A fellow Mission Intern contacted me on Facebook about the protests that have occurred here over the last few months. She wanted to get my take on them. I had wanted to do a blog post about them so I used our conversation to gather my thoughts. What I thought would only be one small post has quickly expanded into a multipart series entitled, “Brasil is Speaking”. Before reading part III below, be sure to read part I and II.
Personally, I have been very removed from the protests. I have not attended any of them because I have lived or travelled in to many other countries (India, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt) where protests of any sort can turn nasty very quickly. There have been many occasions where I have had to step back and remind myself how Brazil’s protests are different from say those of Egypt or Turkey.
The biggest difference is that the Brazilian protests are expressions of discontent and are not questioning the legitimacy of the government. Occasionally, I have seen or heard people asking for Dilma Rousseff, brazilian president, to step down or be voted out of office. I have not heard people saying that her election was illegitimate or that she was not representing her country’s interests. Indeed, before the protests she enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings of any world leader. I think this is the first time in her term her ratings have dipped below 50%.
Another very important difference is that Brazilian society has divisions but they are not deeply entrenched ethnic or religious divisions. This is what makes India such a tinderbox and part of why the Arab Spring has been such a rocky road. Brazilians have a lot of national pride. They think of themselves as Brazilian before they think of themselves as other things.
I have also struggled with my distrust of the police’s ability to handle protests. In the beginning of the protests the police were rather brutally breaking up the protests. These are the first major protests this country has experienced since the protests against the military dictatorship 30 years ago. The police have little training with protestors. This is why in the first few weeks there were reports of protestors being tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. The protests were dubbed the Vinegar Revolution or the Salad Uprising after they arrested a protestor for carrying vinegar to counteract the effects of tear gas.
My life has largely not been disrupted by the protests. The exception being that I now know what a burning bus looks like. A bus was burned near my community on two separate occasions. (No one was in the buses.) Both times the acts of vandalism protested high bus fares. All of the Brazilians I have talked to are in favor of the protests but not in favor of the vandalism that has occurred (bus burnings, sacking and looting of stores, etc).
Indeed the federal government of Brazil has been making strides to appease people. Dilma has a special interest in pleasing the protestors as she is 15 months away from an election. There was some shuffling so more money would go to education and healthcare, a law to form an agency to investigate government corruption was approved, bus fares have not been increase. The protests seem to be entering a lull as many of the major protest demands are being met.
Even if we have reached the end of major protests, this past month has been an amazing moment in Brazilian history. Brazilians took to the streets to remind the government who holds them accountable. And I think it worked. The government listened and quickly made the changes being demanded. More so, this was a coming of age for Brazilian civil society. It signifies the robustness of civil discourse that has developed in the 30 years after the dictatorship. This is a beautiful thing that, luckily, will not go away with the end of the protests.