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Brazil protests 'must overcome contradictions'

For the first time in 20 years, the Brazilian government is faced with widespread demonstrations. But can the poorly structured protest movement grow? FRANCE 24 spoke with a Latin America expert for further insight.


Brazil has not seen such widespread demonstrations since 1992, when thousands took to the streets to protest against the corruption of former President Fernando Collor de Mello’s government.

In the early hours of Tuesday June 18, roughly 200,000 people marched across Brazil’s biggest cities to express their frustration with rising public transport costs and billions of dollars being spent on new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.

Initially peaceful, the biggest of the protests, in Rio de Janeiro, quickly turned destructive, with cars and garbage cans set on fire, bank windows smashed, and stores broken into. A group of demonstrators also hurled Molotov cocktails at the city’s parliament building, where riot police stood guard.

President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, struck a conciliatory note in her reaction to the protests. “Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate and part of democracy,” she affirmed in a statement. “It’s characteristic of youth to protest.”

But can anything cool the tempers of an emerging middle class increasingly conscious of the fact that the new “economic miracle” embodied by former President Lula da Silva is showing signs of running out of steam?

For further insight, FRANCE 24 spoke with Gaspard Estrada, a political analyst at the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean in Paris.

F24: What set off the wave of protests that have rocked Brazil’s big cities over the past few days?

GE: This movement was sparked by the increase in public transport costs, but it is complex and in many ways paradoxical. On the one hand, it has brought together various grievances having to do with corruption, the erosion of purchasing power, and quality of life. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any overriding purpose to the movement. The protesters in Rio aren’t asking for the same things as those in Sao Paolo. The movement lacks structure and has no leader.

You can nevertheless detect one unifying theme, which is the demand for better public services. Brazil has seen the emergence of a new middle class, which has had access to this growing consumer market that the country has become. And today, these people pay higher taxes and see the impact of having to pay those taxes on their everyday lives. More than 35% of the Gross Domestic Product goes on taxes.

F24: Could the protest movement get bigger and gain further momentum?

GE: In order for the movement to develop, it must overcome its contradictions. It will need to find leaders, who will have to map out a list of demands, create a platform, and hold meetings with elected officials. If the demands are not coherent, it will be difficult to negotiate with the political class.

F24: Why are prestigious events like the World Cup and the Olympics, both to be hosted by Brazil, being targeted by the protesters?

GE: It’s not enough to host a huge sporting event; Brazilians need to sense that their everyday lives are improved by it, that they are getting something out of the investment. There’s a conflict between the amount of money spent on these events and the government’s objective of bringing Brazil’s infrastructure up to date. The airports in Rio and Sao Paolo do not appear ready and the construction intended to expand public transportation is running late in certain cities.

Brazil was supposed to use the World Cup and the Olympics as a way to boost its economy, but Brazilians are not happy about footing the bill, and would like the quality of life in Brazil to continue improving. These last two years did not see the same level of growth as was seen during the Lula years.

F24: Is Dilma Rousseff to blame for the emergence of the protest movement?

GE: In defence of the current president, Lula da Silva benefitted from very favourable macro-economic conditions when he was in office, and since then, a major economic crisis has transpired. The most important thing for Rousseff today is to renew dialogue with the protesters. For the moment, she remains the frontrunner for the 2014 presidential election. Roughly midway through her first term, her popularity is about 70% -- the highest number any Brazilian president has had at this point. Those numbers will likely fall as the election approaches. Her popularity may be fading, but she was already so popular that it might not make much of a difference.

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