Maurício Santoro, human rights advisor at Amnesty International Brazil speaks on the on-going protests in his country and what they mean for civil society.
1) Many are connecting the protests in Brazil to the protests in Turkey. Your thoughts?
There is a direct link. When the Brazilian demonstrations began, the activists in São Paulo were shouting: "Turkey is here". Besides that, there any many similarities, both countries are democracies, with leaders who enjoy high rates of popularity at polls and they are not in economic crises - in contrast with the United States or the European Union. Even so, president Dilma Rosseff and prime minister Recep Erdogan are facing huge demonstrations in the major cities of their nations.
Another common point is the brutal police repression to the demonstrations - but in Brazil it was conducted by state governments, both by allies of the federal administrations (Rio de Janeiro) and in opposition to it (São Paulo). In Turkey and Brazil the violence targeted not only the activists, but also journalists covering the protests. And the repression led to an increased level of mobilisation, because people realised that their freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly was under threat by the government.
Last, but not least, the demonstrations in both countries highlight the arrival of a new political generation, 20-30 years, the first one born and raised in democracy in Brazil and Turkey. They have more education and access to information, higher income and broader expectations than their parents. They are also less afraid of state repression, since they never lived under dictatorships.
2) What are the drivers of the protests? Were they spontaneous or do they reflect deeper rooted issues?
As in Turkey the spark in Brazil was a local issue: a small increase of US$0.10 in the bus fare. The public transportation system in the country (usually bus, sometimes train or subway) is expensive and awful: slow, crowded, dangerous. There are many accidents, including fatal ones, and many crimes inside the vehicles - even gang rapes.
A person who earns a minimum wage in Brazil spends at least 25% of his or her salary on bus tickets. It is usually the third major expense of the families, after housing and food. So, even a small increase has a very bad impact, especially in the context of quite high inflation (about 5%, 6%) in the last years.
However, transportation was just the spark. After the initial brutal police repression the demonstrations grew very quickly. Brazilian police are very violent, but usually this behaviour affects only poor people, and the middle class was shocked when she was the victim of this kind of attack.
In a few days, the demonstrations became a catalyst for several reasons of anger and social unrest: the lack of representation of the political system, many corruption scandals, hostility towards the political parties, and resentment with the authoritarian way that the World Cup and the Olympics are being organised. The protests now include people from a broad political spectrum, and there are some controversies among them about which issues are the priority.
The first demonstrations were organised by the Movement for the Free Bus Ticket (Movimento Passe Livre), a students´ group. But after the first days, the protests grew beyond anybody´s control. Social media has been very important to arrange the meetings and to spread the news about them, to criticise police violence or the other actions of the government.
3) How has the Brazilian government responded to the protests?
The first reaction of the state authorities in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro was try to criminalise the protests, and to say that the activists were "vandals", because there were some incidents of destruction of property. The mayor of São Paulo, a Workers´ Party member who was Lula´s minister of Education, followed that line in the beginning, but then changed his mind and began to negotiate.
There are some curious details: The mayor and governor of São Paulo were in Paris and did not go back to Brazil for many days, even after the protests were harshly repressed. The lieutenant governor of São Paulo was in charge of the police. He is a member of an opposition party, and at the same time, Dilma´s minister for small business companies - this double job is highly controversial. All these things reinforced the general feeling among Brazilians that political parties are deprived of coherent programs and that they lack accountability and are far away from the basic needs of the people.
Dilma took several days to speak about the demonstrations. When she did so, she praised the protests and highlighted the importance of political activism to democracy. But she also complimented everyone: her own government, her allies, and the police. Her powerful secretary-general of the President said that the authorities need to understand this new kind of demonstration. It was the most sincere statement from a Brazilian politician so far. The minister of Sports said that it doesn´t matter what is going on, the World Cup will happen in Brazil in 2014. The politicians are afraid of the people. This is always good news in a democracy.
4) How can regional and international civil society offer support and solidarity to the protesters ?
Social media has been a crucial tool for activists at least since the Arab Spring, and messages of international support are welcome by them. It is also important that NGOs and social movement put pressure on the different levels of the Brazilian governments, telling them that the police violence against the demonstrations is not acceptable. There are high expectations in Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics, and international public opinion is more important than ever.
Mauricio holds a PhD in Political Science and teaches at several Brazilian universities. He is the author of the book "Ditaduras Contemporâneas" (Editora da Fundação Getúlio Vargas).
Photo courtesy of Semilla Luz via foter.com