Evaluating the National Effect of Brazilian Protests

3 MINS READJun 19, 2013 | 17:30 GMT
Evaluating the National Effect of Brazilian Protests
Students protest in Sao Paulo on June 18.

Facing widespread unrest, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will struggle to prevent protests from becoming a referendum on her presidency. The Brazilian protests have grown from small public demonstrations in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, to mass rallies in cities all over the country, including Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Sao Paulo. Though the protests have largely been peaceful, there have been several notable violent incidents widely covered by the media. Rousseff has stated her support for the protests as a demonstration of democratic strength. Although general criticism of the government is a widespread theme, the protesters do not yet have concrete demands and the protests are made up of many groups from divergent political positions.

Brazil has a relatively short history of free public protests. Many older Brazilians remember the military dictatorship that ended in 1985, but much like in Chile, where large protests have become a common occurrence in the post-dictatorship era, the younger generation in Brazil is not burdened by memories of government repression. These protests were initially organized by Movimento Passe Livre, or the Free Pass Movement, to protest a hike in transportation fares in Porto Alegre. The pressure to lower transportation costs has remained a theme as the protests have spread. In response, 11 cities have lowered their transportation fares. Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad announced that the city may also reduce transportation fares but that the government is examining exactly how it would make up the lost revenue. In what has been reported as an effort to urge Haddad to capitulate on those costs, Rousseff met with Haddad alongside former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the evening of June 18. 

For Rousseff, it is imperative to keep the protesters focused on manageable problems like transportation fares, lest the conversation turn into a more direct critique of her presidency. Already the conversation has begun to shift, with right-wing groups joining what started as largely leftist protests and using the platform to criticize the government in general, but also specifically for spending too much money on preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Increasingly, protesters are also highlighting political corruption as a major grievance. Rousseff has been the most uncompromising president in recent memory on the issue of corruption, having forced several ministers to resign on allegations of corruption. However, corruption remains pervasive throughout the government and is a source of frequent criticism. Corruption is only one of many challenges facing Brazil. The manufacturing sector is struggling in part because of unfavorable global market conditions but also as a result of persistent inefficiencies. Annual inflation is still relatively low — around 6.5 percent — but it is growing as a result of a range of economic pressures, including a recent decline in the strength of the real. 

In the face of these challenges, the Brazilian government under Rousseff has attempted to enact a series of sweeping changes to address underlying drivers of economic stagnation, including tax reform and infrastructure improvements. Some reforms, such as reducing the cost to employers of hiring employees, had immediate effects. However, the majority of the reforms Rousseff has spearheaded will have more of an impact over the long term, including new oil exploration, infrastructure improvements and even the increasing possibility that Brazil will more seriously consider liberalizing its trade policies. All of this has to be done while limiting government spending to keep inflation under control. In short, Rousseff is deeply constrained in the actions she can take.

Nonetheless, the scale of these protests presents an immediate political challenge to the government. Politicians who have responded to the protests have been very careful not to antagonize the various participants but at the same time seem to be holding back from attempting to co-opt the energy of the protests. With elections approaching in October 2014, this is an opportunity for Brazil's right-wing opposition parties to attack Rousseff, who has maintained relatively high popularity ratings despite economic uncertainty. Rousseff will position herself as a champion of the public demonstrations while also negotiating directly with the leftist elements participating in the protests. Still, the rise of mass protests in Brazil may open space for new political forces to emerge and certainly increases the risk of turmoil affecting the upcoming World Cup and Olympics.

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