The Left and the June Protests in Brazil

By Luciana Tatagiba and Karin Blikstad

The nature and the political meanings of the June protests are not yet clear. The streets of the major cities in Brazil have been taken by a massive number of people not seen since the impeachment of president Fernando Collor de Melo in 1992. At that time, the protesters had a very clear goal: to remove the president from office after a corruption scandal and a series of unpopular measures. The recent protests are much more heterogeneous in terms of participants, demands, and strategies in the streets, mainly regarding the use of violence. From very different point of views, analysts, activists, and politicians try hard to understand the current mobilization’s demands, meanings, and possible outcomes. In this article we try to highlight the relationship between the current street demonstrations and the Brazilian Left, especially the Left organized around the Workers’ Party. We’ll refer mainly to the protests in São Paulo, which we have followed more closely.

The protests emerged in São Paulo in June 6, after the Movimento Passe livre (MPL—Free Ride Movement, which demands free use of public transportation) called people into the streets against the rise in the bus fare. On June 13 the disproportionate violence against the protesters by the police worked as a fuel to enhance the mobilizations in other cities, bringing into the streets more people and gathering the support of those who had previously sided against it, like the mainstream media.

A powerful cycle of demonstrations had then emerged in the country’s biggest cities. Going beyond the original demand associated with public transport and urban mobility, the protesters started to demand good public health and education, bringing again to the centre of the public debate the topic of citizenship and its rights. In every city, other demands were continuously brought up, usually related to local and specific issues. As an example, the corruption and high public expenditure regarding the preparations for the World Cup in 2014 became an important issue in those cities that will host the football matches, especially in Rio de Janeiro.

June 17 was the peak of the protests that had reached the whole country by then. It’s estimated that 65,000 people participated in protests in São Paulo and more than 100,000 in Rio. In Brasilia, the country’s capital city, the protesters occupied the roof of the Congress building, what rendered one of the most beautiful images of the demonstrations. The day after, president Dilma made her first official declaration about the events, saying that Brazil had become stronger because of the protests and that her government would “listen to the voices of the streets.” In São Paulo, both the mayor and the state governor declared they would decrease the transport fares. Six other big cities were already announcing the revision of their fares.

Three days later the protests continued strongly around the country, but it was already clear that the MPL had lost its capacity to gather and frame the demonstrations. At that point the heterogeneity was a trademark of the events and nobody could predict its future course. Actually, different groups were trying to conduct the events in a way that could put forward their own demands and points of view. The behaviour of the mainstream media is a good example. On the morning of June 13, hours before the police acted with brutality, the biggest newspaper in the country had launched an editorial saying that the MPL had a “vile pretext” (the rise in the bus fare) to “stop the city,” and that it was formed by a “youth predisposed to violence by a pseudo revolutionary ideology” and that they were trying to “take advantage of the broad and comprehensible irritation with the fare to travel in overcrowded buses and trains”.[1] After the police reaction and, days later, the authorities’ decision to suspend the rise in the fares, the same newspaper said this was a “realistic” and “commonsense” decision. From then on the most influential news media would stress the idea that the streets’ desire was to combat corruption and control the inflation in the country, delicate topics to PT’s government today. Since then, the media has acted as a strong political actor disputing the meanings of the events and trying to influence its political consequences.

At the time the MPL lost control of the events, protesters started to explicitly reject the participation of political party activists in the demonstrations. The chorus of “against everything that is there” and the anti-parties chorus gained force. These choruses seem to echo the Argentinean saying “¡Que se vayan todos!” (something like: “Go away all of you!”), the “¡Ya basta!” (“It’s enough”) of the Zapatista Maya rebellion, as well as fresh mobilizations of the “indignants” around the world. In Brazil, the crisis of political representation is not a new phenomenon, however in the last decades the problem has worsened. A recent poll found that distrust in political parties has surpassed 😯 percent and it is around 79 percent regarding the Congress.  Moreover, thirty percent of the people consider that democracy could work without parties and the Congress.[2]

Although the anti-parties chorus in the protests seemed to include every political party with no distinction to its position in the political scale, the most evident hostilities were directed to left-wing participants. In São Paulo there were many reports of hostilities and even violence between left-wing protesters and groups who were against the presence of political parties. Many of those who were carrying flags or signs associated with left-wing parties or traditional social movements were assaulted and forced to drop their flags or leave. Those who resisted or tried to defend their presence had their flags and signs removed with the use of force. In order to participate in the street demonstrations they had to hide their partisanship. This happened not only to members of PT, but also with parties that are even more to the left in the political scale, like PSOL and PSTU. The crowd demanded that only the Brazilian National flag should be raised as a symbol in the streets. It was in this context that the national anthem became a huge hit among protesters, who sang it in the same style football supporters usually do. The debate and dispute among those who were against and those for the use of political parties symbols were intense and could be followed from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

It’s possible to say that the recent events made clear the existence of a disconnection between the Brazilian Left and the street mobilizations.

