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The Rio Protests: Who, What, Why, and Will They Matter?

- June 28, 2013

This is a guest post by Nicholas Barnes, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation project examines the governance practices of non-state armed actors in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He is currently in Rio carrying out fieldwork with the support of the Drugs, Security and Democracy Fellowship Program, the SSRC-International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.  A longer version of this post is here.


In recent weeks, millions of Brazilians have displayed their frustration and disillusionment with the political system through popular protest. But despite the fact that a majority of Brazilians support the protests, the movement remains fragmented and diffuse. The list of demands and grievances continue to grow and the sporadic violence which has taken place make understanding these protests and predicting their future trajectory extremely difficult. After nearly two weeks, I am left with more questions than answers.

Who are the protesters?

As David Samuels has already pointed out on this blog, the largest protests in the major urban centers have been dominated by an assortment of middle class, educated youth. However, these youth are not the only ones protesting. In the days following last Thursday’s massive outpouring, many smaller protests occurred across the country. Many marginalized populations have added their voices to the growing cacophony. These smaller protests are driven by more local and historical grievances. For instance, in many of Rio de Janeiro’s peripheral neighborhoods and favelas (shantytowns), protests were not organized by middle class youth but by local working class poor who understand better than any other segment of the population the effects of rising transportation costs, non-existent or low-quality schools and health services, and a repressive public security apparatus. Many of these communities have been organizing, advocating, and protesting for such change for decades with little to show for it. Only with the expansion of activism and mobilization to the middle classes in the last several weeks have Brazil’s political elites begun to pay attention. What remains unknown is if these groups are actually part of the same movement, advocating for the same reforms, and if they will be appeased by the same concessions.

What are the demands?

Although these protests began with the 20 cent rise in bus fares, they have come to encompass much more. Some of the most prominent grievances are the corruption of public officials and the poor quality of public services. Instead of improving infrastructure for the health and education systems and providing affordable public transportation, politicians are accused of misusing public funds for their own personal benefit and that of corporations. A prime example is the exorbitant spending on soccer stadiums and other World Cup preparations which have outpaced budgeted expectations. Many of the most violent protests have occurred around the newly constructed and renovated stadiums which are currently hosting the Confederations Cup, a surprising development for a country obsessed with soccer and the World Cup. For more on this, see Diego von Vacano‘s previous post.

Looking more closely at any single issue area within the protest movement, the divisions are obvious. Regarding public transportation, the Free Fare Movement, which began the protests in São Paulo, is advocating for totally free public transportation in Brazilian cities. Other groups are demanding free rides just for students. Some are merely protesting for more affordable bus rates. On Monday, Dilma promised $22 billion to be invested in public transportation in Brazil’s biggest cities which will largely be spent by building more subways and improving infrastructure. Will this be enough to satisfy some of the protesters? It is difficult to know.

What kind of violence is occurring?

The role of violence in these protests cannot be overstated. The size and popularity of the protests themselves is partially a product of the violence which occurred at the first protests nearly two weeks ago. Videos and images of police brutality quickly spread through social media and emboldened a much larger set of protesters last week. Despite the fact that the vast majority of protesters continue to renounce violence, a very small portion of them have been able to provoke some of Brazil’s public security apparatus into violent action. Some individuals wish to engage in vandalism, looting and opportunistic violence for its own sake. There are also some radical protesters who may wish to provoke the government to overreact to further delegitimize the government and spread the protest movement. Both of these groups are present in protests around the country and, although in the extreme minority, have been able to derail otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

For their part, Brazil’s public security institutions have a long history of using violent and repressive tactics against civilians that can be traced back to the military dictatorship (1964-85). However, their responses to protests have varied significantly. Countless protests have concluded without any violence. On the other hand, in last Thursday’s mass protest in Rio de Janeiro with an estimated 300,000 participants, I witnessed the military police and BOPE (a special forces unit trained in urban warfare), send a very clear and heavy-handed message to protesters about public order. As more marginalized groups continue to engage in protests, the public security apparatus’ leeway in dealing with these groups will likely be even greater. For instance, a protest in Complexo da Maré, a large network of favelas in the north of Rio, eventually led to a violent invasion of the community by BOPE forces and a several-hour shootout with local gangs. Thirteen deaths have been officially confirmed. Local residents are outraged and immediately began more protests against such abusive and indiscriminate violence.

What will happen in the short-term?

Since mass protests began, public officials’ responses have been largely conciliatory. The 20 cent rise in bus fares were quickly revoked. A proposed amendment to the constitution which would make investigation of public corruption cases private information and take them out of the hands of the Interior Ministry was voted down. On Monday, President Dilma Rousseff chaired a meeting of all the governors and the mayors of the largest cities in which they agreed to certain reforms regarding public transportation, the health and education systems as well as political corruption. It remains to be seen how adamantly protesters refuse politics as usual and such concessions from public officials. It is likely that the disparate groups within the protest movement will respond differently. My guess is that many of the middle class youth will be quicker to accept concessions and massive protests like we witnessed last week will fade. However, better organized social movements and activist groups have been reinvigorated and have a much longer battle in mind.

What are the possible longer-term impacts?

Overall, these protests are clearly a positive development for democracy in Brazil. There is a real opportunity to change the political culture if a focus on improved public services and greater accountability and transparency from public officials are taken up as the primary demands of a broad spectrum of society. However, violent escalation and a tendency toward fragmentation and polarization at the party level could derail these opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, now that specific promises have been made, the majority of Brazilians that support political reform must hold these politicians and parties accountable in next year’s elections. Finally, the protest movement itself must find itself a leadership and a way to transition toward supporting candidates and parties if they are not to go the way of the Occupy Movement in the United States.