‘Praiseworthy’ protesters take to Brazil streets
Brazilian leaders have been taken by surprise by a wave of protests sweeping through the country. The people are angry – but the President, Dilma Rousseff, says she is proud of them.
The protests that have swept through Brazil’s cities this week took everyone by surprise. Out of nowhere, the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, and São Paulo were hit by a wave of unrest. Thousands took to the streets to vent their anger against the government. Violence festered at the fringes: policemen were attacked; a car was set alight. The cause? A six penny increase in the price of a São Paulo bus ticket.
This makes more sense that it might seem. São Paulo is one of the most congested cities on Earth. Brazil’s wealthy few – millionaires profiting from the country’s recent economic boom – soar overhead in private helicopters. Far below, ordinary workers sweat in overcrowded buses for hours to get to low-paying jobs. In recent years, they have seen their modest salaries eaten up by the rising prices of every goods. For São Paulo’s stretched citizens, those extra six pennies were the final straw.
But the bus fare protests did not spread straightaway. Until last week, this was just a local dispute. Then, the city mayor decided to launch a crackdown. The next day, newspapers were full of pictures of protesters getting tear-gassed; of men and women beaten by police batons; of students with flowers facing soldiers with guns. Soon, practically the entire Brazilian middle class was up in arms.
The protester’s complaints are varied and numerous. They are angry with corrupt officials; tired of public services that do not work; of grand promises never delivered. They see millions of dollars being spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host, while millions of people still go hungry in the street.
Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, now faces a nation’s fury. Thousands of the protesters want her to step down. But Rousseff, a former communist guerrilla, has not responded in the way many might have expected. Instead of suppressing the marches, she has declared herself to be proud of the protests. ‘Brazil,’ she said, ‘has woken up a stronger country.’
Protest too much
These protests have already caused injuries, damaged property, paralysed the economy, hurt Brazil’s international standing and cost the country millions of dollars. They could end Rousseff’s presidency. She must be mad, cynics will say, if she thinks this wave of anger can possibly be a good thing.
In fact, special police have already been dispatched to restore order in the big cities. But amid the chaos, optimists like the President see the anger of a newly assertive middle class – millions of Brazilians who are willing to demand their rights and confident they can make their government listen. It may be messy, but this, perhaps, is what it looks like when a democracy comes of age.
- What is more powerful: a protest banner or a vote?
- Should protesters be allowed to march whenever and wherever they like? If not, what ought police do to stop them?
- The best protest banners are funny and memorable. In groups or on your own, try to think of some good banners. The cause can be anything you like.
- National leaders faced with protests must decide whether to allow marches to continue or to attempt to crack down. List as many as you can of the arguments for and against each course of action.
Some People Say...
“Most protesters just do it because they like being angry.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I hope this is not going to interfere with the World Cup.
- The Cup should be fine – but the situation in Brazil matters for much more than football. This is a country of 200 million people, the largest in South America by population, area and GDP. It is one of the next generation of great world powers.
- But it isn’t a great world power yet?
- I suppose not. What it is, however, is one of a growing number of countries in which outbreaks of disorder have appeared as if out of nowhere. The same thing is happening right now in Turkey. Two years ago something similar happened in London.
- Odd that Brazil and Turkey should go at the same time!
- Protests often coincide around the world. One theory: protests mainly happen when the weather is nice. No one likes marching in the rain!
- Like other relatively young countries, Brazil has a capital that is not even close to being its largest city. Brasília, where the government is based, has a population of 2.5 million. Rio de Janeiro has six million and São Paulo has eleven.
- Final straw
- This expression comes from a traditional Arabic story about a camel being loaded with goods. The poor animal is straining at the very limit of its capacity, when suddenly a single straw, blown by the wind, lands on its back. The overloaded camel collapses.
- Getting tear-gassed
- One strategy to counteract the effects of tear gas is to wash yourself with vinegar. Some protesters are so vinegary that they are calling the protests a ‘salad revolution’.
- ‘Guerilla’ is a spanish diminutive for ‘guerra’, meaning ‘war’. A guerilla, traditionally, is someone who fights the ‘little war’, hiding in forests and mountains rather than facing the enemy on the battlefield.
- Comes of age
- Brazil is a young democracy. It gained independence from Portugal in 1822, but did not become a democracy until the end of military rule in 1985.