By Jorge Martin What started as a small demonstration against an increase of 20 cents (barely 9 pennies) in the price of public transport fares in Sao Paulo became a national mass movement which mobilised more than a million people in 80 cities, after …

By Jorge Martin

What started as a small demonstration against an increase of 20 cents (barely 9 pennies) in the price of public transport fares in Sao Paulo became a national mass movement which mobilised more than a million people in 80 cities, after having forced, on June 19, the mayor of the city Haddad and the regional governor Alckmin to retreat.

Protesto dos Professores

The movement however, also has a contradictory character. On the mass demonstrations to celebrate its first victory on June 20, there were also ugly scenes in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other main cities, where organised right wing and extreme right wing groups resorted to violence to expel left wing parties, trade unions, social movements and generally anyone carrying red flags, T-Shirts or symbols from the demonstration.

The turning point at which the movement turned national and acquired a mass character was probably on June 13, when a demonstration of about 15,000 people in Sao Paulo, the fourth of its kind against the fare increase, was brutally attacked by the Military Police leaving over a hundred injured and a similar number of arrested. The repression was similar in intensity to that of the blackest days of the military dictatorship. The police did not want just to disperse the demonstrators, but rather to attack them and teach them a lesson. They used rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters, in many cases hitting directly peoples’ bodies and heads. They even organised ambushes of the demonstrators as they roamed the streets, particularly at the symbolic Avenida Paulista.

The press were also at the receiving end of the police brutality, dozens of them beaten up despite having identified themselves as journalists. Ironically, the violence had been prepared for by the major newspapers and TV stations which had described the protesters as vandals and branded them as violent criminals.

News and images of the repression started to spread like wildfire through the social media networks and also the mass media. In the space of a few hours the mood changed in the whole country, with spontaneous demonstrations against repression and in solidarity with the protests in Sao Paulo spreading to most regional capitals and beyond.

By Monday, June 17, half a million took to the streets in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, the capital Brasilia, and dozens of cities across the country. This is the biggest mass movement in Brazil in decades. The wind of the Arab Spring, of the Spanish Indignados, of the Geraçao Rasca from Portugal, the US #Occupy movement and now the Turkish uprising of Taksim has definitely arrived in Brazil.

As well as major cities, the movement is also reaching smaller places in the interior and it has a largely spontaneous movement. Clearly, the youth, which make up the bulk of those participating in the movement, have been inspired by similar movements of the youth elsewhere, and social media networks, with their immediacy, have served as useful tools in the initial stages of the protest as means of spreading information, sometimes by-passing the mass media and being used to organise the demonstrations.

Clearly, a movement of this size cannot be explained just by the increase in fares, or even as a response to brutal repression. These were just the proverbial straws which broke the camel’s back. There are deeper reasons in the conditions of Brazil, which are at the root of the present explosion of protest. The country has experienced sustained and significant rates of growth for the best part of the last ten years (with a short blip in the aftermath of the 2008 world crisis). There has been an improvement of living standards and a significant reduction in poverty levels.

This is however only one side of the picture. This economic growth was based on a series of factors which are now starting to turn into their opposite. First of all the PT government was benefited by an increasing integration of the Brazilian economy with the boom in China, massively exporting commodities and raw materials. A policy of high interest rates to attract foreign investment has also made it very lucrative for foreign and national capitalists to speculate with Brazil’s debt. This has been combined with widespread privatisation of public assets and the development of a speculative housing bubble. Already in 2012, with the slowdown of the Chinese economy, Brazil’s GDP grew by a mere 0.5%, and worrying signs started to accumulate. For many people the first visible sign that not all is well with the economy has been rising inflation, particularly of food products.

The government of the Workers’ Party, elected with the backing of the workers and of the organised trade union movement to which it is historically linked. When Lula won the election in 2002, this had a symbolic value for millions of workers; a former metal worker trade unionist, one of their own, becoming the president of the country!

Both Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, ruled in a coalition with a number of parties, chiefly the conservative PMDB. While guaranteeing certain social advances, they implemented a policy of privatisations and attacked the pensions system of public sector workers. Generally, Brasil was presented as the nice, “reasonable” left alternative to the radical, “confrontational” policies of Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

There were occasions in which sections of the trade union movement clashed with the PT coalition government. But the fact that 90% of collective bargaining agreements were signed with above inflation wage rises meant that the workers’ continued to support Lula (and then Rousseff) and while opposing this or that policy, regarded the PT government as “their own”.

Now this has started to change with the slowdown in the economy. On March 6 this year, 50,000 workers demonstrated in the capital Brasilia in a march called by the CUT trade union confederation and others, demanding more social spending, a shorter working week without loss of pay, rejecting neo-liberal attacks on labor and employment rights and cuts on pensions, etc.

