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The Meaning of and Perspectives for the Street Demonstrations in Brazil

Interview with Joao Pedro Stedile, of the coordination of the MST (Landless Workers Movement) for the periodical BRASIL DE FATO - Sao Paulo, 24th June 2013. Since the interview, President Dilma Rousseff has called for political reforms, and met members of the main organisation in the mobilisations.

Brazilian protesters in the streets of São Paulo, Globo News

Brasildefato:  HOW DO YOU ANALYSE THE RECENT DEMONSTRATIONS THAT HAVE SHAKEN BRAZIL IN THE LAST FEW WEEKS?  WHAT IS THE ECONOMIC BASIS FOR THEIR OCURRENCE?

Joao Pedro Stedile:  There are many different evaluations of them.  I take Erminia Maricato's analysisi.  She is our best specialist in urban issues, and was Executive Secretary in the Ministry for the Cities while Olivio Dutra was Ministerii.  She defends the thesis that Brazilian cities suffer an urban crisis, caused by this stage of finance capitalism.  There has been enormous property speculation, which increased rents and land prices by 150% in the past 3 years.  Capital has financed the sales of cars with no government control; the money is sent abroad and our traffic has become chaotic, and there has been no investment in public transport in the last 10 years. The housing programme 'My House, My Life' pushed the poor to the peripheries, without building any infrastructure.  All this has created a structural crisis where people are living in hell in the big cities, losing 3 or 4 hours a day in travel time, when they could be with their families, studying or enjoying cultural activities.  Add to this the terrible quality of public services, especially healthcare and equally education, from primary to secondary schools, where the children leave without being able to compose a simple text.  In higher education, 70% of university students are in diploma-selling shops, selling on credit.

Brasilde fato:  AND FROM THE POLITICAL POINT OF VIEW, WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?

JPS:  The 15 years of neoliberalism, plus the last 10 years of government by a coalition of classes, transformed politics into a mere hostage of the interests of capital.  The parties stagnated in their practices and turned into mere acronyms made up, mainly, of opportunists seeking public posts or fighting for public money for their own purposes.  All young people born after the right-wing governments have had no opportunity to take part in politics.  Now, to have a chance of any elected position, for example municipal councillor, you need to have over a million Realesiii, or 460,00 dollars US (£300,000) and to become a Deputy (MP) it costs around 10 million.  Capitalists pay the piper, and then call the tune.  Young people are fed up with this bourgeois, mercantile way of doing politics.

But the most serious thing is that all the instituted left-wing parties, all of them, adopted these methods.  They got hardening of the arteries and became bureaucratic.  And therefore young people developed a repulsion for the way parties work.  And they are right.  Young people are not apolitical, on the contrary, they are very political, taking politics onto the streets, even without being conscious of its significance.  They are saying they can no longer put up with seeing these political practices on the TV, the hijacking of votes based on lies and manipulation.  The left-wing parties must learn again that their role is to organise social struggle, and politicise the working class.  If not, they will end up in the pauper's grave of history.

Brasildefato:  AND WHY HAVE THE DEMONSTRATIONS EXPLODED ONLY NOW?

JPS:  It's probably been the product of a sum of various factors of a mass psychological nature, rather than any planned political decision.  The scandal of the over-billing for the world cup stadiums, a real provocation to the public,  added to the whole climate I've mentioned.  Look at some cases:  The 'Globo Network'iv received from the Rio de Janeiro State  and municipal governments 20 million Reales of public money, to organise the little show of just two hours for the draw for the Confederations Cup matches.  The Brasilia stadium cost 1,400 millionv and there are no buses in the city!  This is the explicit dictatorship that the FIFA imposed and the governments bowed down to.  The re-inauguration of the Maracana stadium was a real slap in the face to the Brazilian people.  The photos were clear - in the greatest temple of world football there was not a single black or mixed-race face!

So the rise in bus fares was just the straw that broke the camel's back.  Just the spark to light the generalised feeling of revolt, of indignation.  The gasoline for the spark came from Geraldo Alckminvi and his State government.  Protected by the Sao Paulo mass media that he finances, and accustomed to repress the people with impunity as he did in the 'Pinheirinho'vii and other rural and urban evictions, he threw his police into barbaric attacks. Everyone reacted then.  The youth rose up, at just the right time.  The 'Passe Livre' (Free Fares) movement has the credit for this - they knew how to capitalise on this popular disaffection, and organised the protests in good time.

Brasil de fato:  WHY HAS THE WORKING CLASS NOT YET COME ONTO THE STREEETS?

JPS:  It's true, the working class has not yet been on the streets.  In the streets are the sons and daughters of the middle class, the lower middle class and also some 'sub-proletarian' youth, as Andre Singer would say, who study and work in the service sector, who have more access to consumer goods, and who want to be listened to.  These latter have been more visible in provincial capitals and in the peripheries.  The reduction in bus fares was of real interest to the people, and that was where the 'Movimento Passe Livre' hit the nail on the head, they were able to call demonstrations in the name of the people's interests.  The people has supported the demonstrations, this is shown by the index of popularity of the young people, above all when they were repressed.

