There has been no investment in infrastructure since the 1980s, and yet one major event follows another. Something is going totally wrong in Brazil.
A protester jumps over a barricade in Brasilia. Photo: dpa
In Brazil, you often hear that the country is still a young democracy, so please cut it some slack. After all, Brazil did not return to a democratic form of government until the 1980s, following the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. It fits the old image of the backward periphery that still has to catch up on development.
The situation in the Brazilian metropolises with millions of inhabitants is still marked by the economic crisis and the austerity measures of the 1980s and 1990s. It was far too late to invest in public transportation. In general, urban planning is taking place today for the first time under stable democratic conditions.
The protests, which have been going on for two weeks and are also being noticed internationally because of the Confed Cup soccer tournament, are also about whether the institutions are doing justice to this task – from politics to the media to the neoliberal ideology of individualism and competition. The demonstrators are driven onto the streets by a very general discontent.
The trigger was the increase in fares that was implemented simultaneously in various cities. But that was just the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It is no coincidence, however, that the protests were ignited by the relatively expensive and absolutely disfunctional bus system in the megacities, which is unable to cope with the growing volume of traffic in recent decades. Meanwhile, many Brazilians drive to work if they can somehow afford it. This has only made the roads more congested. The daily traffic chaos affects everyone, rich and poor alike. Only a very few, including many politicians, can afford to fly to work by helicopter.
Under pressure to save money
Because Brazil’s municipalities ran out of money in the 1980s, they put urgently needed investments in infrastructure on hold. In the 1970s, the state had still invested in gigantic projects such as hydroelectric power plants, highways and bridges, under the political conditions of the military dictatorship. Then came the economic crisis and the military abdicated. The return to democracy in the 1980s was marked by the need to save money. And so the issue of public transport was again put on the back burner, even by the left-wing President Lula, who was in government from 2004 to 2011.
There are still no subways or commuter trains to the airports in Rio de Janeiro or Guarulhos in Sao Paulo. Those who fly cannot estimate at all how long it will take to get to the airport. You have to be on your way many hours before departure. A traffic accident can disrupt the daily routine of millions. At the same time, cities are the centers of the Brazilian economy, along with agribusiness. Sao Paulo has the most factories, Rio de Janeiro the most tourists.
Protest takes many forms in Brazil. Photo: dpa
In Rio right now, one major event is replacing the next. The city has become safer for many since the police recaptured entire neighborhoods from drug gangs. Many inner-city favelas are transforming from no-go areas into hip nightlife districts, real estate prices are rising, and many can no longer afford the rising rents. Those who are not being forcibly relocated to make way for new expressways and tourist destinations are leaving voluntarily, in search of cheaper rents. And then, of course, find themselves on the overcrowded buses. There are just two subway lines in Rio de Janeiro, for 11 million inhabitants in the metropolitan region.
So when hundreds of thousands block strategically chosen main roads at rush hour, which are clogged with cars and buses for hours after five o’clock anyway, they behave like factory workers in the past calling for a wildcat strike.
And the politicians behave like managers who are worried about their customers. How do you stand there, in front of Fifa, in front of the world public? In Rio, the Copa de Confederacões has just begun, soon the Pope will arrive, then it’s the World Cup and finally the Olympics in 2016. The city is committed to ensuring safe travel and smooth operations. Protests are capable of disrupting these processes.
The institutions do not function
Only belatedly and hesitantly did President Dilma Rousseff acknowledge Monday night, when more than 200,000 took to the streets, that protests are legitimate in a democracy. Initially, the press called the protesters vandals. Now other arguments can be heard in the mainstream media: Perhaps it is everyday life that is violent and not (just) the few hooded people who break windows and set fire to trash at protests. After all, this everyday life robs everyone who is on the move in the city every day of a lot of time and the last nerve. Brazilians feel that the established institutions – from politics to the media to the police, whose propensity for violence outraged many last week – no longer work. Something is going totally wrong.
This sensitivity could also be related to the poor economic data of recent months. The state is running up debts and not even spending the money on measures that would make everyday life more bearable. On the contrary, everything is only getting more expensive.
It’s not just about fares in Brazil today, any more than it’s just about a park in Turkey. It’s the general mood that people don’t like. Still, it’s surprising that hundreds of thousands are now taking to the streets. After all, Brazil is not exactly known for its culture of civil protest. In fact, the accumulated experience of the last few years with the occupation of squares and streets had an influence on the selfimagination of the protesters.
This was especially important at the beginning, when the police immediately attacked the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. "No more love now," the protesters chanted defiantly, "this will be the next Turkey!" It sounded like they were trying to be brave, against tear gas and rubber bullets. On Monday night, one of the slogans read, "This is not Turkey or Greece. We Brazilians have finally woken up."