Brazilians marching on the street: what´s behind 20 cents

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By Walênia Silva:

Walênia Silva is an adjunt professor at the Music School at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Brazil. Dr. Silva completed her PhD. at the College of Education at UIUC.

Last June, Brazilians decided to march in the streets in peaceful protest. It started in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, on June 13th, around 5pm. Newspapers announced that the main reason was the R$ 0,20 cents reais ($0.10 cents/dollar) increase in the public transportation fare. The mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, said, “I don´t understand why people are protesting. I really don´t”. Perhaps the fact that he has a helicopter available while regular citizens are being asked to pay more for might explains his confusion. In meeting with his employees, the mayor also said that the R$ 0,20 cents was here to stay because there were too many taxes and expenses involved and that was the minimum that the city could handle to maintain the transport system at all. Daily protests followed and a second march on the streets took place on July 17th with more than 65,000 participants. Protesters had more on their minds and they made this clear, carrying signs that read “It is not just because R$ 0,20 cents”.

Protests emerged all over Brazil with similar marches, mostly in the state capitals. People cited concerns with ranging from the  lack of investments in Brazilian public health and schools to there being too much money spent on the FIFA Confederations World Soccer Cup (FIFA). Features of the marches ran all day long on Brazil’s primary TV station .

After the first marches took place, protesters posted a list of requests on Facebook. The list included specific requests of the mayor, the governor, and the president. The main topic was better use of public money. For the city, this included reducing the bureaucracy,regarding access  to public hospitals and increasing investments in the structure and equipment for public health care; immediate construction of public subway lines (instead of the private system that runs the bus lines); better payment for teachers, as well as more investment in schools; and official opposition against projects or policy that offers pathological treatment for homosexuals. Requests directed to the governor included: effective financial support for cities demands concerning health and education; investments in after-school programs; official opposition against violence toward public gatherings; and, transparency concerning the use of public money. Citizens asked that the president make governors follow through on their policies and that she support action on the requests made of government at lower levels. They also asked for transparency in police and security matters, and that PEC37—a proposal to give the police exclusive responsibility to investigate federal crimes, taking the responsibility away from the government offices be scrapped.

President Dilma gave her first speech on national TV on June 21st. Her popularity rating dropped from between 57-64 points to 40. Invitations on Facebook for citizens to join the marches increased with one caveat– people carrying flags of political parties were not welcome. The protest was for regular citizens. At the third march in Belo Horizonte on June 26, 100,000 people came out. A young couple with their two sons gave an interview explaining why they were protesting with their kids. The father explained that he works, pays his taxes, and his oldest son needs treatment for breathing problems–a treatment that the public hospitals do not offer. He was protesting for their rights and his kids´ future.

The town where I live was also taking part in these protests.  Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, has 3.5 million inhabitants. It was one of the cities that hosted games for FIFA. Several marches in Belo Horizonte occurred on the game days themselves. The first march began peacefully with 20,000 participants. One aspect of Belo Horizonte made for particularly powerful contrasts. The soccer stadium and the Federal University campus are next to each other. On a regular game day some people park on campus and walk to the stadium. As the FIFA games approached, the university president cancelled classes and closed offices for the game days.  FIFA required establishing a no-vehicle perimeter around the stadium. Only people attending the games were permitted in the area. FIFA also demanded that the streets around the stadium be in perfect conditions. I live by the stadium and I saw with my own eyes streets being repaved twice in less than two months, all with public money.

When protesters marched in Belo Horizonte, the route they took was about 6.5 miles, moving from downtown towards the Mineirão soccer stadium. As the group got closer to the stadium, the state police tried to block it using rubber bullets and teargas. That day, the state governor, Antônio Anastasia, requested that the street cameras, controlled by the city and police, be turned off. The only Video footage we have now was taken by marchers themselves. That night, the governor called Brazilian president, Dilma, and asked that she send elite soldiers. 1,200 fully equipped soldiers soon arrived. Neither Anastasia nor Dilma made any comments on TV.

Two issues come to mind here. Firstly, when Brazil was selected to host the World Cup,  a new traffic plan was designed for the streets surrounding the stadium. The city removed more than 10 families from the area. Some lived there illegally in a small slum (favela), some did not. The families protested, posting signs at the bus stops in the area to no avail.  I have no information about where the city sent these families. It hardly seems worth the “improvement,” especially if you consider the months of work spent on the change. Later, this area was the site of the greatest amount of property damage. I heard from friends and student marchers that the damage was done by a small group of among them.

A second point that comes up relates to the use of public space for the FIFA games and as a site to act against the protesters. The city also has a small stadium located right next to the larger Mineirão stadium. For ten years this space has hosted an artifacts fair twice a week. Because of the games, FIFA´s offices were installed in this stadium and the fair was simply discontinued. University space was also used as a headquarters for the 1,200 soldiers sent by President Dilma. From there, they fired rubber bullets and teargas at marchers. Both of these uses for public space were met with anger and protest by artisans, university professors, and students.

After extensive protest, the people got some significant results. Government officials in several announced a reduction in public transport fees, including Belo Horizonte. In Brasília, the Capitol, senators and congressman worked more than usual, deciding on topics that had been pending for years, and the move to pass a constitutional amendment to revoke government office authority to investigate federal was defeated. Clearly, there is a lot more at stake than 20 cents.

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