(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Raphael Neves, PhD candidate at the Politics department at the New School for Social Research, and assistant professor of politics at the University of São Paulo)
São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern hemisphere and Brazil’s financial center, is located thousands of miles away from Istanbul but its 11.3 million inhabitants still know what it feels like to be in Taksim Square. This month, both bus and subway fares
increased by 20 cents of real – the equivalent of 9 cents, USD. Protesters took to the streets following the raise, leading to several clashes with the police. Authorities
claim the increase was below the inflation rate (6.50% in the last 12 months). The mayor, Fernando Haddad, a philosophy professor and the former minister of education under Lula, had stated during his election campaign last year that the city would have to raise the already subsidized fares, frozen since 2011. Brazil has received some of the best combined democracy, economic growth and income distribution scores among the BRICS. So why are people complaining? The demonstrations have been organized by the Free Fare Movement, which promotes free public transportation for all (a demand the mayor says would cost almost 3 billion USD/year). As the event page of one of the protests on Facebook shows, the demands range from the decrease in public transportation fares to better salaries for teachers; from increased freedom on the Internet, to objections of the construction of soccer stadiums for the next World Cup. Furthermore, the São Paulo state police, commanded by governor Geraldo Alckmin, has overreacted and stepped out of the law. Countless people were arrested for bringing vinegar to the demonstrations. According to police officers, vinegar may be used to produce a bomb. In fact, demonstrators say, it alleviates the effects of tear gas. As a result, protesters have embraced a campaign to “legalize” vinegar. They’ve made Guy Fawkes masks their symbol and “V for Vinegar” has become an immediate hit on social networks. Mockery and creativity are central in these protests as
they’ve helped keep people mobilized. Even when they are forced to split up by the police, they keep connected online.
As the construction of a shopping mall at Taksim square became the last straw for protesters in Turkey, in Brazil, the 20 cents increase has catalyzed dissatisfaction. The perplexed may wonder whether ten years of Workers’ Party rule – Lula’s first term inauguration was in 2003, Dilma, his successor, in 2011 – have contributed to
fight inequality. The answer is yes. However, and here we may have a sharp distinction between Turkey and Brazil, the protests are not directed only towards the government. They are much more dispersed and fragmented. On the one hand, a large part of the population has been integrated into the economic market and consumption levels have never been so high. On the other hand, this possibly made people more aware of other problems way beyond material needs. A minimum wage worker may now choose which cell phone or TV she or he is going to buy, but one is unable to have dominion over basic
aspects of everyday life. In São Paulo, where rent is as expensive as in New York, someone who lives in a poorer area will spend at least two hours in an extremely crowded bus or train to get to work. To lose control over one’s own time and space is enough reason to revolt, isn’t it?
All in all, the political system has not been capable of processing this generalized and
fragmented dissatisfaction. The increasing scale of the demonstrations is probably due to their rejection of any sort of party commitment. Of course, the risk of such detachment between civil society and political institutions is to give even more autonomy to bureaucratic structures that administer Brazilians’ lives. In this sense, mobilization may lead to political change, although the result is not necessarily more “progressive” – think,
for instance, of Indignados in Spain, a movement that demanded a radical change of the political system but was followed by the election of Mariano Rajoy. The challenge Brazil
faces is to make democracy more visible; to go beyond the right to cast a ballot in order to empower citizens to exercise effective control over all realms of their lives. These 20 cents are worth a change.
Raphael on twitter: @politikaetc