For more than a week Brazilian workers have taken to the streets. Yesterday, the country witnessed its biggest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship. But the situation on the ground has confounded many international commentators.
Interviewing for Jacobin, Mark Bergfeld sheds light on new developments with Miguel Borba de Sa — a university lecturer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of Bolívia – Passos das revoluções and has written extensively on indigenous struggles in Latin America.
Mark Bergfeld is a socialist activist in London. He was a leading participant of the UK student movement in 2010.
Mark Bergfeld: How could a twenty-cent increase in bus fares spark protests in more than 100 towns and cities across Brazil?
Miguel Borba de Sa: In his book, The Road To Serfdom the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote that there are two areas that one cannot leave to the competitive principle: transport and the environment. Brazil’s bourgeoisie consistently fails to understand this.
In the last ten years transportation has become a lucrative business for the Brazilian elite and local government officials. Enterprises and corporations bid for local routes and lines. Local government officials cosy up to the bus companies for benefits.
Here in Brazil, transport costs cut into workers’ wages far more than other utilities such as electricity or water. Fares have risen faster than inflation. An average workers’ wage is 650 Brazilian real. A bus ticket is 2 real. This private-public relationship has broken down.
The movement we see on the streets today actually started in Porto Alegre. People protested the fare increase two months ago. The police turned violent. Public outrage followed and the hike was halted. Was it a victory? No! The money for the bus company was raised by exempting the local bus company from future tax payments. In Rio, for every real I pay for a ticket the local authorities adds the same amount in subsidies or tax exemption.
At the same time the huge infrastructure projects like the Confederation Cup, the Pope’s visit later this year, the FIFA World Cup have displaced poor people from the city center and, in many cases, even cut them off from public transport. Dissatisfaction and “unfairness” have been simmering on Facebook, in the popular neighbourhoods and among working class youths. Radicalization and marginalisation have gone hand in hand. Now there is collective rage.
A few days ago FIFA President Sepp Blatter condemned the protesters and said “we did not force the World Cup on you.”
In towns and cities where the World Cup will take place there has been an escalation of social conflicts on an unprecedented level for the last one and a half years. (People might remember Pinheirinho.)
Infrastructure and entertainments projects like the FIFA World Cup wreck people’s livelihoods and are class war from above. The protests don’t articulate concrete demands but people are automatically linking up the issues. The displacement of indigenous people and the further enrichment of the elites are at the core of the protests are two sides of the same coin. People are sick of the elites.
That’s why the escalation has been so rapid. There’s a daily escalation. FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that the World Cup might have to be cancelled. That led even more people to spill out into the streets. 80,000 people surrounded the stadium in Fortaleza where Brazil’s held its first match in the Confederations Cup. That’s more than the stadium’s capacity.
How are people organizing and coordinating the protests?
There’s no doubt about it. In many towns and cities the protests are spontaneous. People saw photos and reports on Facebook and started organizing their own protests.
In Rio de Janeiro the local authorities announced a hike in fares for the beginning of this year on 2 January. Anonymous, the hacking collective, organized a protest in response. Radical left organisations such as PSOL and others showed their solidarity with their protest. Only 95 people turned up yet the demonstration stopped the hike going forward.
In May we organized big demonstrations against the new Human Rights Commissioner who is a homophobe, racist and sexist. The demonstrations were big. The mainstream press denies that there is any correlation between these protests and the ones today.
Throughout all this time we organized assemblies (Forum Contra O Aumento Da Passagem) which brought different groups, students and non-political people together. In other cities, there have been similar initiatives. At least in Rio we never managed to get Anonymous and the hackers to come along. In other cities that might be different.
These assemblies are really beautiful. They are popular and really changed my outlook on radical politics. They have a political quality to them. I have never been involved in anything like it before.