As the government continues to pay massive amounts of money in interests and service for the foreign and domestic debt (which represents 47% of the budget), education, health care and other public services are being cuts. Billions of dollars are beings spent in building stadiums for the World Cup but ordinary working people are being asked to pay with increases to already high bus and subway fares.

On the other hand, the young generation, those who are now around 20, have never known any other government than those of the PT and the historic movements which created it in stormy revolutionary period of the struggle against the dictatorship are ancient history for them.

Furthermore, a large number of the city mayors responsible for implementing the fare rises which have been the immediate cause of the protests are members of the PT, notably Sao Paulo mayor Haddad. Many consider them indistinguishable from politicians of the main opposition right wing party PSDB, for instance Sao Paulo governor, Alckmin. In fact, when the protests started at the beginning of June, they were both in Paris trying to bag the 2020 Universal Exposition for Sao Paulo.

It was PT elected politicians, as well as those from the opposition PSDB, which were directly responsible for the brutal repression of the Military Police against the peaceful demonstrators. Their initial response was one of law and order. This was fully backed by the PT Minister of Justice Cardoso who volunteered to send the Federal Police to help in the repression.

It is hardly surprising then, that amongst many of the demonstrators there would be a mood against political parties in general and particularly the ruling PT. This is similar to widespread discrediting of political parties and professional politicians in other countries, and it contains a positive element, which is the rejection of political representatives which are seen as only benefiting the rich and powerful, implementing cuts against working people and personally benefiting from political office.

However, in Brazil, this was cleverly used by the right wing media and the right wing parties to attempt to divert the movement towards a right wing nationalist agenda. From June 18 the same mass media which had attacked the demonstrators as vandals and delinquents and had spurred the police to attack them, started to praise the movement while trying to mould it. People were asked to carry the national Brazilian flag and sing the national anthem, to dress in white and to focus protests on the “struggle against corruption” (which is code for struggle against the ruling PT). The building of the powerful Sao Paulo employers federation FIESP, on Paulista avenue, displayed a huge Brazilian flag.

Particularly at the demonstrations on June 20, the growing influence of the right wing media on the demonstrations became more visible. As well as the original demands against fare increases and for the money spent in the World Cup to be used for health care and education, there were also banners against abortion rights, against PT ‘corruption’ and even some calling for a military coup.

It was in this context that an organised provocation, involving groups of extreme right wing thugs calling them “nationalists”, some armed with knives, others carrying baseball bats, surrounded the blocks of left wing parties and trade union organisations at the June 20 demonstrations, the largest so far. Shouts of “without party” were accompanied by shouts of “out with the reds”, “go back to Cuba”, etc.

After constant and increasingly violent harassing, finally left wing and trade union militants were forced to lower their red flags and abandoned the demonstration, some of them wounded. These affected PT militants as well as those of other left wing parties (PSOL, PSTU, PCdoB, UJS, etc.) and mass organisations, including students union UNE and the main trade confederation CUT (which had some of its flags burnt in Rio).

Even the original organisers of the protests against fare rises, the Movement for Free Pass (MPL) were forced to withdraw from the demonstration in Sao Paulo and issued a statement condemning attacks against left wing organisations, pointing out that while their movement is non-partisan, they are not against political parties and they are part of the wider struggle of the oppressed against those at the top. As a matter of fact, the sad irony is that many of the left wing parties attacked at the June 20 demonstrations, particularly in Sao Paulo, had been supportive of the movement from the very beginning, when it was very small and subject to brutal repression.

It would be wrong from this to draw the conclusion that the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the demonstrations in Brazil on June 20, are all rabid anti-communists or committed supporters of a right wing agenda. Far from that. As a matter of fact, as the MPL and others have ceased to call for demonstrations and they have been called for only on a right wing agenda, the number of participants has dropped massively, for instance in Sao Paulo. In other cases there has been an open split in the movement with left wing and right wing demonstrations organised separately.

An urgent task in Brazil is to organise the defence of the right of left wing and trade union organisations to freedom of speech and demonstration, which they won in the struggle against the military dictatorship. This should go hand in hand with the mobilisation of the mighty power of the Brazilian working class to make sure that the most pressing demands of the workers and youth are met, in relation to health care, education, labor and employment rights, public transport and others.

The inspiring movement of the Brazilian youth has proven one thing: the struggle pays and what only ten days ago seemed impossible has been achieved. If they youth are joined by the organised trade union movement, then, nothing can stop them.

Photo provided by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia on Creative Commons.

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