by Erika Robb Larkins
Brazil has captured international headlines for the last few days as hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country’s major cities take to the streets in what has been dubbed the “Salad Uprising” or “Vinegar Revolt.” Given that Brazil does not have a strong tradition of public protest, the actions have perplexed observers, including the members of the country’s ruling PT (leftist) party. Leaders seem to be openly struggling to find a balance between praising the popular demonstrations and figuring out how to best prevent protesters from interrupting the current Confederations Cup, largely considered to be FIFA’s logistical trial run for next year’s World Cup.
While I am a bit surprised that Brazilians have taken to the streets en masse, I am not at all surprised at the general feelings of outrage and discontent many are expressing. Despite the often very rosy prognostications one reads in the press concerning Brazil’s rise to economic greatness and its new role as a global power– as confirmed by hosting the coming mega-sporting events– a great number of people from all walks of life are disillusioned and frustrated. Here is some of the background story that has led up to the Salad Uprising as I have observed it in Rio, the context I know best, though much of this is clearly applicable to other Brazilian cities as well.
There is waning support for President Dilma. In fact, last week I took students to see her speak about a new federal project to invest billions in infrastructural improvements in Rio and, in particular, in the city’s famous favelas. Since I never believe the sensationalist right-wing press, who, in typical fashion, interpreted her announcement as a political response to her diminishing public support among the urban poor, I was a bit surprised to see that there were only about 150 people in attendance and some boos. As a whole, government and politicians continue to be seen by Brazilians as ridiculously corrupt and Dilma, though largely untouched by corruption scandals herself, is viewed as a distant, yet domineering, bureaucrat. Even her projects to invest money in poor communities (which on the surface can’t possible be bad, right?) are increasingly unpopular, since they fail to include the voices of the poor in decision making.
Part of the reason that these projects are unpopular is because they are widely perceived to be about applying “make-up” to deep-rooted social problems in order to put on a good face for the world. Not only are these projects for the outside to see, they are also clearly designed to fatten the wallets of an already wealthy elite. Or at least that’s who holds all the contracts for the massive amount of construction that’s clogging up the city and that’s who stands to profit most from the World Cup and Olympics. I am certainly not the first person to say this; in fact my taxi driver last week put it quite well (I edited out the profanity here) when he said that the government is increasingly in bed with a powerful business interests.
Pacification of the favelas, high-profile infrastructure “improvements” like over-priced, cable cars imported from France, revamped stadiums to the tune of billions of dollars, all this stuff is about crafting an image of prosperity and progress for the outside, while neglecting the things that all Brazilians need— like schools and healthcare! I had the misfortune of spending a few hours at a public hospital in Rio last week, and the public healthcare system really is the stuff your nightmares are made of…. you know those horror movies set in an insane asylum built in the 50s? It looks worse than that. And though healthcare is considered a human right and universal healthcare is provided for in the 1988 constitution, the only way to avoid getting treatment in this asylum is to pay for costly private health insurance.
All of this is set against a scene of daily frustration, where everything in the city is under construction, traffic is horrific, the housing bubble means that there is nowhere reasonable to live for a reasonable price, food costs more, etc. Furthermore, it is widely thought that these things are only going to get worse. In fact, I regularly found people, myself included, lamenting that if “it” was bad now, imagine for the World Cup, or god forbid, the Olympics.
So while the popular protests of the past week initially galvanized around the rise in the bus fare, this is clearly only the tip of the iceberg. City officials have just announced that they will reduce the fare to its previous rate in light of the popular outcry. But of course now it is much more than this. The bus fare is a metaphor for the system in Brazil as a whole and it is about raising the costs on something that already barely works. People have to pay a lot for something that just barely passes for functional. With protests growing in scale, another issue that has come to the forefront is that of police violence and the lack of public security in many of Brazil’s largest cities. The nickname for the protests themselves (and here is the vinegar for the salad) stems from police incompetency, as it has been widely reported that officers arrested demonstrators for carrying bottles of vinegar, said to lesson the effects of tear gas. While criticizing the police was certainly not the original impetus for the protest, police behavior in handling the uprising (openly pepper spraying people in the face, unchecked aggression, general institutional incompetence) has given protesters something to unite about.
Interestingly, many observers (journalists in particular) are claiming that that the protesters are young, white, educated, and middle class. This is clearly not a demographic that is accustomed to the kind of treatment they are receiving from the police. But the lower classes, who are clearly also present at these protests even if their participation appears to be being largely erased in the emergent narrative, are regularly on the receiving end of police brutality. What is more amazing, then, if it is true that young middle class Brazilians are protesting side by side with youth from favelas, is that middle class youth and poor youth are disillusioned and united against a common cause, challenging a long-standing politics that has depended on keeping them separate.
Perhaps part of what is incentivizing people is the fact that this current generation (across class lines) has come to age in a time of Brazilian prosperity and promise, a time where Brazil is no longer the country of the future, but of the present. To embrace this discourse and then to see all of that potential wasted by ongoing political corruption, police malfeasance, the money grubbing shenanigans of a global elite, has surely got to be maddening. Regardless of the outcome of this evening’s protests, (reports say there are a million people in the streets already!) and regardless of the spin of the political and news pundits who are surely already at the cosmetics counter purchasing more “make-up” to mask this whole affair, something new is afoot. See also:
It’s Just the Beginning; Change Will Come (New York Times)