Brazil’s militant middle

What was behind this summer’s protests?
August 21, 2013

"Rubber bullets and tear gas in the heart of São Paolo elicit a very different reaction from when they are used in favelas." (© Agencia Estado/Chine Nouv/SIPA/Rex Features)

When the Pope-mobile carrying the pontiff took a wrong turning on President Vargas Avenue in the centre of Rio de Janeiro in July, the faithful surged towards the open vehicle, desperate to touch his Holiness and hand over their babies for a quick blessing. The Pope had barely touched down from Rome and already the Rio authorities had to scramble in response to a serious threat to his security.

The disasters continued. Later that day, the city’s metro suffered a two-hour power cut, stranding pilgrims and workers while provoking an even greater gridlock than usual in the heart of the city. Each day brought new examples of incompetence in organising the Pope’s visit, and the public aimed its wrath at Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, and the State Governor, Sergio Cabral. Cabral’s popularity fell to about 12 per cent; just seven weeks earlier, with ratings of more than 55 per cent, he was widely regarded as one of the most successful and popular Governors in Rio’s history.

The collapse in his reputation is the result of a perfect storm of failures that came together in six weeks this summer. The distant thunderclaps began in May, when a judge ruled that there had been irregularities in the bidding process to rebuild the iconic Maracanã stadium. (In early August, Governor Cabral announced a u-turn by suspending the privatisation process).

At the same time, rumours of trouble surfaced regarding his signature security policy, the UPP or Pacification, a courageous and systematic attempt to reduce violence in Rio’s favelas, the huge slums that are found in most Brazilian cities and provide the country with cheap labour and a plentiful supply of affordable cocaine and high-quality marijuana. It seems that the leaders of the city’s two police forces, the Military Police and the Civil Police, both of which are critical to the UPP’s success, were refusing to co-operate, endangering the entire project.

Furthermore, the state and municipal governments have been investing both real and political capital in persuading the outside world that they will be ready for the coming sporting mega events, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, as traffic jams lengthen, property prices skyrocket and power cuts strike at any moment.

Corruption is endemic in Brazilian governance but what has tipped Rio’s middle class over the edge is the sheer incompetence of Cabral’s administration. Fifteen years of rising living standards and increased educational opportunities has left the middle class with new aspirations and expectations. The social structure has been changing but the political system has not shifted with it.

The demonstrations which swept Brazil this summer, bringing more than a million protestors onto the streets, began in São Paulo at the beginning of June but they reached their most violent intensity in Rio. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators descended upon the area known as the Centre, the administrative hub and a hotch-potch of colonial and functionalist architecture punctured by poor districts which are now becoming fashionable destinations as house prices push locals out of the beachside areas of Ipanema and Copacabana.

The size and intensity of the demonstrations took police by surprise as the colourful masses surged towards them in Floriano Square in front of the Municipal Theatre, waving huge Brazilian flags and banners demanding investment in education, health and transport. Brazil is one of the most highly-taxed societies in the developing world but this has never been reflected in the standards of its public services which are universally excoriated.

Fairly soon, the Black Block became a familiar presence at the head of all the demonstrations. The anarchic paramilitaries of the protests, these young men, masked and dressed from head to toe in black, were ready to use violence against the notorious shock battalions of the military police. But although there were intense and violent exchanges, most of the demonstrations exuded a humour and colourful joy usually associated with Carnival.

Until five years ago, Rio was one of the most violent cities in the world; it was losing much of its industry, including the entire banking sector, to its southern rival, São Paulo; international travellers avoided it, fearing for their safety; and its infrastructure was visibly disintegrating—the pavements and roads crumbled, landslides during the rainy season buried entire streets, the transport and health systems were at breaking point.

