“We are not complaining about 20 cents, we complain about our stolen rights.”
What began as local protests against an increase in public transportation costs has grown–under the impact of vicious police attacks using tear gas, rubber bullets and batons–into massive protests in dozens of Brazilian cities with hundreds of thousands in the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the largest demonstrations since protests against military rule in the 1980s. As we go to press, some 300,000 people took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro and hundreds of thousands more flooded other cities.
A “Free Fare Movement” that had organized against fare increases has now taken root across the country with demands and questions about Brazilian society and, in particular, about the ruling Workers Party government: Why will some $26 billion of public money be spent on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, while spending on housing, health care and education is frightfully lacking? Why did politicians arrogantly dismiss the protests, refusing to consider rolling back the fare increase until almost two weeks of protests overwhelmed them? Why do teachers have barely livable salaries while the politicians draw tens of thousands each month on top of wholesale corruption?
While a small increase in bus fare seemed like an unlikely spark for the protest, in truth the millions of paulistanos who earn minimum wage end up putting out some 25% of their monthly salary on a couple of bus rides a day, traveling two or more hours to work and back, on overcrowded, inefficient buses.
While unemployment is low in comparison to other South American countries, the inequality of life and labor is huge. Millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty in recent times, due to Brazil’s galloping capitalist development managed by the Workers Party (WP) leadership, but the reality of poverty and racism remains. Thus, Brazil has a huge number of domestic workers–6.5 million. Some 60% are Black and 90% are female. They get very few benefits, work unlimited hours and can be fired on a whim, though a recent law promises improvements if it is enforced.
A decade of Workers Party rule, first under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and now under Dilma Rousseff, has yielded contradictory results: lifting millions out of extreme poverty through anti-poverty programs, but leaving the capitalist structure completely intact. Far from instituting a socialist program, the WP has sought to and often succeeded in co-opting the powerful social movements that brought it to power. The question of the moment is whether this new stage of mass protest will signal a revival of social movements independent of the “progressive” government, and thus open a pathway of social transformation from below.
June 20, 2013