The working class has been slow to respond, but when they do, it directly affects capital.  This has not yet begun to happen.  I think that the organisations which act as mediators of the working class have not yet understood the present situation, and are a bit timid.  But the class, as a class, I think is prepared to fight.  See, the number of strikes for better wages has already recovered the average of the decade of the '80s.  I feel it is only a matter of time, the mediators just have to hit on the right slogans to motivate the class to move.

In the last few days, in some smaller cities and on the periphery of the big cities, demonstrations have begun with slogans for real local demands.  And that is very important.

Brasildefato:  AND YOU, THE MST AND RURAL MOVEMENTS HAVE NOT YET MOVED EITHER

JPS:  That's true.  In the capitals where we have settlements and family farms nearby, we are already taking part.  I have seen myself that we have been very well received, with our red flags and our demands for agrarian reform and healthy, cheap food for all.  I think that in the next few weeks there could be more participation, with peasants holding demonstrations even on highways and municipalities in the interior.  Our militants are itching to get into the fight and mobilise.  I hope they will do so soon.

Brasil de fato:  WHAT IS, IN YOUR OPINION, THE ORIGIN OF THE VIOLENCE THAT OCCURRED IN SOME DEMONSTRATIONS?

JPS:  First of all, let's put this in perspective.  The bourgeoisie, through its TV networks, has used the tactic of frightening the people, showing only the propaganda of the violent vandals.  They are a minority, and insignificant compared with the thousands of people who mobilised.  The right-wing is interested in implanting in people's minds that this is only disorder, and finally if there is chaos, put the blame on the government and demand that the armed forces step in.  I hope the government will not be stupid enough to call in the National Guard and the armed forces to repress the demonstrations.  That would be the answer to the right-wing's dreams!

What provoked the scenes of violence was the way the Military Police intervened.  The MP have been trained since the military dictatorship to treat the people as the enemy - always.  And in the States with PSDB governments (Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais), they are still sure of acting with impunity.

There are also groups of right-wingers organised for provocations and looting.  In Sao Paulo fascist groups and hired thugs have been on the streets.  In Rio de Janeiro the militias organised for protection of conservative politicians have been active.  Also, of course, there is the lumpen substratum which appears at any popular activity, be it in the stadiums, the carnival or even in church festivals, trying to take advantage.

Brasildefato:  SO THERE IS CLASS STRUGGLE ON THE STREETS, OR IS IT ONLY THE YOUTH SHOWING THEIR INDIGNATION?

JPS:  It is clear that there is a class struggle on the street, if still concentrated on an ideological dispute.  The most serious thing is that the young people on the streets themselves, because of their class origin, are not aware that they are taking part in an ideological dispute.  They are being political in the best possible way, on the streets.  And they write on their placards: 'We are against Parties and Politics'?  That is why the messages on the posters have been so diffuse.  In every city, every demonstration, there is a permanent ideological dispute around a struggle for class interests.  The youth is being fought over, for right-wing or left-wing ideas.  For the capitalists or for the working class.

There are clear signs of a well-articulated right wing, with its intelligence services, that use the internet, hide behind masks and are able to create waves of rumours and opinions on the internet.  Suddenly, one strange message becomes thousands of messages, and the result is spread as if it were the expression of a majority.

These mechanisms of manipulation have been used by the CIA and the US State Department in the Arab Spring, the attempts to destabilise Venezuela, and in the war in Syria.  And of course they are operating here as well, to achieve their objectives.

Brasildefato:  WHAT ARE THE OBJECTIVES AND THE PROPOSALS OF THE RIGHT WING?

JPS:  The ruling class, the capitalists, the interests of the US empire and its ideological spokespeople, who appear on TV every day, have one big objective: to erode support for the government of Dilma, to weaken the organisational forms of the working class, defeat any proposal for structural change in Brazilian society and win the 2014 elections, to regain total hegemony of command of the Brazilian State, which is in dispute at the moment.

To achieve these objectives they are still feeling their way, alternating their tactics.  At times they provoke violence, to divert attention from the objectives of the youth.  At times they get their messages onto the placards of the youth.  For example, the Sao Paulo demonstration of Saturday 22nd, although small, was completely manipulated by right-wing sectors who concentrated solely on the fight against PEC 37viii,  with strangely identical posters and cries.  I'm sure the majority of the youth do not even know what this is about.  It's a secondary issue for the people, but the right wing is trying to raise the banner of morality, as the UDNix did in times past.  What they are already doing in the Congress, very soon they will take to the streets.  I've seen in the social media controlled by rightists that their slogans, as well as the PEC 37, are: Getting Renanx out of the Senate; CPIxi and transparency for the World Cup spending; declare corruption a 'most serious' crime, and end the special immunity from prosecution for politicians.  The most fascist groups are already calling 'DILMA OUT' and collecting signatures for her impeachment.  Happily, these slogans have nothing to do with the living conditions of the masses, although they can be manipulated by the mass media.  Objectively, they could also become a shot in the foot - the Brazilian bourgeoisie, its businessmen and politicians are, in reality, the most corrupt and greatest corrupters.  Who took the inflated expenses of the Cup?  The Globo network and the contracting companies!