Following the economic reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and driven by its vast mineral and agricultural wealth, the Brazilian economy began to boom. This upturn coincided with Fifa, the governing body for international football, awarding Brazil the World Cup in 2014 and the International Olympic Committee awarding Rio the Olympics in 2016. Optimism spread across the country as the charismatic President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in power from 2003 to 2011, built on the social programmes of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

During Lula’s eight years in power, 40m Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and joined Brazil’s rapidly expanding lower-middle class. Lula remains the most influential politician in Brazil—almost every candidate in any key election, regardless of party affiliation, will approach Lula for his endorsement. For many Brazilians, he is a living saint. Yet in the past two years, his centre left Workers’ Party (PT) has been tainted by a huge corruption scandal and when PT activists attempted to join the demonstrations with their Party banners and slogans, they were quickly chased away by other protestors. For the first time, the PT was regarded as much a part of the establishment as its parliamentary competitors. Today even Lula has lost some of his sheen.

But nothing compares to Sergio Cabral’s decline in popularity. As Governor of Rio de Janeiro state since 2006, Cabral benefited from this new sense of prosperity. Yet he, and Rio’s small clique of fabulously wealthy oligarchs who underwrote his most high-profile projects such as the renewal of the favelas and the impressive if grandiose cultural programmes, had failed to register that Presidents Cardoso and Lula, capitalising on Brazil’s economic boom, had unleashed a significant social force—an increasingly educated, self-confident, articulate and youthful middle class.

This summer’s mass demonstrations announced the arrival of this new class. Yet no one expected the protests. Not the politicians, not the police, not the business community and not the demonstrators themselves. The giant media corporations which dominate Brazilian life, above all the Globo conglomerate in Rio and the main newspaper in the economic capital, Folha de São Paulo, misread the situation. It is not an exaggeration to say that the country is going through a revolutionary moment, and the street protests have already changed Brazil’s political landscape, uniting a diverse and divided country against its ruling class.

The authorities’ reaction to the demonstrations differed greatly from city to city. Within 10 days of the first demonstration, people had taken to the streets in more than 100 municipalities. One demand was heard everywhere, whether in the wealthy south or the impoverished north-east—for a reduction in bus fares. But local issues were evident everywhere. In the north-eastern cities of Natal, Maceio and Fortaleza, governments were denounced for failing to deal with violence related to the drugs trade. Traditionally the most impoverished region of Brazil, the north east is now experiencing an investment boom and slowly rising living standards but these are accompanied by new problems and social tension.

In every region, local governments reacted with panic. In Rio, Governor Cabral decided first to allow police to use tear gas and rubber bullets and then to blame everyone but himself for the escalation in violence that followed. President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor as leader of the Workers’ Party, made a series of confusing political and economic concessions three weeks into the demonstrations. Yet she made at least one decision which could prove over the next 12 months to be a turning point in Brazilian politics—corruption would no longer be treated as little more than a misdemeanour. Henceforth, it would be categorised as among the most serious crimes in the penal code.


On Friday 28th June, a well-dressed middle-aged man gave himself up to police at a bus stop in the centre of Brasília. Natan Donadon had been on the run for two days after Brazil’s highest court had ordered his imprisonment. Donadon’s home is now a prison on the outskirts of Brasília where 12,600 prisoners are crammed into a space designed for 5,000. The prison also houses members of some of the world’s most brutal organised crime syndicates. For the moment Donadon is being held in an individual cell because of the significance of his arrest—he is Brazil’s first serving politician to be imprisoned since 1988. Plenty of political officials have been arrested and put on trial—in November, for instance, Brazil’s high court found a number of senior figures guilty of taking part in a huge vote-buying scheme—but until June, none had seen the inside of a prison.

Donadon was sentenced three years ago to 13 years for embezzling around £2.5m while serving in a regional assembly. This didn’t prevent his continued career rise within Brazilian politics. One reason that politicians almost never go to jail in Brazil is that they can be sentenced only by the Supreme Court. They then have the right to appeal and to remain at liberty while the court hears the appeal. This process can go on for years. Had it not been for the demonstrations, Donadon would still be serving as an MP, representing the people from whom he stole all that cash.

