Massive Demonstrations in Brazil

The month of June has been marked in Brazil by a series of massive demonstrations in Brazil’s main cities. At the heart of the protests appears to be discontent with the shoddy level of public services, especially transport, healthcare and education. The people of Brazil pay the highest rates of tax of all developing countries, equivalent to 36% of GDP, and feel that they should be getting far, far more for their money. What formally sparked the first demonstration, which took place in Sao Paolo, was a 6p rise in bus fares. This touched a raw nerve among Brazilian workers, who often have to spend a fifth of their income to pay their fares to struggle to and from work on overcrowded and poorly maintained public transport. What has really stuck in workers’ gullets as they are being stung for a very poor service is the billions that are being spent on building prestigious football stadiums. Fond though they are of football, their rage knows no bounds when confronted with the information that $3.2 billion is being paid for football stadiums in advance of the World Cup being played in Brazil next year, while public transport and public services in general are in a state of disarray. Anger over this issue is almost universal. The Washington Post of 23 June reports:

A new poll said 75 percent of citizens support the demonstrations. Published by the weekly magazine Epoca, the survey was carried out by the respected Ibope institute, which interviewed 1,008 people across the country June 16-20. It had a margin of error of three percentage points “.

Yet the same survey discovered that: ” Despite the overwhelming support for the protests, 69 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their lives and optimistic of the future. The nation has nearly full employment and has seen 40 million people move into its definition of middle class in the past decade (‘Brazil calms after week of mass protests, but discontent still simmering in streets’).

Demonstrations spread like wildfire to every state in the country, with the apex being reached on 20 June when it is calculated that a million people took to the streets.

Needless to say, those participating in the demonstrations included not only people with concerns that they genuinely want to see addressed by the government, but also people who oppose the government precisely because it has been defending workers’ interests more than these people would like, even though, as it turns out, this has not been nearly enough. These people do not want a solution to the problem; they want to establish a right-wing government that will keep the working class in its place – and naturally they leap at every opportunity to exploit genuine grievances against a leftist administration in order to promote their cause. These elements have been responsible for physically assaulting communists and socialists supporting the demonstrations, and for inciting violence to force the state to intervene to suppress it, which it has done using rubber bullets and tear gas. A particular problem faced by the government is that Brazil is currently hosting a Confederations Cup football competition which has brought dozens of foreign football teams into the country as well as thousands of their supporters. Naturally it has a responsibility to protect these guests from violence being directed against them by malign elements.

As far as peaceful protests are concerned, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has stated quite clearly that she thinks they are justified and that in a democratic country people have an absolute right to express their dissatisfaction with the performance of government. The bus fare rises were immediately revoked, and on 21 June, Dilma went on television to announce the measures that she was proposing in order to meet the concerns of the people. She announced that she would call a meeting of governors and prefects of the country’s main cities in order to bring about a grand pact for the improvement of public services.

The focus will be, first, the elaboration of a National Plan for Urban Transport, which will prioritise public transport. Secondly, it will earmark 100% of oil income for education. Thirdly it will immediately bring thousands of doctors from abroad in order to improve health service provisions “, announced Dilma. She also confirmed that she would like to meet with the leaders of peaceful demonstrations, and with workers’ and union leaders.

Dilma stated that she considered it necessary to breathe new life into the “old political system” and to find mechanisms to make institutions more transparent, more resistant to wrongdoing and more open to social influence.

We must make an effort“, she said, ” to ensure that citizens have mechanisms for exercising more stringent control over their representatives. We need far more efficient ways of combating corruption. The Law of Access to Information passed by my government needs to be extended to all the institutions of the republic and its federated states “, she insisted.

As far as the dispute over the World Cup was concerned, President Dilma emphasised the fact that the money invested in building the arenas was provided by loans that will be repaid by the owners or by the businesses which are going to be running the stadiums and were not being paid for out of public money. She asked that the athletes and tourists visiting the country for the Confederations Cup be warmly welcomed, just as Brazilian players are when they compete in other countries.

I would never allow those facilities to be paid for from the public purse, to the detriment of priority sectors such as health and education. In fact we have considerably increased the resources available for health and education. And we are going to increase them still further. I am confident that the National Congress will approve the proposal I am putting forward to the effect that all royalties from the sale of oil should be earmarked for education “, she said.

Most people would seem to be reassured by these government promises. On Saturday 22 June, there were still massive demonstrations, but reduced in number to some 250,000, and since then public indignation has been showing signs of being significantly assuaged. Various tweeters have been trying to fan the flames by describing Rousseff’s promises as meaningless, but the vast majority of people would appear to be willing to give her, and her party, the chance of making good their promises, which are very specific.

Brazil is of course a capitalist country and that being the case no government, whether of the left or of the right, can entirely control its economy which is governed by forces inherent in the capitalist system of production that is anarchic in nature. What a democratic and popular government can do in a country like Brazil is to represent the interests of the national bourgeoisie and the popular masses against imperialism, facilitating greater development of capitalism within its borders and resisting imperialist looting of its resources in order to be able to provide a higher standard of living to its people generally. It can also promote reforms that benefit the popular masses in order to promote national unity against imperialism and internal comprador forces. The governments of Dilma and Lula, her predecessor, have been very successful in those aims. But so long as there is capitalism they cannot prevent capitalists profiteering at the expense of the masses – that is what capitalism is all about – and it cannot reverse the tendency of capital to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The Economist, for example, recognises the achievements of the government, not only in improving the Brazilian economy out of all recognition, but also in doing a great deal to help the poor:

The past decade has seen the most marked sustained rise in living standards in the country’s history… ” and ” economic growth in the past decade has brought the biggest gains to those at the bottom of the heap“.

But Brazil is still suffering the effects of being a capitalist country. For instant there has recently been a spike in inflation, which is starting to eat into the buying power of the great majority of Brazilians who are still getting by on modest incomes, just as a big ramp-up in consumer credit in recent years has left them painfully overstretched. Bus fares have not risen for 30 months (mayors routinely freeze fares in municipal-election years, such as 2012, and in January this year the mayors of Rio and São Paulo agreed to wait until June before hiking in order to help the federal government massage the inflation figures). In fact, the rise in São Paulo’s and Rio’s bus fares comes nowhere close to matching inflation over that 30-month period. But bus fares are under government control, unlike other fast-rising costs such as those for housing and food. Perhaps they were simply chosen as a scapegoat.

“More broadly, the very middle class [this is The Economist‘s term for working class people who aren’t entirely destitute] that Brazil has created in the past decade-40m people have escaped from absolute poverty, but are still only one paycheck from falling back into it…-is developing an entirely new relationship with the government. They see further improvements in their living standards as their right and will fight tooth and nail not to fall back into poverty. And rather than being grateful for the occasional crumb thrown from rich Brazilians’ tables, they are waking up to the fact that they pay taxes and deserve something in return” (H.J. ‘The streets erupt’, 18 June 2013).

The time will come when experience will teach the masses that they need to move beyond an anti-imperialism that continues to accommodate capitalism internally to build a socialist society free of capitalist profiteering and the anarchy of production.