Thursday, June 27, 2013


This Sunday, I attended a protest for change in Brazil with a few friends, most of them Brazilian themselves. Hundreds of people gathered in Cambridge, a number helped by the fact that Boston itself is a major destination for Brazilian emigrants. The signs they held up got the message across: Brazilians are angry, and rightfully so, that their government seems to care more about soccer standings than education, that their natural resource wealth is being squandered on stadiums while their people starve, that the government has been becoming more of an oligarchy, and that the benefits of economic development have yet to make a difference in ordinary Brazilians’ lives. The protests across the world were sparked by an increase in bus fares, but have expanded to encompass the multitudes of grievances Brazilians share against their government.

All photos courtesy of yours truly

More than a million people took to Brazil’s streets last week to call for change, and the government appears to be scrambling to at least give a semblance that it can deliver. Dilma Roussef, seen as former president Luiz da Silva’s heiress as well as his lackey, has made a pact of five promises to the Brazilian people to try to quell the unrest. From the BBC, she has pledged:
  • ·       Fiscal responsibility: guaranteeing economic stability and curbing inflation
  • ·       Education: investing 100% of Brazil's oil royalties in education
  • ·       Health: hiring foreign doctors to provide medical services in remote and under-developed areas
  • ·       Constituent Assembly: establishing an assembly to eventually amend Brazil's constitution to ensure reforms make it "from paper to practice"
  • ·       Public transport: investing more than 50 billion reais ($25bn, £16bn) for new investments in urban mobility projects and to improve public transport

A major concern of the protestors has been the legislation called PEC 37, which would remove from federal prosecutors the right to investigate crimes and lead to virtual impunity for corrupt politicians. The law was drafted in response to a huge corruption case known as the “Mesalao case” that directly linked former Pres. Da Silva to vote-buying and paying off politicians to vote for his legislation. Federal prosecutors were the ones who had initiated the case and brought it to court, yet were stymied by the appeals process for those convicted. Brazilians viewed it as a huge step forward for the anti-corruption crusade, and thus PEC 37 was a direct slap in the face for many hoping that Brazil’s democracy was advancing.

Now backtracking on PEC 37, the senate is passing a tough law on corruption that raises the minimum sentence from two to four years, as well as classifying it as a “heinous crime.” Whether or not corrupt politicians will actually be tried, convicted, and jailed under the law remains ambiguous, especially given that the politicians convicted in the Mensalao case remain free. The other promises on education, health, public transportation, and fiscal responsibility remain just that for now: promises.

One of the most powerful moments from the protest: kneeling in 
solidarity for those arrested in the protests in Brazil

Such promises do not appear to be enough for Brazilians, 50,000 of whom took to the streets of Belo Horizonte yesterday. The protests have been compared to the Arab Awakening or the protests in Turkey, but in reality they are quite different. Brazil’s economy has been growing at a rate unheard of in the Arab world, and the growth has yet to make an impact in most Brazilians’ lives. For those who live in poverty, the site of politicians in Lamborghinis driving through their impoverished neighborhoods only serves to increase the sense of disaffection with the government. In reality, Brazil is more akin to China than the countries of the Middle East; there, too, economic growth has not been evenly distributed throughout the population, leading to dissatisfaction and anger at the government.

Remember, remember....

The question remains whether or not Roussef’s government will actually implement the changes it has proposed. It is better equipped than the government of Turkey to address many of the grievances, especially given the discovery of oil fields estimated to contain billions of barrels of crude in the last few years. The injection of cash into health and education programs could actually foster improvement in Brazilians’ lives. Yet as many governments have shown before, the oil money could also lead to a resource curse that would see increased corruption, lack of innovation, and an eventual end to the cash flow when the oil dries up. For many in Brazil, this curse seems to be much more likely than an already corrupt government cleaning up its act.

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