Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Brazil Protests: More Than Just the 20 Centavos, But How Much More?

By now it has become clear that Brazil’s mass demonstrations are about more than just a 20-centavo bus fare hike, but it remains to be seen whether they will take on a more coherent political platform encapsulating the protesters’ wide range of demands.

When the government in Sao Paulo decided to raise the price of bus fare from 3 to 3.20 reals, officials had no idea it would set of a chain of events that would eventually spark the biggest protests Brazil has seen in two decades. The fare hike became a symbol of what many believe to be an endemic problem in the country: Brazilians paying more for social services and receiving less in return, while all the while the state invests in flashy projects designed to draw international investment, like next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.


The initial protests last week in Sao Paulo extended to Rio de Janeiro, and both were met with harsh police repression. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowd and arrested dozens of demonstrators, including several journalists.


But instead of quelling the movement, this only fueled the flames. Civil society groups, including Sao Paulo-based human rights group Conectas condemned the crackdowns. Conectas requested an audience with state security secretary Fernando Grella and the municipal human rights secretary to seek an explanation for the violence in Sao Paulo. The organization also said it would refer the case to the UN rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and Arbitrary Detention.


Several more protests were held over the weekend at Confederations Cup football matches in Brasilia and Rio. At the former, President Dilma Rousseff was heavily booed as she inaugurated the match.


Protest leaders, meanwhile, took to social media to organize massive demonstrations yesterday evening. The turnout was unlike almost anything seen since the fall of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985. According to estimates by police and political analysts collected by O Globo, there were over 100,000 demonstrators in Rio yesterday evening, 65,000 in Sao Paulo, 20,000 in Belo Horizonte, 10,000 in Curitiba, and thousands more in smaller cities across the country. In the capital city of Brasilia, some 10,000 people rallied in front of the Congress building, eventually storming police barriers and occupying the roof for several hours. While the New York Times’ Simon Romero notes that demonstrations were largely peaceful, riot police clashed with protesters in Belo Horizonte, using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd, EM Digital reports.


According to a survey of yesterday’s protesters in Sao Paulo conducted by Datafolha, 85 percent reported no party affiliation, and 71 percent had not participated in earlier demonstrations. This appears to be a hallmark of the protests around the country. While most demonstrators expressed some sense of dissatisfaction with President Rousseff (whose popularity fell by eight percentage points in June from March, to 57 percent), their grievances ranged from outrage over rampant corruption to dissatisfaction with public services and the tax code.


So far, no unified message has emerged from the demonstrations. As Rio Gringa points out, the main victory for protest organizers thus far seems to be the massive turnout. The crowds have earned mass media coverage from local and international press alike, which in turn guarantees that Rousseff will have to address the demonstrations.  Yesterday the president’s press secretary said that Rousseff was watching the protests and considered them “legitimate,” and that she was meeting with members of her cabinet to discuss them.



News Briefs

  • Peru21 reports that a Lima judge is expected to rule later this morning on the legality of a controversial decree issued in March by the armed forces which reinstated a military draft in the country. The decree was challenged yesterday by the Ombudsman’s Office, which argued that exceptions for those in university and the allowance of a fine to be paid in order to avoid service discriminates against poor and uneducated Peruvian. If the challenge is overruled, the draft will begin to take effect tomorrow.
  • Colombia’s lower house of Congress has finished passing the full military justice reform bill after sections of it were approved last week, Caracol Radio reports. As noted last week, the bill has earned heavy criticism from domestic and international human rights groups, as it will allow soldiers who commit major rights abuses to be tried by a military tribunal rather than civilian court.
  • El Faro features an analysis piece by Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who offers a critical take of the recently-signed deal between President Daniel Ortega and Chinese businessman Wang Jing on the construction of a multibillion-dollar rival to the Panama Canal. He notes that the deal nullifies a law passed last year guaranteeing that the state would be the majority shareholder of 51 percent of any canal project. Chamorro writes that “In less than a year, Ortega dropped his mask of a concerned statesman to reveal his brutal mercantilist face,” going on to question whether he had personal financial interests in the deal.
  • Open Democracy has an interesting study by James Ron, David Crow and Shannon Golden on “the struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement.” The authors use public opinion surveys on human rights in Mexico, Colombia, Morocco and India to argue that the discourse of human rights is far better established among societal elites. While survey samples in the two Latin American countries (gathered as part of the Mexico, the Americas, and the World survey project, coordinated by Mexican research institute CIDE) showed more familiarity due to the region’s long history of human rights activism, the results suggest that it remains a form of elite politics.
  • As part of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s first official tour of Europe, the president met with Pope Francis I yesterday for a 20-minute audience. According to El Nacional, Maduro asked the pope to assist in “Mision Milagro,” a global development program run by Cuba and Venezuela which provides eye surgery and vision restoration to individuals who could not otherwise afford it.
  • BBC Mundo reports on the rising profile of organized crime in Costa Rica, long considered to be an oasis of peace in a region otherwise wracked by drug trafficking and violent crime. There is evidence to suggest that, in addition to being a transshipment point for drugs, Costa Rica has become a place to store illicit cargo and launder money, factors which are sure to take a toll on the country’s comparatively clean police force and court system.
  • Foreign Affairs has a new piece on the rise of community defense groups that have sprung up in rural Mexico in recent years, detailing their often tense relations with local authorities and security forces.
  • Patrick Corcoran of InSight Crime looks at a Mexico’s recently-released National Survey of Victimization and Perceptions of Violence, or Envipe, which measures the degree to which Mexicans are effected by the drug-fueled violence in the country. The survey suggests that a significant number of Mexicans consider themselves to be directly impacted by the violence, and alter their lifestyles accordingly. Corcoran claims this shows that “the scars of Mexico’s recent wave of violence will endure well after the crime rates return to 2007 levels.”
  • The Miami Herald reports that the President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic has ordered some 1,400 military personnel to patrol high-crime neighborhoods in the capital, sparking a debate on the involvement of the military in law enforcement duties.
  • The AP reports that the two most high-profile negotiators of the El Salvador gang truce -- army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres and FMLN guerrilla turned politician Raul Mijango --  met with representatives of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs inside a San Pedro Sula prison to discuss the nascent truce in Honduras. According to El Heraldo, the meeting was facilitated by a special OAS commission overseeing the truce.