Brazil Protests Peaceful, And Not About Bus Fares

Favela among treesIn 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.

Brazil’s Half-Miracle

On all the social media networks, there’s a hashtag that I have kept seeing the last few days: #ChangeBrazil, associated with unrest across Brazil. Since I may be going there soon for the huge FISL open source conference,  I wondered exactly what was going on.  I asked one of my friends in Brazil and she sent me a link to a video to explain it.

That does a pretty good job explaining the current situation; the coverage on the BBC lacked any kind of context. I’ve been to Brazil often, read a few books, even shaken hands with former President Lula, so I’ve a little background to go on.  Certainly visiting Brazil over the last decade I have seen a huge change.

From what I can tell, the bus fares are just the last straw in a problem that has been developing throughout that decade.  The reforms of President Cardoso (the one before Lula) are having the effect he anticipated and Brazil is actually faced with an economic miracle. His basic economic reforms — notably introduction of the Real as Brazil’s currency — led to the building of a middle class that has revived and energised Brazil’s economy. His autobiography is an excellent and readable source on this subject.

But since Cardoso, the Presidents haven’t been able to follow through on Cardoso’s work; it’s only half a miracle. In the two terms of Lula and now of his chosen successor Dilma there is a problem. They failed to fix the systemic corruption inherited from before Cardoso — many say they have participated in it — but they have not realised that more is needed than just creating a middle class. To grasp the depth of the corruption before Cardoso, I recommend Peter Robb’s gripping account of the fall of President Fernando Collor de Mello.

The truth is that a middle class paying high taxes and facing inflation that’s eroding their income expects health care, expects safety, expects fair representation, expects fiscal security, expects all the things the very-rich people expect, in return for their taxes. But instead of delivering those things, Lula and Dilma have focussed on their own popularity and international reputation and neglected the reforms Brazil needs.

Notably, they have spent astonishing amounts of money on the World Cup and the Olympics, while spending little on the hospital system and neglecting taxation reform.   That means that while they show the world the high life, they have left the middle classes who are powering Brazil’s revival to face the life of the poor while paying the taxes of the rich.

The expensive stadium for the World Cup may well be the real last straw, rather than the bus fares that are hitting the headlines; that’s why so many of the protests have the previously unthinkable spectacle of Brazilians booing FIFA and the President at the opening of the new stadium and calling for a boycott of the World Cup. It looks like rank-and-file Brazilians are not going to take it any more.

Their protests have been mostly peaceful, but the heavy-handedness of the police is fanning middle-class disquiet into social angst of a calibre to feed a revolution. Dilma is attempting to spin the situation, but she doesn’t have the almost supernatural charisma of her predecessor that allowed him to tearfully brush-off scandal after scandal and survive association with deeply discredited colleagues who might have expected his loyalty after their “fixing”.

The situation is dire, and the only reason most of us don’t know is the problem is masked by other international issues. Could it be a modern Diretas Já?

☆ Hollow Point

Each time I am told I should unreservedly respect decisions made by authorities in secret, I remember this song by Chris Wood. I always cry when I play it.

[youtube http://youtu.be/tI2YdHt_V7s]

In case you don’t recognise the story, it’s about Jean Charles de Menezes and his killing by British police whose certainty he was an Islamic terrorist overcame their humanity.

Folk music is still our folk memory. Bad laws limiting criticism of official business, restricting mention of trademark terms or preventing adaptation of popular culture will kill it and make us forget.

☝ Investing In Open Source

Does your company use open source software? Do they contribute to it in any way? If not, perhaps you should follow the Brazilian government’s lead.

Read about it on ComputerWorldUK.

☆ Brazil Signs Up To Develop Office Suites

Ripening Coffee BeansAt FISL in Brazil last week, I had the opportunity to speak as the co-presenter in a session about the evolution of OpenOffice.org – I think there will eventually be video of it. As Richard Hillesley observes, the developer community for that codebase was always stifled, and while there are some excellent and experienced developers on working on it, very few have affiliations beyond Sun/Oracle. This will prove to be the biggest issue in “rebooting” development, and I believe the overall OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice community needs to set aside its differences to address it.

