Brazil’s June ‘Vinegar Uprising’ and its effects

The Vinegar Uprising
By Einar Braathen, Ana Lúcia da Silva and Celina Myrann Sørbøe*.

On June 30 the Brazilians celebrated that their football stars won the Confederations Cup. Who will win the much more important game that evolved outside the football stadiums, staging the biggest spontaneous street demonstrations in Brazil’s history?

In this blogpost, we try to depict what the extra-parliamentary game has been about. In particular we are interested to know whether president Dilma Rousseff’s proposals for political reform and new public transport policies are adequate responses to the social protests, and whether they may have but a symbolic and defusing effect.

The ‘vinegar uprising’

The mass demonstrations that spread across Brazil in June against precarious and over-priced urban collective transport, corruption, and grossly expensive World Cup projects were ironically nick-named the “Vinegar Uprising” by social movements and protesters. The first demonstrations in São Paulo were organized by the movement for free public transport, Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) on the 6th and 13th of June. What started out as peaceful demonstrations turned into violent clashes between protesters and the police, who used weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets and batons to control the demonstrations. Vinegar can be used to alleviate the effects of teargas, and is therefore something that many protesters carried. On June 13th, some 60 protesters were arrested for possessing this “weapon”, which has been widely ironized by protesters. Vinegar therefore soon became a symbol for the movement. A Facebook campaign to “legalize vinegar” was created, and the ‘March for Legalizing Vinegar’ gathered tens of thousands of attendees. While there is a humoristic spin on these initiatives, it underlines the absurdity of the situation where the police, who are supposed to protect and serve the population, engage in a full-on confrontation that does not distinguish between peaceful protesters and the handful of people who have taken advantage of the general confusions to commit acts of vandalism.

World Cup vs. people’s needs

Among the banners carried by protesters in the mass mobilizations across Brazil, a frequent slogan has been demanding “FIFA standard” on education, health and security. The Confederations Cup, the test-run for the FIFA World Cup to be held in June next year, spurred debate over the massive public spending on stadiums and infrastructure related to the mega-events while the quality on public services is of alarmingly poor quality.

The World Cup 2014 is estimated to cost more than the past three World Cups combined. Approximately 13 billion USD of public money will be spent on the World Cup and 2016 Olympics, two events meant to showcase a modern, developed Brazil. Over the last decade Brazil has had a steady economic growth and social uplift. 10 per cent of the population, nearly 20 million people, has moved out of extreme poverty. However, Brazil suffers from insufficient and inefficient public services, thanks to corruption and the lack of political will to prioritize their proper delivery. Brazil spends only 3 per cent of GDP on education, and two-thirds of Brazilian 15-year-olds are incapable of more than basic mathematics and half cannot draw inferences from what they read. Brazil spends only 3.77 per cent of GDP on health, much of it in the private health services for the well-off classes. The country ranks lower than comparable economies in Latin America on infant mortality, life expectancy and a range of other indicators.

Instead of investing in health and education, billions of public funds are going towards white elephant projects related to the World Cup, such as the 43,000-capacity super-stadium in the Amazon city of Manaus whose 4th division soccer team attracts an average of 588 fans per game. In Rio de Janeiro, the beloved Maracanã stadium has undergone its second renovation in seven years in order to meet FIFA standards. The most recent upgrade exceeded the budget by 48.8 per cent and was just within the 50 per cent cost increase allowed by law, raising accusations that the construction consortium has milked the public coffins to the maximum. This underscores the impression that the nation blessed with the world’s most successful soccer team is also cursed by some of the worst levels of corruption and bureaucracy.

The street demonstrations were however not clearly or primarily against the mega sports events. The Confederations Cup served merely as an arena for international and national media attention, and its costs and corrupt management became an evident symbol of what has been perceived as larger political evils at the national level.

President Dilma’s turn-around

Since her election in 2010, Dilma Rousseff has continued Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s combination of business friendly policies, broad political coalitions and improvement of the well-being for the poorest. However, their Workers’ Party (PT) was involved in severe corruption scandals under Lula’s rule (2003-2010), and President Dilma has been criticized for being a technocrat and unable to secure popular support for the government. They have both championed the spending on the FIFA World Cup and Olympics. This way, the PT which led struggles for democracy and social reforms since the 1980s, has also been hit by the street demonstrators’ critique of the corrupt political parties.

While President Dilma was notoriously quiet the first week of the demonstrations, she changed her approach profoundly on Monday June 24th. After having met a delegation of activists from Movimento Passe Livre, she held a TV speech to the nation. She praised the demonstrators who used their democratic rights and raised their voices. She claimed they contributed to a much needed “oxygenation of the political system” by resisting the “money power in politics”. She denounced the police excessive use of force by the police, promised to deepen citizen participation in policy-making, and announced several initiatives. The key ones are firstly a popular referendum on political reform; secondly a national transport plan elaborated in a participatory way with full civil society involvement from the city to federal levels, followed by massive investments to improve ‘urban mobility’; and, thirdly, earmarking oil revenues for education.