The event that led to his arrest took place three weeks earlier on the steps of the municipal theatre in São Paulo, 2,000 miles from his home state. About 3,000 people had responded to an appeal from a tenacious organisation called Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), the Movement for Free Passes. Since 2007, this group of predominantly young people had been arguing that free transport was a basic human right and that the transport bureaucracy was riddled with corrupt and even mafia-style practices. The biggest victims of the transport system were the inhabitants of the city’s slums, who often have to travel two to three hours a day in each direction to wealthy areas where they work. Not only does this consume a significant percentage of their measly earnings, it uses up to a quarter of their day.

The peaceful MPL demonstrators were protesting against a recent increase in the cost of metro, bus and train fares. Chanting the slogan, “Bring down our fares, or we’ll bring São Paulo to a halt!” (it rhymes in Portuguese), the protestors were greeted by a fearsome display of violence from the police. Truncheons, rubber bullets and tear gas are usually restricted to the favelas. Complaints about police violence here are common and routinely ignored. But in June, the police were ordered to deploy their well-honed mercilessness against a group of articulate middle-class students and office workers in the middle of São Paulo, who were supported by a group of influential lawyers. It rapidly became clear that the authorities had made a very big mistake.

Within a matter of days of the first modest demonstrations, Brazil’s young people had taken to social media to protest. Brazil has the highest percentage of internet users in South America and has more Facebook and Twitter accounts than anywhere else in the world except the United States. Equally important was the influence of the Ninja Media company, a group of journalists and activists who broadcast the unrest in real time, with countless examples of police brutality and evidence that the secret police had deployed agents provocateurs. The response was phenomenal—the protests flared like a forest fire burning out of control.

Demonstrators took to the streets with verve and swagger. Most demonstrations featured entertainments such as theatre groups performing satirical sketches using grotesque caricatures and puppets of figures like Cabral or Eike Batistia, until recently Brazil’s richest man. Some slogans were ubiquitous—for the nationalisation of bus companies, for the end of parliamentary immunity and for increased investment in the health service.

But the protest movement also enjoyed a stroke of luck. It coincided with the Confederations Cup, a football extravaganza that was intended as a dry run for the 2014 World Cup.

Together the governments of Brazil in collaboration with Rio State have conceived the Olympics and World Cup as a spectacular Brazilian entry onto the world stage. But preparations for the World Cup have been dogged by accusations of corruption and criminal investigations. This included the contract for the complete reconstruction and privatisation of the legendary Maracanã stadium in Rio, first built for the 1950 World Cup. Many inhabitants of Rio were displeased to learn in 2007 that the stadium would be privatised, but opposition to the project intensified earlier this year after it emerged that costs had spiralled to about £350m. In addition, the consortium involved with the project comprised giant multinational companies and some of Brazil’s richest men.

In part because of Brazilians’ fabled love of the game, it never occurred to Fifa, or to the Brazilian Confederation of Football, or to the government in Brasília, that the vast public funds made available to build the stadia for the World Cup would provoke ordinary Brazilians to articulate their profound disgust at the way public money was being spent.

So the shock that coursed through the whole country was immense when up to 2,000 people surrounded the newly-constructed Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília for the opening ceremony of the Confederations Cup on 15th June. Across the country 200,000 took to the streets in protest that day. Inside the stadium, the Presidents of Brazil and Fifa, Dilma Rousseff and Sepp Blatter, were booed. “Where is the respect and the fair play?” asked Blatter in the stadium. As far as the young people of Brazil are concerned, Blatter might as well have been radioing in from another planet.

When the Brazilian team put in an impressive performance in the final two weeks later to beat Spain, the rumour spread quickly that Rousseff had bribed the Spanish team to lose so that footballing glory would divert the people’s attention from the demonstrations. It would be astonishing if it were true and it plays to Brazilians’ love of conspiracy theories, but what matters is how many people were prepared to believe it.


