July 2013        


Getting a handle on events in Brazil

It’s difficult from a left standpoint to get a handle on happenings in Brazil, especially if one is relying on reports in the mass media. It is strange to see well-heeled students leading some of the marches, when traditionally this has been the area of right-wing reaction in South America—stranger still to hear reports of leftist marchers being ejected from some of the demonstrations; but there has been a campaign by groups from the right to hijack the marches for their own agenda.
     This agenda is the complete removal of the present left-leaning government of Dilma Rousseff. It seems that the attacks on left-wing demonstrators have come from these right-wing groups and not from the main body of marchers. The Brazilian mass media, which are mainly right-wing, have also been encouraging disenchantment with Rousseff’s government.
     For some time now Brazil has been the poster-hero of the Western media. Normally this is a guarantee that a country is not looking after the interests of the poorer and weaker sections of its society. Over the last ten years Brazil’s growing middle class have been enjoying increased incomes. President Rousseff has also expanded the family allowance scheme of her predecessor, Lula da Silva, whereby poor families receive a stipend in exchange for vaccinating their children and sending them to school.
     The initiative has played a leading part in reducing the poverty rate in Brazil by 40 per cent and cutting extreme poverty by 52 per cent since 2003 (according to the World Bank). President Rousseff has also taken measures to face the urgent housing crisis, which strongly affects urban centres, through the “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” scheme (“My House, My Life”). This scheme helps with the financing of popular housing.
     Another of Lula’s policies that is being continued is the “pro-uni” (pro-university), in which low-income students receive scholarships for university, with the aim of providing the country with more skilled workers.
     Economics under President Rousseff, however, have moved nearer to the neo-liberal model, with privatisations in many areas, such as roads, ports, and airports. A result of this has been a deterioration in public services, a poor health system, and costly and poor-quality transport.
     An interesting parallel with Ireland and Britain is that most of the people on the street cannot afford to go to football matches in the brand-new stadiums that have been built for the coming World Cup final in 2014. These arenas have been built with public money, and yet the ordinary Brazilian cannot afford to attend events at them. (Shades of Lansdowne Road!) The total cost for the new Olympic and World Cup buildings has been put at the same amount as Brazil’s national education budget. Worse still, 170,000 families have had to leave their homes to make way for the new sports venues.
     There are quite legitimate demands from the street for an end to corruption and a withdrawal of proposed legislation that would give parliamentarians immunity from charges of corruption. Other legitimate complaints include the high level of income inequality and inadequate infrastructure in fast-growing cities and towns. The demand for improvements in health and education cannot be ignored. The fare increases seem to have been the spark; but, apart from some right-wing elements, there doesn’t seem to be any call for the overthrow of the government.
     Is there a Venezuela effect at work in Brazil? Many of the measures quickly passed through the legislature since the upheaval have been around for a couple of years, awaiting debate. People on the street will have seen how Venezuela moved quickly, and successfully, to bring health and education facilities to most of its people and to use its oil revenue for social investment. Venezuela’s shift towards a participative democracy may also have inspired the marchers.
     President Rousseff has now conceded many of the demonstrators’ demands, and called for a national compromise to improve public services, by investing 100 per cent of oil revenue in education and health. The proposed fare increases have also been rescinded. Perhaps she should have instituted these measures before they were forced on her by the people in the street.
     Another possibility is that these marches may strengthen her hand in dealing with a parliament that is slow or reluctant to institute reform. She has already proposed a pact involving governors, mayors, parties, and leaders of the social movement. This pact, according to her, offers a concrete response to the claims from the streets. In contrast to what the right wing intends, her government may leave this process even stronger than before.
     The heavy-handed response of the military police has not helped; but one must remember that many of the police forces and armies in Latin America have been trained in the School of the Americas in the United States. They were taught how to repress, torture and finally tame their own citizens. Whether the Brazilian military police received such training or not, it has been the model copied by most Latin American police forces and armies. From the television pictures it would seem the Brazilian police are familiar with these tactics.
     There’s a tendency in our part of the world to see demonstrations and strikes in our own countries in a negative way. This is a view cultivated by the media owned by the ruling classes. They fear the possibility of revolution at home, but if the marches are in another part of the world and it suits their agenda—well, that’s a different matter.
     Demonstrations and marches can also be the sign of a stable and functioning democracy, particularly in Latin America, where until recently they were not tolerated. Brazilians are only too well aware that student demonstrations in 1968 were brutally put down by the military. The country had been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1964. This dictatorship came to power in a coup against the left-wing president João Goulart and ruled Brazil up to 1985. Needless to say, the United States gave support to this coup, but Brazilians (except some on the hard right) do not wish to see those days return.

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