A new week, a government that is flailing around trying to come up with some response to the protests. Political parties trying to stake out some turf in the protests to shore up their power. Where is it headed?
The rain and cold of a Brazilian winter will not help the protestors’ cause as it will show who is out on the streets in protest and who is out there to either see and be seen or to have a great time. Since Friday, President Dilma has been more present than in the protests’ first ten days. However, she remains as out of touch as ever. The idea of a Constituente Assembly she’s promulgated has drawn little support and most has led to head-scratching. Of course, such an idea will take months if not years to get organized, so most commentators see it as a way to “barge the line”, given inaction the appearance of action. As many other commentators have said, her other ideas are largely rehashes of earlier PT and Dilma pronouncements.
However, the government’s appearance in the game, even if it is out of tune with the dissatisfactions of the protest crowds and the swirl of discussion on the social media, is part of a trend that is dangerous to the protest movement.
Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has pointed out that social media can’t necessarily translate social and political dissatisfactions into action. Ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso cited this point in an interview yesterday in Folha de São Paulo. But, I think they are both right and wrong.
This movement started in an unusual way. There was the straw that broke the camel’s back — the São Paulo transit fare hike. However, as sports and movie stars and international politicians don’t seem to be able to stop reminding us here in Brazil, it was never about the 20 centavos. The dissatisfactions were so much greater and go directly to problems that have infected all the governments of Brazil.
I think there are two basic areas of dissatisfaction: moral and practical. The moral dissatisfaction has to do with corruption in all its forms, but especially the corruption (and subsequent impunity) that enriches the political class. People have been citing constantly on Facebook in the past week an old report by Jorge Pontual that showed corrupt American politicians being convicted of their crimes and going to prison. The suggestion being that this doesn’t happen in Brazil. We’ve even gotten to the cynical point where one of the convicted Lula mensaleiros (José Genoino) is now the head of the National Assembly’s Ethics Committee. There are many other aggravating causes of this moral anger: excess billings and kickbacks on capital projects, straight ahead bribery, the attempt to undercut the already limited freedom of investigation of the Ministério Público, the PEC-37.
The practical sources of the dissatisfaction of Brazilians comes from two primary sources. First, we pay too much for everything. Prices are quickly growing out of control. The subway and bus fare increase in São Paulo, a paltry 20 centavos after 3 years of stability, was what got all this started. But, it is only one price among many that are excessive. Yesterday, i needed to replace a broken kitchen appliance that would cost from $20 – $30 in New York. I paid R$180. That’s over three times the relative cost (and the product is manufactured domestically, so there is no import duty component). We are also all fed with the tax burden of some 47% on all goods and services we purchase. Most parts of the tax are hidden at the various wholesale transaction levels, so the government can trumpet that it is lower tax rates to consumers. However, the consumers are waking up to the fact that they are paying these higher wholesale charges.
The second area of practical dissatisfaction is the lack of quality in public services, especially health and education. While this generally does not affect the middle-class, which has private health plans and sends their children to private schools, everyone understands that the system is broken and no one in authority is doing much to fix them. Instead, they are busy dividing the spoils that attach to buying ambulances that have no drivers and no hospitals to go to, or shoddily produced school materials that need to scrapped even before they are used. Yes, the bus fares were reduced back to R$3.00 as of yesterday, but the service and fleet still is in lamentable condition.
One factor about this wave of protests that is confusing traditional politicians is that it is largely leaderless. Yesterday, some of the Passe Livre leaders went to Brasilia to meet with President Dilma, but they don’t represent the large range of issues that protestors want reformed. In fact, true leaders have not yet emerged from this movement. They will, but it will take some time.
Political parties have tried to inject themselves into the “vacuum” of leadership only to find their efforts rebuffed, at times violently. What they don’t understand is that protestors are fed up with all the political parties, who all utter many of the same platitudes. It’s not a matter that the protestors are apollitical or reject parties. It’s that they reject the current group of parties that they feel have betrayed them.
It will take some patience to identify new leaders who are able to transition from this type of social-political struggle into political leadership. Calls for Bukharin type anarchism to reappear are misplaced. It won’t happen. However, leadership needs to emerge through some ineffable process of groups coalescing and aims of the movement gaining some greater focus on objectives that can be attained.
We are not condemned to live in interesting time, we are privileged to do so.