The price hike in transportation was the crack that revealed deep discontent in Brazilian society. In less than two weeks, the demonstrations multiplied: from 5,000 the first days, to more than a million in a hundred cities. Inequality, the lack of participation and repression are the big issues.

The catcalls and boos were heard round the world. Dilma Rousseff seemed not to react but her features showed discomfort. Joseph Blatter took the disapproval personally and launched a criticism to the Brazilian fans for their lack of “fair play”. That the president of Brazil and the mandarin of the international soccer federation (FIFA), one of the most corrupt institutions in the world, were scorned by tens of thousands of middle class and upper middle class fans, because the working class can no loner go to these events, reflects the profound discontent of Brazilian society.

What happened in the Mané Garrincha stadium of Brasilia spread to the streets, broadening on Monday June 17 when more than 200,000 people demonstrated in nine cities, in particular youth affected by the high cost of living and inequality, shown in the high cost of low-quality services while the large construction companies make fortunes in projects for the mega-events funded by public money.

It all began with something small, as happens in the big rebellions of the XXI century. A modest price hike in urban transit of just twenty cents (from 3 to 3.20 reales, just ten U.S. cents). First they were small demonstrations of members of the Free Fare Movement (MPL buy its Portuguese initials) and of the committees against the projects for the World Cup 2014. The brutality of the police did the rest, managing the ignite protests and converting them into the biggest wave of demonstrations since the impeachment of Fernando Collor de Melo in 1992.

On June 7 the first demonstrations was held in Sao Paulo against the increase in the bus fare with just a little over a thousand protesters. By June 11 there were more, and two buses were burned. The two main governments—the social-democrat governor Geraldo Alckmin and the mayor of the Labor Party Fernando Haddad, were in Paris promoting a new mega-event for the city and called the demonstrators “vandals”.

On June 12 a new demonstration led to 80 buses attacked and eight police wounded. June 13 the tension was high and the police brutally repressed the 5,000 demonstrators, causing more than 80 wounded, among them several journalists of Folha de Sao Paulo. A giant wave of indignation swept through the country that translated, a few hours later, into the booing of Dilma and Blatter. Even the most conservative media was forced to reflect the police brutality. The protest against the fare increase converged without meaning with the protest against the multi million-dollar projects of the World and Confederation Cup soccer tournaments. What seemed small demonstrations, almost symbolic, became a wave of dissatisfaction that covered the whole country?

A symptom of the seriousness of the events is that on June 17, during the fifth demonstration with some 200,000 in a score of capitals, the most important politicians of the country—former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso –condemned the repression. “To dismiss them as vandals is a serious error. To say that they are violent resolves nothing. To justify the repression is useless,” Cardoso wrote. He attributed the protests to “ the disappointment of the youth with their future.”

Lula said something similar: “Democracy is not a pact of silence but a society in movement in search of new conquests. The only certainly is that the social movement and the demands are not a matter for the police but for dialogue. I am certain that among the demonstrators are those willing to help build a solution for urban transport.”

In addition to upsetting the elite, the demonstrators won a victory when the price hikes were suspended.

A Sense of Injustice

Public transportation in cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is among the most expensive in the world and the quality is terrible. A study by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo analyzes the prices of public transportation the two major cities of the country considering the labor time required to pay a single fare and the average wage in each city. The result is catastrophic for Brazilians.

While a resident of Rio needs to work 13 minutes fro a fare and a resident of Sao Paulo 14, in Buenos Aires one needs to work only a minute and a half, ten times less. In Beijing the fare is equivalent to three and a half minutes of work time, in Paris, new York and Madrid six minutes and in Tokyo, Santiago de Chile nine minutes. In London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, each fares requires 11 minutes of labor.

The paper cites the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, to give an example of what should be urban democratization: “The advanced city is not that which the poor travel in cars, but that in which the rich use public transportation.” In Brazil, the article concludes, the opposite is happening.

