Grass-roots movement in Brazil moves government to action

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Less than a month ago, 19-year-old Marcelo Hotimsky was organizing protests against a bus fare hike with members of his small Free Fare Movement, which was widely dismissed as a group of unrealistic troublemakers.

By Monday, he was in a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and discussing transportation policy.

In a picture of the meeting published nationally, the shock of pink hair on the movement member known as Leiloca burst out in contrast against the dark suits in the chambers of power. Hotimsky, wearing a black T-shirt in a video posted online after the meeting, laughed in seeming disbelief as he described what had happened.


“Even [Rousseff] admitted she had never sat down with a social movement like this to discuss transportation,” the philosophy student said.

By Wednesday, the PSC, a major party rumored to be putting forward Pernambuco state Gov. Eduardo Campos for the presidency in elections next year, announced it was not only in favor of reducing bus fares, but that it supported the group’s much more radical goal of free transportation for all.

The Free Fare Movement and other groups involved in the protests that brought more than a million people to the streets in the last two weeks have gotten used to saying that many things that seemed impossible yesterday are happening today. After a flurry of legislative activity in response to their varied demands, few people in Brazil are disagreeing.

The PSC’s declaration, nevertheless, was one of a few that struck analysts as perhaps disingenuous or at least hastily prepared by a confused and unprepared political class.

“Eduardo Campos is already the governor,” said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. “If he really wanted this, why doesn’t he do it, right now?”

Like protests in Turkey this year, the demonstrations in Brazil started around a specific issue — bus fares — then became much broader after a police crackdown. Unlike in Turkey, Brazil’s government seemed eager to show support for the protesters and respond to the public’s concerns.

The government has taken action this week to meet some of the protesters’ demands for social change. This included a proposal by Rousseff to put long-discussed political reform to a national vote and pledges of investment in transportation, health and education, which analysts say are badly needed.

The largest protests in 20 years appeared to catch everyone off guard, especially politicians. Rousseff, a former guerrilla in charge of a popular left-leaning government, seemed unsure at first about how to respond. Then on Monday, she shocked many by declaring the country should consider a vote on political reform, which the rest of government would then be required to approve. This was seen by many as a shrewd move to put the ball in the court of a deeply unpopular Congress.

Since then, legislators have passed laws that, among other things, dedicate all future royalties from oil sales to education and healthcare. (Rousseff had been fighting for a version of that bill since last year.)

Responding to widespread complaints of corruption, the Supreme Court this week ordered the first congressman to jail since the current constitution went into effect in 1988.

A video uploaded to YouTube on June 18, well after the protests were underway, showed an unknown man in a “V for Vendetta” mask calling for the protesters to unite behind “5 Causes,” based largely around prosecution of political corruption, which were then added onto demands regarding transportation, education, healthcare and police reform.

The video has now been updated. It says: “Cause 1 — check. Cause 4 — check. Coincidence?”

Protests played a visible role during Brazil’s dictatorship that ended in 1984, but they haven’t occurred in a large way since the 1992 impeachment of Fernando Collor, said Lalo Leal Filho, professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo.

“There was a dormant desire to take to the streets and complain,” said Leal Filho, who participated in the recent protests twice, “and that happened, rather uniquely, before many people even had picked unified banners they were marching behind. Someone said that the placards held up in the protests looked just like the Facebook pages that organized them, with everyone posting their own updates on their own personal walls. The government doesn’t know exactly how to respond.”

Fleischer, the political scientist, said: “These big shifts in the last week show representative democracy isn’t working here. If you’re an elected representative, you’re always supposed to be in tune with what the people want, and not just starting yesterday.”

Protests continued throughout the country, although in smaller and scattered groups, as Brazil prepared to take on Spain on Sunday in the final of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament. The contest has been widely seen as a test run for next year’s World Cup, which sparked the ire of protesters because it diverted investments away from social services and toward stadiums.

“I’m content so far with the government response,” said Carol Andrade, a 21-year-old student of international relations in Joao Pessoa, 1,800 miles from Sao Paulo, who spread the word last week on Facebook about the ‘5 Causes.’ “I’ll only be really happy when everything really changes. But this is a good start.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.