Credit: Creative Commons.

In response to weeks of protests that have attracted at least one million people across dozens of Brazilian cities, and to solidarity protests around the world, President Dilma Rousseff announced concessions to protestors’ demands last week: a one time investment of $25 billion for public transit, tougher penalties for those charged with corruption, and a national referendum on constitutional reform.

While the legally binding referendum was soon replaced by a non-binding popular plebiscite, due to allegations that the former encroached on the checks and balances among branches of government, all of these concessions represent a symbolic victory for the still nascent social movement. Moreover, the president’s proposal diverts attention from herself as the target decision-maker and redirects it toward the divided Congress.

This victory may legitimize the efforts of protestors, and even temporarily invigorate them, but their pressure will be most needed when Congress takes up its own response to the public outcry. At that moment, escalated disruptive tactics, such as strikes, will be key if protestors hope to prevent reforms from being delayed and diluted.

“It’s not about the national team. It’s about corruption.”

According to the Associated Free Press, 1.2 million people took to the streets across Brazil on June 20th alone. For most observers, the catalysts to the events concentrate on a public transit fee hike in São Paolo and the costs the country will incur from hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.

Indeed, the public will pay for roughly 91 percent of the World Cup’s estimated cost of $13.5 billion. As far as the Olympics in Rio, Brazilian taxpayers will outspend the estimated $15 billion spent by their British counterparts during the London 2012 games.

One stadium alone, the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, cost 1.5 billion reais (almost $700,000). Although the stadium can seat 71,000, it is unlikely these seats will be filled after the World Cup – as the newspaper Valor Economico reports, less than a total of 50,000 people have attended 57 matches held this year in the area.

Moreover, research on previous World Cups and Olympics has shown that they have a negligible impact on the country’s economic development. Even if these events do increase the short-term revenues of the well-to-do tourism industry (an assumption in question, based on negative evidence from the Olympics in London and China), the greatest longterm impact is a loss for the majority, rather than a gain from their investment.

As summarized by Brazilian filmmaker Carla Dauden in a video she uploaded when the protests were barely starting: “Now tell me, in a country where illiteracy can reach 21 percent, a country that ranks 85th in the human development index, a country where 13 million people are underfed every day, and many, many others die every day due to lack of medical treatment, does that country need more stadiums?”

Credit: Creative Commons.

While this cycle of protest has taken aim at the disparity between exorbitant investments on World Cup renovations versus the dilapidation of basic public services, the grievances that have emerged from the streets have ranged from widespread corruption and police brutality to low investment in social services, such as health care, education, transportation, and housing. Seizing the moment, the country’s five dominant labor unions have called for a strike on July 11 for better wages, shorter workdays, and greater pensions.

Mainstream media have focused on the visible problem, the games, mainly because they are not intended to address the abstract. However, the popular discontent is not about the tournament, but deep-seated social problems. As protestors’ sign sums it up, “Não é contra a seleção – é contra a corrupção! (It’s not against the national team, it’s against corruption!)”

At the heart of the issue is the government’s broader pursuit of the neoliberal development model. Additional issues that stem from this include, for example, the government’s plan to subsidize hundreds of hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon, at the cost of environmental insecurity and human rights violations against those living in targeted areas. Similarly, the government continues exploring more sites for off-shore drilling and clearing rainforests to support the ethanol biofuel industry.

These are among the hundreds of social, economic, and environmental issues that have been the foci of Brazilian movements for decades; now, they have created the opportunity to converge and, through political and economic disruption, destabilize this aspiring superpower.

Brazil today is an influential producer, but also a huge consumer market; price fluctuations here can have macro-economic consequences. Uncertainty for investors and even to spiraling inflation may result, which will force governments in consumer nations to pressure Brazilian politicians to solve the crisis. Within the context of the double-set of games coming up in 2014 and 2016, Brazil will take center stage in the global arena, further raising its vulnerability. In other words, Brazilian protestors can really shake the power structure, and indeed they already have.

The President’s Response

A crucial piece of the puzzle that has been ignored in most mainstream accounts of the current protests is the president’s activist past. Dilma Rousseff was raised in an uppermiddle class family from Belo Horizonte. In her youth, she joined a Marxist guerilla to fight against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In 1970 she was captured and jailed for two years, during which she joined the hundreds of thousands of Latin American leftists tortured by their governments during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Her career in government is less easily romanticized. As Minister of Energy in President “Lula” da Silva’s cabinet, Rousseff streamlined the controversial Belo Monte dam project, even though there was a court injunction that prohibited government preparations for it, as well as claims of unconstitutionality and violations of international standards. In 2010, when Lula left office with the highest approval rating in the country’s history, Rousseff, by then his Chief of Staff and chosen successor, was handily voted into office.

Credit: Creative Commons.

Until recently, Rousseff enjoyed all the popularity necessary to expect her re-election next year. But the political landscape has rapidly changed over the past three weeks; therefore, this former activist’s response could affect the prospects of her presidency as well as the potential for broader social change.

Her broad-stroke reply to the protests is a particularly astute move on several levels. It could either strengthen the grassroots movement – by providing it with both legitimacy and further space to institute its demands – or co-opt it in her favor.

For movement organizers, a popular plebiscite would represent a major success, even if a short-term one. Far from the passage and enforcement of meaningful reforms, the president’s recognition of their efforts has granted activists a symbolic strength that should not be understated. From this perspective, the president is serving the role of an “elite ally” – a key target in power whose interest may overlap with those of the social movement.

On the other hand, this political maneuver – it also helps to divert attention towards the Congress. Rousseff will have to submit the plebiscite to both chambers of the legislature, where more than two-dozen parties are almost evenly split between opposing coalitions. Lawmakers have promised to put the plebiscite out to the public before the election next year.

Prospects for Change

Like other left-wing parties in Latin America, Rousseff’s Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) has embraced the goals of macroeconomic development as dictated by the international political economy.

As more presidents of different stripes defend the privatization, diversion, and extraction of resources, groups and movements are raising concerns about alarming inattention basic public needs such as health and education, and the negative prospects this model presents for environmental conservation, indigenous peoples, and human rights.

The potential of these social forces is playing itself out in Brazil today. As we have learned from recent movements, from the Middle East to Wisconsin and Occupy, pressure can dissipate – but can be most necessary – precisely when politicians begin to formulate their responses. For real change to materialize in our increasingly interconnected societies, those within and those watching from the sidelines must do whatever we can to enlist our support in this and future struggles for social justice.

Michael S. Wilson is a doctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His areas of specialty are resource conflicts and social movement strategies in Latin America. You can reach him at

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