BRASILDEFATO:  WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FACING THE WORKING CLASS, POPULAR ORGANISATIONS AND THE LEFT WING PARTIES?

JPS:  There are many challenges. Firstly, we have to recognise the nature of these demonstrations, and all get out onto the streets, fight for hearts and minds to politicise the youth who have no experience of class struggle.

Secondly, the working class needs to mobilise itself, get onto the streets, show itself in the factories, the countryside and building sites, as Gerardo Vandré would say.  Raise their demands for solving the concrete problems of the class, from the economic and political points of view.

In third place, we need to explain to the people who their main enemies are.  Right now they are the banks, the transnational companies who have taken control of our economy, the big agro-business landowners and the speculators.

We need to take the initiative, to set the agenda for society and demand the approval of the bill for reduction of the working week to 40 hours; demand that the priority for public investment be health, education, agrarian reform.  But to do this the government would need to reduce interest rates and transfer the resources of the primary surplus, those 200 thousand million Realesxii that every year go to just 20 thousand rich people, rentiers, creditors of a domestic national debt that we never incurred.  This money needs to be transferred to productive and social investment.  This is the question that the class struggle poses for the Dilma government: Will the public resources go to the rentier bourgeoisie, or for resolving the people's problems?  We need Congress to approve, with urgency, a profound political reform that can be in force for the next elections.  This must, as a minimum institute exclusively public financing for election campaigns, the right to recall elected candidates, and self-called popular plebiscites.

We need a tax reform which would charge the ICMSxiii tax again, and also tax the export of raw materials, penalise the wealth of the rich, and reduce the tax burden on the poor, who pay the most tax.

We need the government to suspend the auctions of the oil deposits and all privatising concessions for mining and other public areas.  It is no good to spend all the royalties from crude oil extraction on education, if those royalties represent only 8% of the income from oil, and the other 92% will go to the transnational companies that will get the oil in these auctions!

A structural urban reform, which would again prioritise good quality, free public transport.  It has been shown that free public transport for the masses in the big cities is not expensive, nor difficult to implement.  Property speculation must be controlled.

Finally, we need to take advantage of the moment, and approve the proposal of the broadly representative National Communication Conference, for democratisation of the communication media.  And thus finish the monopoly of the Globo network, so that the people and their popular organisations should have ample access to be broadcast, create their own media with public funding.  I have heard from various youth movements coordinating the marches, that perhaps this is the only slogan that unites them all:  Down with the Globo monopoly!  But for these slogans to resonate in society and put pressure on the government and the politicians, it is essential that the working class mobilise.

BRASILDEFATO:  FROM THE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS YOU PRESENTED A LETTER ASKING FOR A MEETING WITH PRESIDENT DILMA AND SHE ACCEPTED AND REPLIED ON TELEVISION.  WHAT WILL YOU TAKE TO HER?

JPS:  I have faith that this meeting will occur soonxiv.  The social movements together will surely send young representatives, who were on the streets, and present the platform I have described.  I hope she will have the sensitivity to listen to the young people.

Brasildefato:  WHAT SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT DO NOW?

JPS:  I hope that the government will have the sensitivity and intelligence to take advantage of this support, this clamour coming from the streets, which is only the synthesis of a wide-spread consciousness in society, that it is time to change.   And to change in favour of the people.  To do this, the government needs to confront the ruling class, in all aspects.  To confront the rentier bourgeoisie, transferring the payment of interest to investments in areas that resolve the problems of the people.  To promote political and tax reformsxv.  To move towards the approval of the proposal for democratisation of the mass media.  To create mechanisms for heavy investment in public transport, leading to zero fares.  Accelerate agrarian reform and a plan for the production of healthy food for the internal market.

To guarantee the prompt application of 10% of GNP in public funding for education at all levels, from kindergartens in the big cities, quality primary education, to the universalisation of access to public universities for the youth. Without these measures, there will be disillusion, and the government will hand over the political initiative to the right wing; there will be more demonstrations, leading to the erosion of support for the government up to the 2014 elections.  It is time for the government to ally with the people, or it will pay the bill in the future.

BRASILDEFATO:  WHAT PERSPECTIVES COULD THESE DEMONSTRATIONS BRING FOR THE COUNTRY IN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS?

JPS:  Everything is still unknown, because the youth and the masses are being fought for.  That is why the popular forces and the left parties need to exert all their energies, to get out into the streets; demonstrate, raise the banners of struggle for the demands which interest the people.  Because the right wing will do the same thing and raise their banners - conservative, retrograde, for criminalisation and stigmatisation of the ideas of social change.  We are in the midst of an ideological battle, of which no-one yet knows the result.  In every city, every demonstration, we need to fight for hearts and minds.  And those who are cast aside will be cast aside by history.

Translation and endnotes: Daniel Morgan, Chile

[Thanks to Daniel Morgan for translating and sending this to Portside.]