Monday’s mass protests broadened and deepened a wave of smaller protests that were initially launched in response to transit fare hikes implemented by various city governments across the country, most notably in São Paulo.
These first demonstrations were staged in reaction to seemingly small price increases for use of public transportation, averaging between 5 and 10 cents (in US dollars) per ticket.
Much as in the events surrounding the protests in Turkey’s Taksim square, the brutal repression unleashed against these initial demonstrators by Brazil’s military police helped trigger nationwide anger. As a result the greatest number took to the streets since at least the 1992 demonstrations demanding the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello and possibly since the 1984 mass movement demanding direct elections at the end of the military dictatorship.
The protests on Monday expressed far more general grievances, decrying rampant government corruption, lack of adequate basic services, widespread poverty and the squandering of billions in state funds on the construction of lavish stadiums for the Confederations Cup and World Cup soccer tournaments instead of investing in education and healthcare. At the heart of these grievances lies the immense gulf between the wealthy ruling class and the working population in this country of 200 million, which is one of the most socially polarized in the world.
Slogans in Monday’s protests expressed the profound divide which exists between the Brazilian working class and the political representatives of its corrupt ruling elite. One sign read, “You do not represent me.” Another much publicized slogan said: “We don’t need the world cup. We need money for hospitals and education.”
Brazil’s Military Police brutally cracked down on the first protests in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators. Hundreds were arrested in last week’s demonstrations and at least 100 injured.
There were also violent police attacks on journalists in São Paulo. At least 15 journalists were injured by rubber bullets, police batons, tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend. They charged that they had been deliberately targeted by the Military Police. One journalist was reportedly hit by a police car, and another was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet.
After it became clear that the police violence was helping fuel the growth of the protest movement, the police in both cities attempted a more hands-off approach to Monday’s mass demonstrations. Demonstrators took up the chant, “What a coincidence, no police, no violence.”
In Belo Horizonte, however, police Monday formed a blockade on a road leading to the Mineirão soccer stadium, where a match was in progress between Tahiti and Nigeria. Despite a pledge in advance not to use violence, the police used teargas and rubber bullets when protesters crossed the blockade. Before the police crackdown, the demonstration had gone on for five hours with no violence on the part of protesters.
The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) government which has run the country for the past ten years, first under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and now with Dilma Rousseff, who took office as president in January 2011, has sought to cover over Brazil’s sharp social tensions with minimal social assistance for the country’s poorest and the promise that the rise of Brazilian capitalism on the world stage would bring general prosperity to the population.
This myth has been dramatically undermined over the past year by economic stagnation combined with rampant inflation. With the country’s economic growth falling to 0.6 percent in the first quarter, industrial production has fallen, triggering layoffs. The official inflation rate has hit 6.5 percent, with many charging that the real increase in prices is double that. Interest rates are rising, and spending freezes are being put into