Global Independent Analytics
Pedro Marin
Pedro Marin

Location: Brazil

Specialization: Latin America, Ukraine, North Korea

Brazil against the fare – another journey to come?

In most of Brazil’s capital cities public transportation fares just got more expensive a few weeks ago, and as usual, the Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre - MPL) is taking to the streets, gathering thousands of angry protesters.

It happens almost every year: as a response to the inflation, local governments increase the bus, metro, and train fares, and protesters seize the streets. In São Paulo, which is, economically speaking, Brazil’s most important city, the fare went from R$ 3.50 (approximately USD$ 0.87) to R$ 3.80 ( USD$ 0.95). That equals 0.41% of São Paulo’s minimum wage.

There have been seven demonstrations already – 6 of which were brutally repressed by the police. Indeed, on January 12, police didn’t even let the demonstration begin, and during a short period of six minutes threw about 49 stun grenades at the protesters – that is, one grenade exploded every 7 seconds at São Paulo’s most important avenue, Avenida Paulista.

The police and the Department of Public Safety say they did so because the protesters refused to adopt the route they had prepared – a move seen by the human rights organization Conectas as illegal.

So why is police attacking the protesters over and over?

The Journeys of June

One important reason is the fact that on June 2013, the Free Fare Movement took so many people to the streets that after two weeks of protests, 7 of 11 capital cities where fares were increased earlier - decided to take a step back and decrease the transport ticket prices – including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, two of Brazil’s most important cities.

The series of protests, later known as “Journeys of June”, grew after police brutally attacked protesters and journalists in São Paulo, on June 13. Videos of protesters being beaten emerged in social media, inflaming thousands all over the country and causing them to take to the streets.

As more people went to the demonstrations, new issues emerged, and people started to protest against corruption, the World Cup, against the elites and in favor of more investment in public healthcare and education. According to a survey by IBOPE Institute, about half of the people had never protested before then, most of them (89%) didn’t feel represented by any political party, and 62% were informed of the protests through Facebook. Only 4% were members of a party and 86% were not affiliated with any social movement, student organization or trade union.

The people who took to the streets were “common” people, outrage by the police violence and usually with no political background. Partisan militants (even from radical left-wing organizations, which had always been in the demonstrations, since the beginning of the movement), were expelled from the rallies by people chanting “no parties!”  What had begun as a popular movement against businessmen whose profits came from the bus fare rise turned into a common sense movement with numerous demands, carried out by middle-class protesters driven by the corporate media.

Indeed, most newspapers and television networks opposed the demonstrations at the beginning. The infamous right-wing analyst Arnaldo Jabor said on June 12 that the protesters were worth “not even 20 centavos [20 cents]” saying that they were vandals and radical leftists. Four days later – that is, after the police attacked protesters – Jabor started to support the movement.

The same went on with most news organizations: those who had published articles supporting the police and requesting the use of force against the protesters started to support the movement, calling the people to protest against the government.

Anyway, the movement grew so much that on June 21 Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addressed the nation, saying she would get in touch with governors and mayors to improve public services. She met with the movement’s representatives and agreed to increase investment in public transports, public healthcare and education, and to keep up with measures to maintain the economic stability of the country and carry out political reform.

What happened?

Later in 2013 the Mais Medicos [more doctors] program started – a measure aimed at bringing foreign doctors to poor regions of Brazil, where there aren’t hospitals – and it was established that 25% of the oil royalties of the fields discovered that year would be invested on healthcare and 75% on education. All these measures were responses to the Journeys of June.

Although Dilma tried to pursue these goals, and actually succeeded in many, she didn’t do well with the key ones. The political reform, for instance, ended up not revising much of Brazil’s political system. Out of 23 major points of the Brazilian political system, only 12 have actually changed. Issues like private funding for campaigns haven’t been modified. Other points changed for worse: according to the new laws, to have public funding and promotional time on TV, a party now has to get at least one candidate elected. That means that new and small parties will now depend a lot more on private funding – something which seems to be exactly the contrary of what the protesters wanted, as they were sick of Brazil’s familiar political scene.

Political use of the struggle against the fare

Leaving aside the fact that it’s already proven that the struggle against the fare can bring a lot of people to the streets, 2016 is unique is for three reasons: the municipal elections in Brazil to be held in October, the Olympic Games - scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro in May, and the fact that Brazil faces the worst economic and political crisis in decades. It’s a gunpowder barrel ready to explode.

It’s clear now that in 2013, São Paulo’s neoliberal governor Geraldo Alckmin, used the police forces to create an uprising aimed at damaging his opponent’s popularity – that is São Paulo’s mayor Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party and Brazilian President Dilma Roussef. And he succeeded for a while, but it ended up turning into a major backlash against him.

2013’s Journeys of June, with all their problems and limitations, achieved a lot of improvements for the people. If Alckmin again uses the same tactics, it could lead to a major blow to Haddad, taking into account we are months away from the municipal elections. It would also cause a blow to Dilma, who already faces a widespread rejection among the Brazilian people.

But it could backlash again. Only time will tell now. What seems inevitable is that if the Free Fare Movement gets as many people to the streets as it did in 2013, the political scenario will heat up. Either to the left or to the right, it will bring major changes.

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