In the last eight years urban transit in São Paulo has deteriorated according to a recent report.  The current concession was assigned during the administration of Marta Suplicy (PT) in 204. The system of collective transportation grew from 1,600 to 2,900 million passengers between 2004 and 2012. However, the buses in circulation fell from 14,000 to 13,900. The report states the obvious conclusion: “More people are being transported paying more money in fewer buses that make fewer trips.”

According to the city’s Municipal Secretary of Transportation, improvement in the economic situation has caused an increase in the number of passengers but, at the same time, the buses make fewer trips due to the traffic and inevitably the problem “ most affects users who suffer due to the inefficiency of the system, with the increase in the time it takes to make each trip.” The costs also have gone up for the inefficiency caused by inadequate infrastructure.

Added to this is the squandering of public resources through the multi million-dollar projects of the 20134 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, with the consequences of forced moves of residents. Taken together it is not hard to understand the discontent. The six stadiums that were inaugurated in this month’s Confederation games cost some two billion dollars. The remodel of Maracaná alone cost over 500 million and about that went into Mané Garrincha, a monumental construction with 288 columns that give it the aspect of a “modern Roman coliseum”, in the words of the secretary general of the FIFA, Jerome Valcke. All this public money to host one game during the Cup and seven in the World Cup.

These are luxury arenas built by half a dozen large construction firms, some of which were also granted the administration of the arenas where the exclusive events will be held. The final cost of all the projects usually runs double the initial budgets. Six stadiums still remain to be completed, as well as the remodeling of airports, highways and hotels. The Brazilian bank BNDES just gave a loan of 200 million dollars to finish Itaquerao, the new stadium of Corinthians where the first game of the World Cup will be played in 2014.

Tired of bread and circus

The National Coalition of Popular Committees for the Cup put out a report that finds that in 12 cities that will house the World Cup games there are 250,000 people at risk of being evicted, plus the threats of removal and those that live in areas disputed by the projects.  There were cases of a home demolished after giving only 48 hours notice. Many families relocated complain that they were moved to far-away places with insufficient compensation to buy new houses, usually under $5,000 dollars on average.

To complete this panorama, just for the Confederation Cup a military operation was mounted that mobilized 23,000 soldiers from the three armed forces, and a central command and intelligence center. The operation included 60 planes and 500 vehicles. The World Cup has obligated Brazil to build twelve stadiums, 21 new airport terminals, seven landing strips and five port terminals. The total cost for the government of all these projects is $15 billion dollars.

In the face of this public spending to build luxury sports arenas guarded with maximum security, the National Council of Christina Churches (CONIC) sent out a communiqué condemning the police brutality and stating that what happened June 13 in Sao Paulo “reminds us of dark times in our history of our country.” The churches’ letter denounced the lack of dialogue and affirmed, “The authoritarian culture continues to be a characteristic of the Brazilian state.”

The letter points out that the United Nations Human Rights Council just made several recommendations to the Brazilian government, including putting an end to the military police. The CONIC believes that the police repression against demonstrators is the same as “the extermination of youth that happens daily on the city slums.” It ends saying that the big events only bring more profits to “the financial market and the mega-business conglomerates.” “We don’t want just a circus. We want bread, the fruit of social justice.”

If this is the general sentiment of the churches, one can imagine the feelings of million of young people who invest two hours a day to go to work, three to come home “in stupid and expensive omnibuses that confront 200 kilometers of traffic,” as described by writer Marcelo Rubens Paiva in the report on Sao Paulo. Residents of the city know that the rich travel in helicopter. Brazil has one of the largest fleets of executive aviation in the world. Since the PT came to power, the fleet of helicopters grew 58.6%, according to the Brazilian Association of General Aviation.

São Paulo has 272 heliports and more than 650 executive helicopters that make some 400 trips daily. Many more than cities like Tokyo and New York. “Currently, Sao Paulo is the only city in the world that has air traffic control exclusively for helicopters,” according to the Association.

This adds to the indignation and led many to celebrate the return of protests that they had to wait two decades for.