Even given the size of Brazil’s social media networks, the speed with which the demonstrations spread was astonishing. Brazil is a vast country, not merely geographically but culturally. The fabled antipathy that marks the relations between Cariocas (from Rio) and Paulistas (from São Paulo) is more than just the usual sparring between two local rivals. The two cities have histories so distinct as to be more akin to the differences separating two different countries, even though they are only five hours apart by road.

If you leave São Paulo and Rio and venture into the south, the western interior or the northeast then the regions and cultures become even more diverse—it is hard to believe they all belong to the same country. The atmosphere and opulence of Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, a centre for vast cattle and soya farms close to the Bolivian border, is closer to JR’s Dallas than it is to the wretched poverty of Maranhão in the far northeast.

There are two things that unite the country. The first is a love of football and the assumption that Brazil’s national team is the world’s best. The second, and more important, is the Portuguese language, which sets the country apart from the rest of South America. But these phenomena mask the separate historical, political and economic experiences of the country’s many constituent parts.

The demonstrations have strengthened solidarity among ordinary Brazilians. They have always been united in their disgust at the boundless culture of corruption among the political elite in Brasília and the mega-companies that dominate the construction, extraction, media and agricultural industries. Now they have discovered a way of expressing that disgust. The failure of successive governments to tackle corruption and atrocious public services has created an unprecedented bond between the different regions of Brazil. The pressure for reform is palpable.

Compare this to the protests in Turkey earlier this summer, which Brazilian social scientists argue were a model and an inspiration for their compatriots. Far from backing down, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to conjure up significant crowds of his own supporters to resist the calls for change. In Brazil, politicians of all persuasions understood very quickly that concessions had to be made, and made quickly.

Later this year, there will be a showdown. Political life last year was dominated by the Mensalão scandal, in which leading political fixers were found guilty by Brazil’s high court of participating in an illegal vote-buying scheme (Mensalão means “big monthly allowance”). The accused in the Mensalão included a huge political figure, José Dirceu, a former guerrilla leader who fought against the military dictatorship in the 1960s and who was the mastermind behind the political success of ex-President Lula. On hearing that the Supreme Tribunal had sentenced him last November to just under 11 years in prison, Dirceu went to a grand party held in his honour by the Workers’ Party where the champagne flowed and nobody appeared unduly worried about the prospect of his imprisonment. That, of course, was because nobody imagined he would be imprisoned. After the Donadon case that may well change and if Dirceu goes to jail, it would represent another shattering rupture with past practices.

The recategorisation of corruption was one of several measures that Rousseff proposed in response to the protests. Most of them attracted broad political support although one crucial issue, the question of political reform, is already bogged down in disagreement and bickering. The President called for a plebiscite on the convocation of a Constituent Assembly as a means of addressing the vexed question of party political financing which is, naturally, closely linked to the issue of corruption. But her idea was shot down by legal scholars, party activists and the media within a matter of hours.

Yet the view that considerable state funds will now have to be diverted into three areas that the protestors have focused on—health, education and transport—is uncontested.

That is a big challenge. After years of growth, the structural weaknesses of Brazil’s economy have led it into a quagmire—lack of foreign investment, a huge bureaucracy which has a stifling effect on much entrepreneurial activity, an unwillingness of the oligarchy to distribute its wealth, and a downturn in commodity prices. The giant natural resource companies that have powered the overall rise in prosperity are pressurising President Rousseff not to reverse the significant weakening of the currency in past months. For these oligarchic companies, exports are booming as a consequence. But the domestic payback is terrifying—the return of inflation, the feared monster of times past, which is now hovering around 6.5 per cent but with an upward trend. Brazil’s slowdown in growth has been a powerful factor behind the protests.

As next year’s presidential election approaches, Rousseff’s government and the entire political class ignore this at their peril. The Confederations Cup was just a dry run. Unless the protestors see real improvements over the next 12 months, they will be back during the World Cup. For Brazil, street protests on the scale of this year’s during the showcase event of the most popular sport in the world would be a catastrophe. The protestors are confident that they can mobilise even greater numbers for that event.