WITH stunning speed, protests that started on June 6th in São Paulo over a 20-centavo (nine-cent) hike in bus fares have morphed into the biggest street demonstrations Brazil has seen since more than 20 years ago, when citizens took to the streets to demand the impeachment of their president on corruption charges. The first protests were dismissed by paulistanos unsympathetic to the organisers, Movimento Passe Livre (The Movement for Free Travel), a radical group with the unrealistic aim of making public transport free at the point of use. Commuters were unimpressed by having already hellish journeys made even worse by road closures and outraged by the vandalism committed by a hard core. The city’s conservative newspapers called for the police to crack down.
All that changed on June 13th when the state’s unaccountable, ill-trained and brutal military police turned a mostly peaceful demonstration into a terrifying rout. Dozens of videos, some from journalists, others from participants and bystanders, show officers with their name tags removed firing stun grenades and rubber bullets indiscriminately at fleeing protesters and bystanders and hunting stragglers through the streets. Motorists trapped in the mayhem ended up breathing pepper spray and tear gas. Demonstrators found with vinegar (which can be used to lessen the effect of tear gas) were arrested. Several journalists were injured, two shot in the face with rubber bullets at close range. One has been told he is likely to lose his sight in one eye. The following day’s editorials took a markedly different tone.
By June 17th what has become dubbed the “V for Vinegar” movement or “Salad Revolution” had spread to a dozen state capitals as well as the federal capital, Brasília. The aims had also grown more diffuse, with marchers demanding less corruption, better public services and control of inflation. Many banners protested against the disgraceful cost of the stadiums being built for next year’s football World Cup. Brazil has already spent 3.3 billion reais, three times South Africa’s total four years earlier, and only half the stadiums are finished. “First-world stadiums; third-world schools and hospitals”, ran one placard.
The marchers too were more diverse. An estimated 65,000 participated in São Paulo, with many more women, families and middle-aged folk than at previous protests. The state security-chief, Fernando Grella Vieira, met organisers earlier that day and agreed a route; he gave the military police orders not to use rubber bullets and to stand by unless the protest turned violent. The result was a mostly peaceful, even joyous event.
Most marches in other cities passed off without serious violence too, though in Rio de Janeiro protesters and police clashed outside the Maracanã stadium, refurbished at a cost of over 1 billion reais for the World Cup—just six years after its last pricey rebuild. It was no coincidence that violence broke out in Rio, whose police are trigger-happy and corrupt even by Brazilian standards. In Brasília a group of demonstrators managed to scale the roof of Congress, but the police there reacted with restraint.
Similar escalations after seemingly minor flash points in recent years in Britain, France, Sweden and Turkey have appeared to be linked to some or all of the following features: government repression, high youth-unemployment, racial conflict, falling living standards and anger over immigration. Brazil is a different story. Its democracy is stable. Youth unemployment is at a record low. Brazilian racism is an internalised reality, not a daily street battle—and anyway, most of the marchers were white. The past decade has seen the most marked sustained rise in living standards in the country’s history. As for immigrants, though Brazil was built by them it now has hardly any. Only 0.5% of the population was born abroad.
None of this is to say that Brazilians have nothing to complain about: they pay the highest taxes of any country outside the developed world (36% of GDP) and get appalling public services in return. Violent crime is endemic; crack cocaine is sold and consumed openly in every big city centre. A minimum-wage worker in São Paulo’s centre whose employer does not cover transport costs (an obligation for formal employees) will spend a fifth of gross pay to spend hours a day on hot, overcrowded buses that trundle in from the city’s periphery. But this is nothing new in a country of gaping inequality—and in fact economic growth in the past decade has brought the biggest gains to those at the bottom of the heap.
So, why now? One reason is surely a recent spike in inflation, which is starting to eat into the buying power of the great majority of Brazilians who are still getting by on modest incomes, just as a big ramp-up in consumer credit in recent years has left them painfully overstretched. Bus fares have not risen for 30 months (mayors routinely freeze fares in municipal-election years, such as 2012, and in January this year the mayors of Rio and São Paulo agreed to wait until June before hiking in order to help the federal government massage the inflation figures). In fact, the rise in São Paulo’s and Rio’s bus fares comes nowhere close to matching inflation over that 30-month period. But bus fares are under government control, unlike other fast-rising costs such as those for housing and food. Perhaps they were simply chosen as a scapegoat.
More broadly, the very middle class that Brazil has created in the past decade—40m people have escaped from absolute poverty, but are still only one paycheck from falling back into it, and 2009 was the first year in which more than half the population could be considered middle class—is developing an entirely new relationship with the government. They see further improvements in their living standards as their right and will fight tooth and nail not to fall back into poverty. And rather than being grateful for the occasional crumb thrown from rich Brazilians’ tables, they are waking up to the fact that they pay taxes and deserve something in return. Perhaps their government’s triumphalism over those shiny new stadiums was the final straw.