Last night over a million people took to the streets in over a hundred cities in Brazil in the latest in a series of protests that shows no signs of abating
It all started when the council in São Paulo, who operated the buses, decided to to increase the bus fare by 7p. What followed is a perfect illustration of the the metaphor: ‘the straw that broke the camels back’.
No doubt the images of the Arab Spring and the discontent in Greece, Spain and the rest of Europe over the enforced austerity measures was a source of inspiration for the students who gathered on the streets of São Paulo to make their voices heard by ironically making it more difficult for their fellow citizens who use public transport to get home.
Peaceful protests on the streets of Sao Paulo
Unfortunately, as has often been the case in legitimate protests in the UK, a small minority of individuals intent on violence gave the police an excuse to get heavy handed and the dominant TV channel, Globo, to focus on the violence rather than the real issues. The initial effect was to alienate the general population from the aims of the legitimate protesters but then, last Monday, something happened which changed the course of the demonstrations.
Between 60,000 and 100,000 protesters, depending on who you believe, successfully held a peaceful demonstration in the heart of Sao Paulo in Avenida Paulista. But the real success of Monday’s demonstration was not the numbers involved, nor the fact that it was peaceful but that it expanded the debate beyond the narrow argument of bus fares to the wider issues of high taxation and poor public services.
According to Datafolha, 84% of the protesters on 18th June professed no political party, 77% were university educated, 71% were first time protesters, only 22% were students. Just over half were there to protest against the increased fares but many were protesting against corruption, violence, transport and politicians.
This last fact hasn’t stopped an opposition party, PPS, running a series of adds attempting to associate themselves with the protests and even the PT party President Dilma has come out in support of the protests.
Brazil experiences some of the highest taxation in the world making it the most expensive place to buy electronic goods such as iphones and ipads. Combine this high taxation with unsatisfactory systems of public health, eduction and infrastructure due to a combination of corruption and incompetence and you have a recipe for discontent.
Add to this the massive investment in the infrastructure required to host both the World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics and the inevitable comparisons with the public services which could have been provided with the same level of investment and you have a dry powder keg ready to explode.
There is always discontent in the lead up to a major sporting event. Just look at the moaning that went on in London right up to the opening ceremony and I can’t remember the last world cup that didn’t suffer rumours that the stadia and infrastructure would not be ready – perhaps Germany. Despite the non-existent economic benefits of hosting a global sporting event the effects of the sense of well-being for the host nation are well documented and no doubt when the World Cup kicks off next year and Brazil scores their first goal, all of this will be forgotten.
When I arrived in Brazil 18 months ago, I had many conversations about high taxation, terrible roads, atrocious public transport, appalling state schools with poorly paid teachers and an under funded public health system but the result was always the same with the Brazilian concluding that nothing can be done about it so those who can afford a car, private healthcare and private education for their children work harder to provide for these things while those unfortunate enough to be unable to afford private services must do with what the state supplies.
I should add a caveat here that my experience of the São Paulo public health service has been, given the circumstances under which they operate, a generally positive one and that the public transport system is extensive, gradually improving, but nevertheless inadequate for the task in hand. Nevertheless I do have private health insurance and pay for my daughter to go to a private school.
London had a similarly frustrating bus service 20 years ago but the massive investment through TFL create a service that more people used because it was frequent, on the whole efficient and extensive.
One effect of the recent demonstrations in São Paulo, and now Brasilia, Rio, Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza, is that not only have the councils of Sao Paulo and Rio reversed the bus fare increases but the Brazilian citizens have now realised that they do actually have a voice and that they can change things.
It should be hoped that one of the legacies of the current wave of demonstrations is that corruption is more difficult to get away with, that processes are put in place to ensure that the taxpayers receive what they are paying for and that gradually the quality of public services and infrastructure improves. These things always take time but at least the politicians now realise that the people have found their voice and that they will be held accountable if they fail to deliver.
Tonight, the protests continue and, in some quarters as in London a couple of years back, the protests have been an excuse for looting and crime but when all the dust settles Brazil will be a different country, a country whose citizens hopefully feel empowered rather than disenfranchised which was, until very recently the case.