By responding to the demonstrations and acknowledging the frustrations of the protesters, President Dilma won the initiative in the public debate. She changed the mood of the country from confrontation to dialogue. With her speech the President was able to steer the focus away from her impeachment, which was a demand that had been raised by the right-wing who had gained focus the first week of protests, towards a focus on political reform. Opinion polls show that 73 per cent of the people support her new initiative. Still, only 30 per cent approve the performance of her government, and her speech has not demobilized the people. While the demonstrations do not gather the same crowds as in mid June there are still protests, and people who participated have gained a political awareness that continues to put pressure on politicians to follow up on their promises. As such, one can say that Dilma’s proposals contributed to making Brazil what at the moment can be characterized as the world’s largest political workshop.

Political reform

Political reform has been discussed in Brazil for some years now. One of the main points of contestation is whether to end private funding of election campaigns which PT and the left wants to abolish. This proposal has however always been stopped by a majority in the parliament, where most of its members have been elected with private funding, and where politics are characterized by horse-trading and exchange of favors. However, the demonstrations have revealed a popular rage against the current political system and the lack of representativeness and legitimacy of the politicians and their parties. On June 24th President Dilma therefore proposed a referendum over a political reform.

Two possibilities arise from the convocation of a referendum: (i) it may approve a process of electing a special constitutional assembly with power to draft and vote the text for the political reform; or (ii) it may rely on the direct participation of the population who will vote on specific points for the political reform. A combination of the two is also possible. These options and how and whether they can bring a renewal of the political system are being discussed by the government, experts and the people, making “political reform” the most discussed topics in social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube in the end of June.

Dilma Rousseff also proposed a new law that considers corruption a heinous crime, with harsher penalties without bail. This decision was approved by the Senate on June 26 and heads for voting to the House of Representatives (“Câmara”) before being sanctioned by the President. The president also called for the implementation of the Law on Access to Information, which will increase transparency.

Public Transport

A second main focus of Dilma’s speech on June 24th was improvements in the area of public transport. She promised to allocate an additional BRL 50 billion (USD 25 billion) to investments in urban transport systems. São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other cities were quick to reverse the price increases on public transport which initially triggered the demonstrations. The announced decrease in the price of user fares will be compensated by the government in the form of increased subsidies to the companies operating the public transportation. However, these companies and their shady connections to politicians who have given them concessions were one of the targets of the protesters.

Therefore the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) has criticized these measures, and the movement calls for public inquiries into the linkages between transport concessionaries and politicians. In Rio de Janeiro, popular pressure led to the installation of a CPI (Parliamentary Inquiry Commission) to investigate the concession contracts between the municipality and the bus companies, which will be started in August.

MPL initially demanded that urban transport becomes a free-for-all public service, as part of the right-to-the-city which is already embodied in the federal City Statute from 2001. Depending on the city, some have reduced the demand to making transportation free only for students and unemployed, while reducing the general fare.

The national transport plan that Dilma proposes is to be elaborated with the full involvement of the civil society, as prescribed by the 1988 Constitution. In the 1990s, many cities run by the Workers’ Party (PT) excelled in participatory democracy. After Lula took power in 2003, almost every national policy sector has formulated its priorities and guidelines by conferences starting at the municipality level, continued at state levels and finalized at the federal level. Now it is time for the urban transport sector to practice this type of participatory policy-making.

The youth vs the power

What was fascinating about the June demonstrations is how quickly they spread from being a handful of leftist youth activists marching for cheaper public transportation to becoming an all-encompassing movement with the support of 81 percent of the population. The overwhelming majority of the people taking to the streets in June were young people from the middle-class who did not have much political formation or prior experiences with demonstrations. They were by the large mobilized through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Social media has not only been used to mobilize people but also as political tools. Videos portraying police violence uploaded online have giving credibility to the demonstrations. While the conservative media in the beginning characterized the protesters as a gang of vandals and troublemakers, justifying the police repression in order to protect public property, they were forced to change their discourse as the demonstrations spread. From one day to the next, the major Brazilian news corporation – O Globo – switched coat and supported the demonstrations. In other words, the protests have been a huge wake-up call for the traditional power centers.

… with unknown destination?

As the mass mobilizations calm down, the challenge is to bring the energy from the streets into concrete political change. The questions are to what extent activists from the MPL and other youth networks will participate in giving shape to the proposals suggested by Dilma, whether the conferences will be able to agree on clear policy recommendations, and last but not least whether policy recommendations coming out from these conferences will be implemented by the executive authorities even when vested private interests are challenged.

Although Brazil has been ruled by a centre-left coalition since 2003, it has not wanted to change the power relations in Brazil. The private financial and business elite has been supported rather than challenged by the government. Radical proposals from the civil and the mentioned public policy conferences have not been adopted by the government when it faces resistance from the right wing political and economic elites.

Due to conservative influences, the federal government has been weak and slow in its efforts to change the huge police forces that, to a large extent, keep on with their ‘shoot first’ legacy of the authoritarian past. Police reform is not yet high on Brazil’s agenda. Hence, the street demonstrators may continue to need vinegar. Where their march will end is still too early to announce.

* Braathen is leader and da Silva and Sørbøe are research assistants of the project ‘Cities against Poverty – Brazilian experiences’ at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR). The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway (2010-2013). Email: Einar.braathen@nibr.no.

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