A Grassroots Response

“Óooo, o povo acordou” (Óooo, the people have awakened), shouted thousands in the streets. As if they ha slept for years. Even Dilma Rousseff mentioned the word, “Brazil today has awakened stronger. The size of the demonstrations yesterday shows the energy of our democracy, the force of the voice of the street.” She didn’t have much room to say anything different after the giant demonstrations that hadn’t been seen in years Gilberto Carvalho, secretary general of the Presidency, was politically less correct and admitted “I don’t understand” what was happening in the streets.

One of the reasons the political leadership doesn’t t understand is that during the governments of the PT 40 million Brazilians were lifted from poverty and entered the consumer market, in favorable economic situation. Grassroots movements are weak and fragmented.

The second question is the generational abyss. For seven of every ten demonstrators, according to the institute Datafolha, this was the first time they had participated in a demonstration. More than eight of ten do not support any political party. Some 53% are under 25 years old. Ina soccer-loving country, 70% of the residents of Sao Paulo were interested in the protests compared to 18% who followed the Confederation Cup. Half of the inhabitants of the city disapproved of the institutions, among them the Congress received the highest rejection rate with 82%, while 77% supported the demonstrations.

How could a small movement for free public transportation generate so much support? The Free Fare Movement arose in 2003 in Salvador (Bahía) during the “Buzu Revolt”, when thousands of students and young workers blocked the streets for ten days against the rise in the cost of transpiration. The government allied National union of Students managed to coopt a spontaneous and autonomous mobilization that it could not lead. A year later, in 2004, student in Florianopolis inspired by the events of Bahia organized the “Catraca Revolt” that had the support of neighborhood associations, teachers and workers.

During the World Social Forum in 2005 in Proto Alegre, a large plenary session was held and the Free Fare Movement came into being. It now has members in all the major cities. The organizing principles rejected the hierarchical bureaucratic style of official student organizations and its character is independent, horizontal, autonomous, federal, with decisions by consensus and nonpartisan that they claim is not the same as anti-partisan.

In its declaration of principles the MPL calls itself a movement “that is not an end in itself but a means to build another society.” In its fight for the student free fare they emphasize that their perspective is “the expropriation of public transportation, withdrawing it from the private sector, without indemnization, and placing it under the control of workers and the population.”

The police also were surprised, and irritated by this movement. A report for the secret service of the Military Police cited by Folha de São Paulo on June 16, notes, “the inexistence of leaders is considered the worst nightmare of the police because they do not have clear objectives.”

The sociologist Rudá Ricci, close to the labor movement, writes that leaders and politicians who still have their feet in the XX century “must be uncomfortable with the lack of unity, of command, of vanguard.”  He maintains that a small movement created in 2005 gained this type of strength for “the blockade of the channels of participation through classic institutions for representation” and for “the incapacity of the historic social leaders to read the day to day feelings of the population for being so wrapped up in the closed institutions.”

The political scientist Jorge Almeida, of the Universidad Federal de Bahía, claims that under the Lula government two important things happened: the movements demobilized to support a government that “represented the strengthening of the hegemony of big capital in Brazil” (Valor, June 2013). The increase in purchasing power of the population and the fact that the large organizations turned to defending the social order, “made the bourgeois hegemony more stable.” However, “as inequality continues, new organizations had to be built” capable of filling the void left by the historic movements.

The Cup was the spark that ignited the flame. “The World Cup comes as a real intervention of the FIFA in the large urban centers. It limited freedom of expression, of commerce, within a radius of two kilometers of the stadiums you could not have demonstrations.” The prices went sky high with the mega events, affecting in particular the poorest who suffered from the inflation of 11 to 12 percent. Finally, says Almeida, when the powerful believed that they could get what they wanted, the repression caused “a response of social dignity.”

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor the various grassroots organizations. For nearly a decade he has been writing the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program

Translated by Laura Carlsen

Photos: Gabriela Bauttista/Desinformémonos

For More Information:

Report: O Estado de São Paulo, 16 June 2013

Zibechi, Raúl. Rio de Janeiro: From the City of Wonder to the City of Business, CIP Americas Program Feb. 26, 2013.

Zibechi, Raúl. The Bitter Taste of Brazil’s World Cup, CIP Americas Program, Feb. 20, 2012.