During the meeting, I called for developers to start work on the code-base now, regardless of their eventual expectations of which of the two open source projects they will join, so that their skills and their familiarity with the code are developed. Change in the codebase is inevitable, but skills and familiarity gained today will remain valuable. This uniting message was well received by the audience.

Also during the presentation, Jomar Silva announced that he had just met with representatives of the Brazilian government and representatives of both the Apache (Jomar Silva) and TDF  (Olivier Hallot) communities had signed a letter of intent with the government that Brazil should start engaging directly with the office suite they depend on, rather than just consuming the code.

This growth in the developer base seems to me to be exactly the sort of news we all need at the moment, and I’m looking forward to hearing from Olivier and Jomar as the first developers are identified and start work on the LibreOffice Easy Hacks.

✈ Talks In Brazil Next Week

While the journey is a long one, I always enjoy visiting Brazil. Some of my best friends live there, and the whole place infused with a positive energy that’s unique in my experience. So I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at two separate venues next week.

The first is the University of São Paulo, where I will be spending Monday afternoon delivering a seminar called Open Source Concepts and Realities. I’ll explore some of the ideas you’ll find on my essays page, as well as hopefully engage in discussion with other attendees.

The second is one of the world’s longest-running – and largest – Free Software conferences, FISL. Held in the far south of Brazil in Porto Alegre (which means the mid-winter weather may prove a little colder than the name “Brazil” usually evokes), it is attended by a wide range of delegates from business, education and government. I’m speaking twice; on Wednesday at 9am, explaining the restructuring the OSI Board envisages for OSI, and on Friday at 11am delivering my keynote explaining why “Software Freedom Means Business Value”. I also expect to attend the meetups for LibreOffice (Friday at 1pm) and for people considering the Apache OpenOffice project.

If you’ll be at FISL in Porto Alegre, I’d love to see you – I already know that many old friends are there too. Please use my contact form if you want to arrange a meeting.

✈ Campus Party

I just got home from a week in Brazil, where I gave talks for IBM and for a large ForgeRock customer and also at the remarkable Campus Party. This is the second year I have spoken at Campus Party in Brazil and once again it was an interesting and overwhelming experience.

Campus Party started in 1997 as a LAN party in Spain (where people bring along their computers to connect to a massive network and play computer games) but has spread across the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world to become a global activity. The event in Brazil is held in a huge exhibition centre. Delegates pay to attend, then live on-site for the week, camping in pop-up tents inside the exhibition centre.

That was the source of one of the off-the-wall activities I participated in. Every delegate received a bath-robe from one of the sponsors, and near the end there was a bid to establish the Guinness world record for the largest crowd wearing bath-robes. Only a fraction of the Campuseiros participated, and there was still a dense crowd exceeding 1,500 people. Check the video:

The noise in the place is phenomenal and draining. There’s no daylight inside, just 24-hour activity. To get a flavour of the energy and variety, take a look at the Fickr photos. It’s now far more than a LAN party for two big reasons:

  • First, people are there for far more reasons. There is a Software Freedom camp (who were the hosts for my talk), a PC case-mod tournament, a group meeting to attack the digital divide, install-fests, live and electronic music – every aspect of the connected society as experienced by the 18-30 age group at which the event is targeted.
  • Second, there’s also conference content – and lots of it. Speakers this time included Al Gore, Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Wozniak – and those are just the English-speakers. There were government panels, star speakers and novel content of every shade and colour.

The most striking difference takes a while to dawn on you, though. Usually at a conference there’s a theme – a programming platform, a social issue, a research thread. But not here. Unlike any other event I have ever been to, there is no single theme bringing everyone together, apart from the uniting motif of being a young adult in the 21st century. What’s brought people together is the Internet and the future. That has to be the ultimate post-post-modern un-conference possible.

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