Riots in Rio: what’s going on?

By Dr Jon Moran

The protests in Brazil need to be understood within the context of Brazilian politics over the last 40 years. Brazil was under military rule from 1964-1985. The previous populist democratic government of João Goulart had been seen as a threat by elites in Brazil and by the USA, worried that Latin America was moving to the left just as the Cold War was at an intense phase. A coup in 1964 ousted Goulart and the new military rulers wanted to transform Brazilian society but by the 1970s their twin dreams of economic growth and political stability had failed. But that period of military rule gave us many of the images we think of today: the favelas, disparities in income, the drugs and the gangs and the groups that make up Brazil’s energetic civil society.

It was the 1970s that Lula, one of Brazil’s most charismatic leaders emerged. Lula was one of the leaders of the strong labour movement that developed in the industrial belts outside Sao Paulo and Rio. These educated unionised workers demanded more pay and better conditions but their agitation morphed into a wider political project to bring democracy back to Brazil. They were joined by students, public sector workers, journalists and some sectors of the middle class. It was also in the 1970s that Brazil’s other darker social movements developed. While the Brazilian football team was dazzling (but not winning) the World Cup in 1978 and 1982 the favelas, the massive shanty towns covering the sides and outskirts of Brazil’s major cities were mushrooming. With them came the brilliance of Brazilian music (google the brilliant Marcos Valle or the CD Gilles Peterson in Brazil) but also drugs and crime. By the 1980s Brazil was a vibrant but unstable society with great disparities of wealth, groups willing to demonstrate and take action whether to fortify their favelas against the corrupt police, or to mobilise the Worker’s Party – the Party repressed by the military government but which would go on to provide two of Brazil’s Presidents. It is these patterns that have come to fore at the moment.

The military had allowed a political liberalisation (abertura) in the 1970s which had permitted some of the social forces like workers organisations to develop – unions were able to organise but their political wing, the Workers Party was banned. But then in 1982 Brazil was hit, like many countries by a massive debt crisis, one reason that convinced the military it was time to leave power – and leave the problems – to democracy. Brazil underwent a successful transition to democracy but as the academic Kurt Weyland has argued this was a transition to a democracy and a neoliberal economy. So while the economic reforms and commitment to the freemarket kept the military (and the ever watchful USA) satisfied that a radical leftist government would not return to power, it also stored up and even exaggerated Brazil’s already deep economic and social problems. By the time of democracy in the mid-1980s Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world and the new democracy under President Sarney stabilised the political system but didn’t change the economy. President Fernando Collor (1990-92), found guilty of corruption after a Senate investigation showed the vigour of Brazilian democracy but also the old curse of corruption.

But perhaps the two most important political leaders in Brazil recently have been Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula. Cardoso was a Marxist influenced academic who supported dependency theory in the 1970s (the idea that the international economic system was structurally biased in favour of the West and that Third World development required state leadership and a stress on domestic equality). But by the time of his term of office from the mid-90s to the early 2000s he was engaged in opening up and privatising large swathes of the Brazilian economy. His successor as President, Lula, also underwent a transformation, a former left wing leader he took the Worker’s Party to influence in Congress and finally after years of trying won the Presidency in 2002. He tried to find a ‘third way,’ between neoliberalism and state control of the economy. His government increased social spending on the poor (through a transfer programme called the bolsa familia) and pushed public infrastructure projects and other Keynesian policies to expand the economy. But Lula also discarded his leftist politics and continued to marketise Brazil’s economy, and from this a series of massive corruption scandals resulted.

So where does all this get us? This long and twisted road has shown that Brazil is still characterised by the major forces that emerged in the last 40 years: a vigorous civil society that campaigns on labour rights, government corruption, inequality and violence; an economy that turned away from the developmental ideas of the 1950s towards neoliberalism; an unequal society characterised by crime and violence whether from the favelas or the corrupt police and militias who try to control them; and finally a political elite that is drawn towards corruption as a means of rule. The despair of many Brazilians comes from the fact that events like the World Cup and the Olympics show that Brazil has changed but is still the same. The Workers Party is in power but politicians are still corrupt. The World Cup might bring construction jobs but the favelas and the football fans still live in poverty. Brazil’s paramilitary police the BOPE (see the brilliant film Elite Squad) might be cleaning up the favelas, but that doesn’t clear up poverty or lack of life chances.

As one former gang leader says in Jon Blair’s brilliant documentary on Brazil ‘Dancing With The Devil’:

‘Every child dreams of becoming a football player, a samba musician, a funk singer or to be the boss of a favela. It’s what earns the most money. Because, with no education, no resources at all, more often than not their brothers and sisters go hungry. So they look to football, to funk. And samba. But when they can’t get it, what do they do? They end up embraced by the gangs.’

Gangs in a way are one form of resistance and job creation (that doesn’t mean they should be glamorised) and it’s a form of resistance that receives a lot of attention. What we are witnessing now is Brazil’s other tradition of resistance, the one that brought democracy. Whenever you see a mass demonstration that lasts, it is always a symptom that the people recognise what’s wrong with society. Its not just raised bus fares, or expensive World Cup tickets. Its what these things say about the society. So when the World Cup starts next year and the Western middle classes start getting excited and taking clichés over Brazilian Brahma lager and the BBC starts zooming in on thongs down on the Copacabana remember that’s not all that Brazil is – so are the working and middle class kids, public sector workers and favela dwellers producing music, writing graffiti, demonstrating and kicking off.


Dr Jon Moran is Reader in Security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.

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