’s happened before.