Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Brazil’s Vinegar Revolution

While the world was wowed by Brazil’s economic miracle, the country missed something out, made evident last week as nationwide protests erupted, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Brazilian masses have thrown down the gauntlet to the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured during Brazil’s prolonged and dreaded successive military dictatorships of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians this week spontaneously took to the streets nationwide to express their frustration at heavy handed policing, poor public services and high costs for the football World Cup.

The electrifying sports fulcrum metamorphosed over the past few years into a barometer of prolonged political lassitude. Brazil is spending $14.3 billion on the World Cup as well as preparing to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

Rousseff is pressed for time. The major demonstrations in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, the capital Brasilia, Belem, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and across the sprawling country — by far Latin America’s largest and most populous — started peacefully but eventually led to clashes with police and wanton arson attacks on cars and buses.

To cope with the unrest, Rousseff will need to pick up more than the odd snazzy socialist or populist policy from neighbouring Venezuela. She should know better. Yes, as the former Marxist rebel, Rousseff, who fought against Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime and was imprisoned for three years, reminded her compatriots that Brazil has broken ground in terms of programme administration and female empowerment by developing innovative distribution channels in the past two decades.

Far from being a boringly successful bunch, Brazilians chose this particular historical moment to drag the social and economic contradictions of the fast developing country into the international limelight. The special affinity between Brazilians and football was reflected in the exorbitantly expensive preparations for the World Cup.

Football may be the opium of the masses in Brazil, but not even FIFA can halt the progress of the “Vinegar Movement”, the name is derived from the use of vinegar soaked cloth by activists and protesters to protect themselves from police teargas.

Brazil’s “Salad Revolt” and “Vinegar Revolution” perplexed the world. Rousseff, in an eloquent nationwide prime-time speech, desperately tried to appease demonstrators by reiterating that peaceful protests were a welcome, democratic action. Yet Brazilians appeared to be telling her, “you gave us nothing.” Rousseff, no doubt taken aback, pledged that she would not condone corruption in her government. Alas, she could not shake off the unfortunate impression that Brazil is the typical failure of a socialist democracy.

The Brazilian Spring, presidential dreaming notwithstanding, is bound to have a catalytic impact on Latin America. According to the United Nations Development Programme and the 2013 Human Development Index (HDI), Brazil’s ranking has increased from 0.728 to 0.73 as a result of the country’s improvements in education and health. However, it also highlights that the poorest Brazilian segment of society constitutes roughly one third of the population, and the extremely poor make out 15 per cent, roughly the same as a decade ago. Still, the income growth of the poorest 20 per cent of the Brazilian population segment is almost on par with China’s, while the richest 10 per cent are stagnating.

The HDI of Venezuela by comparison is an impressive 0.748 today, due in large measure to the socialist programmes of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The HDI in Latin America and the Caribbean increased from 0.574 in 1980 to 0.741 today, placing Venezuela above the regional average. The HDI by comparison of Brazil is 0.730, embarrassingly below the regional average.

Brazil has serious problems with crime. With roughly 23.8 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Brazil’s housing deficit is around seven million units (housing deficit here refers to the number of shelters that do not have adequate conditions to be habitable).

Brazil’s infamous favelas, or urban shantytowns, are notorious for their abject poverty and alarmingly high crime rates. Rocinha, is one of the largest favelas in Brazil, is typical. Located in the southern area of Rio de Janeiro, it is built on a steep hillside overlooking the seaside metropolis.

Paradoxically, Brazil’s demonstrations were initially organised not by the poorest of the poor, but by the burgeoning urban working and middle classes protesting increases in bus, train and metro ticket prices. Brazilians spend up to 26 per cent of their incomes on simply bus fares. By mid-June, the “Vinegar Movement” had grown to become Brazil’s largest since the 1992 protests against then-President Fernando Collor de Mello.

Rousseff was forced to adopt a public posture of penitence. Brazil’s first woman president was catapulted into the spotlight. She spelled out the lesson her country should draw from the “Vinegar Revolution”. “I am the president of all Brazil. Of those who support the demonstration and those who do not,” she declared.

The protesters are particularly objecting to a constitutional amendment currently being drafted — known as PEC 37 — seen as a cover-up for corrupt politicians, and a reduction of the power of judiciary in pursuing cases, and hence Rousseff’s insistence that she will clear her government of graft and corruption.

Booming economies like Brazil’s prove that speedy growth in national income is a poor predictor of social wellbeing and welfare. The lower middle classes, and not the impoverished slum dwellers, led Brazil’s “Vinegar Revolution”. High taxation is a particularly controversial topic in Brazil where tax revenues total 36 per cent of GDP — the highest in any developing country.

Rousseff reminded her compatriots: “Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence.” Rather than increasing government spending, funds can be diverted from the Herculean task of preparing for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, her detractors demanded. She apologised for how the police responded disproportionately with rubber bullets, tear gas and violent beatings of protesters.

Brazilians were getting hot under the collar precisely because of the poor quality of public services at a time when lavish investment on international sporting events was coupled with low standards of healthcare, backed by public anger and frustration about inequality and corruption. 

Brazil’s president conceded that the “people have a right to criticise”. Nevertheless, she warned that her “government cannot stand by as people attack public property and bring chaos to our street”.

“We cannot put up with violence,” she stressed. “We need to inject oxygen into our political system, and make it more transparent and resistant to the tough challenges facing a country marked by extreme disparity between rich and poor.”

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