The left-wing organizations couldn’t reach an agreement on how to respond to this anti-parties chorus and to what seemed to be a right-wing turn in the demonstrations profile. In this scenario, and with some protests becoming too violent, the MPL decided to withdraw from the streets but reaffirm its leftist position, only to change its mind a few days later and decide to go back to the streets. The PT called its members for the demonstrations in June 20 wearing the party’s colours and flags. This call also implied the need to defend President Dilma who, at that point, had already become one of the protests’ targets. The main national unions did the same thing with their members, also trying to influence the course of the mobilizations by adding other demands, like land reform and matters related to labour rights. The response to these calls was weak when compared with the previous demonstrations. Although it’s possible to claim that, at that point, the cycle of protests in general was fading.

The social movements also had difficulties taking a clear position regarding the protests, especially those who have a history of proximity to PT. Although they feel close to MPL’s demands, they engaged in the cycle of demonstrations with a wary spirit. This could be explained by their fear of a conservative turn in the protests and to the threats it represented to Workers’ Party government, both at the federal and at the local level. The traditional social movements have in general acted as an ally of the government during the 12 years the Workers’ Party has occupied the federal government. In a recent article, Teixeira and Baiocchi called attention to an ambiguous position of the social movements toward the protests:

Some organized movement leaders, from the protests’ early days, have expressed suspicion at both the middle-class component and the distrust of political parties that pervades the June Movement, a supposed “fascist tendency.” Some traditional organizers claim they see evidence of right-wing manipulation in the protests and that the demonstrators are privileged people who do not understand the importance of a leftist government. [3]

It’s a fact that the Brazilian Left was stricken by the June events and did not know how and when to react to it. Breno Altman, in an article[4] written at the peak of the mobilizations, mentioned what he understood to be a divorce between the Workers’ Party and the streets. That is a strong claim because the Workers’ Party and the street mobilizations in Brazil are known to have a close relationship since the cycle of protest in the 1970/80s, from which both the Workers’ Party and traditional social movements emerged. The Workers’ Party was built as an innovative channel connecting the streets’ demands and the political system in the context of democratization in Brazil. In the 1990s and 2000s the party and the social movements maintained a close and fertile interaction with relevant institutional gains. Examples of these gains are the social policies implemented in the last decade and the creation of participatory institutions, like the Participatory Budget, the Councils of public policy, and the Conferences on innumerous matters.

We still don’t know for sure what are the effects of the recent cycle of demonstrations on this historical relationship between the Workers’ Party and traditional movements. It’s known that the protests have destabilized the correlation of forces in the country. In this context, the Workers’ Party and its governments, especially Dilma’s government, have been impelled to be more open and close to the social movements. In this sense, we could say that the recent events have strengthened the relationship between the Party and the movements. On the other hand, the anti-party chorus has put back into the debate the question of social movements autonomy vis-à-vis PT’s governments. We often hear movement leaders saying the Workers’ Party’ political success made them moderate their demands. Recently one of the founders of the biggest national union in the country made a statement saying that they should go back to their non-partisan status, like it was in its origins, in the early 1980s.

One thing seems clear: the leftist project conceived around PT has lost its vigor and doesn’t appear as an alternative to the youth who took the streets of the country. Most of the youngsters who took the streets didn’t participate in the construction of this part of our history. Although information on protesters’ profile is still inconclusive, it is known that they are around twenty-five or thirty years old and most of them had never been involved in political mobilization before. When they came into the political scene, the Workers’ Party’s political project had already undergone massive changes. As the party has been in power for one decade they hardly remember its role as an opposition party. However, they heard about corruption charges surrounding Lula’s rule and important Workers’ Party leaders in 2005.  Other parties, that are younger and more to the left, as PSOL and PSTU, tried to present themselves as a leftist alternative, but were also unsuccessful in winning the hearts and minds of the young people.

Traditional social movements and unions also seem unable to present themselves as an alternative to political mediation, like they did in the past. In a recent declaration regarding the June protests Lula highlighted this point:

These manifestations here in Brazil caught every left-wing and every right-wing  party by surprise; the whole  union movement too (…) with all the resources the union movement has, they don’t even have an internet communication. We are, actually, getting old.

Taking what has been discussed in this text, we believe that the June events allow us to raise two points. First, the political articulation of the Brazilian Left initiated with the cycle of demonstrations of the 1970/80s—after which both PT and traditional social movements emerged—seems to be fading. This articulation doesn’t seem capable of connecting itself to the streets’ desires or of respondingd to it. Second, both PT and the social movements haven’t tried creating a dialogue with the youth—or at least they haven’t been successful in doing it. Since neither of the other left-wing parties have been successful in that matter, this youth enters the public arena with no leftist political project they can identify with. The question implied here is: Is the Brazilian Left capable of redefining its strategies toward the youth and of disputing in the streets again? Even though the Brazilian Right doesn’t have a strong project or leader, the conservative agenda undeniably advanced in Brazilian society. The Left must prepare itself for the political dispute in our society, or we may face setbacks channeled by the noise of the streets.

[1] Folha de São Paulo, June 13.

[2] These numbers were mentioned by the political scientist José Alvaro Moisés in the newspaper Valor Economico, in the weekend pullout called “Eu e Fim de Semana” in August 9, 10 and 11.

[3]Ana Cláudia Chaves Teixeira and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, “Who Speaks for Brazil’s Streets?”

[4] Breno Altman, “As ruas fazem soar o alarme para o PT e o governo” .

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