Demonstrators stretch out a Brazilian flag as they approach riot police. June 19, 2013.
Davi Pinheiro / Courtesy Reuters

On Monday and Tuesday, protesters flooded the streets of Brazil’s largest cities, drawing international attention to what seemed to be the latest flare-up in a season full of street conflict around the world. In fact, the protest began about ten days ago, when the Free Pass Movement mobilized against increases in bus fares in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Natal (a northeastern coastal city), and Goiânia (in the country’s interior, near Brasília). The demonstrations began mostly peacefully, with not much more than some burning tires and impromptu roadblocks, but they took a violent turn after the São Paulo police overreacted and sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Over the next few days, the movement expanded to more cities and became more confrontational. Rio’s Globo newspaper reported that protesters damaged 85 buses in São Paulo and that 137 people were arrested. On social media, Brazilians complained that police had used excessive force and that the traditional media had disparaged legitimate protests.

After a week of escalating conflict, especially in São Paulo, both sides temporarily backed down over the weekend. First, São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), which heads the national government, invited the Free Pass Movement to hold talks. Geraldo José Rodrigues Alckmin Filho, the governor of the state of São Paulo who belongs to the main opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), defended the police action for another day until, on Sunday, he announced that the state law enforcement agency would not send in riot police units or use rubber bullets on the demonstration planned for this Monday. The Free Pass Movement agreed to meet with both city and state officials, and all sides promised more restraint in Monday’s scheduled protests.

But the demonstrations have only grown in size over the last couple of days, and demands have multiplied. (The Free Pass Movement, for its part, has disavowed its leadership of the protests, insisting that it just wanted to call attention to high bus fares.) No longer just about transportation costs, the protests now target endemic corruption, the poor quality of education and health services, excessive spending on sporting events (such as the current Confederations Cup and the upcoming World Cup and Olympics), urban violence, violence against women, the removal of local politicians, police brutality, and much more. One memorable sign read, “If your child is sick, take him to a soccer stadium.” Another borrowed from the language often placed on signs near construction sites to say, “Excuse the disturbance; We are changing Brazil. 

Seeking to put the protests into context, many commentators, and many of the young protesters, have claimed that such an uprising is uncommon in Brazil. But this year, unrest has been the rule rather than the exception. When the government announced plans to privatize Brazilian ports in February, weeks of strikes and protests gained some concessions for unions, but privatization is proceeding. Indigenous groups have been mobilized for weeks against proposed legislation that would change land demarcation. One indigenous man was killed in confrontations with security forces at the end of May. Another government proposal to reduce the investigative power of Brazil’s Public Ministry, a very active body of public prosecutors who defend collective rights, has led to a petition drive with nearly 400,000 signatures to stop it. The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon -- which, if completed, would be the world’s third largest hydroelectric plant -- has been stopped regularly by labor unrest, indigenous opposition, and the Public Ministry. In São Paulo, university students have been sparring with the police for several years now.

And in fact, Brazil was no stranger to protest before 2013, either. For the past three decades, the country has experienced regular cycles of street activity. Three decades ago, a million people demanded direct elections. Two decades ago, well over a million successfully marched to demand the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello for corruption. And one decade ago, protests approximately the size of the ones today spread across Brazil’s cities in response to the country’s participation in negotiations meant to create the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In between, there were many smaller protests, strikes, and land occupations.

What most of these past demonstrations had in common was that they were coordinated by the PT, which is the party now in power. They also always featured strong and organized participation from progressive elements of the Catholic Church, union activists, human rights groups, and grassroots movements of both rural and urban origins. These mobilizations had identifiable leaders, not least the former president and union leader Lula da Silva. (At least one protester this week recognized the history and held up a sign that said, “Dilma, if this were 1970, would you be here?”) Further, those leaders had clear demands. To win, they brought their organizations’ rank and file to bear. These were concrete social networks: people who worked and lived together, and who had been on the streets together many times. Since Brazil became democratic in 1985, its governments tended to respond with at least some concessions to specific demands.

Now the PT has been in power for ten years, and it is not quite sure what to make of such dispersed discontent. On June 18, Gilberto Carvalho, secretary general of the presidency, spoke on behalf of Brazil’s current political elite when he told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, “It would be pretentious for us to say we understand what is going on… These are new forms of mobilization that we, of the generation of the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, have not known.” In a sense, this generation is in a similar position to the American baby-boomer elite, which looks fondly on the activist days of the 1960s but could not comprehend the Occupy Wall Street movement. There are no known leaders who can speak for what is going on, no real demands that can be met.

To be sure, the government might have been wise to give in on bus fares earlier this month to head off what followed. But if that might have worked a few weeks ago, it certainly will not suffice today. And at any rate, marches over some other slight would still have come around sooner or later. Now, hundreds of thousands of individuals have joined the protests for dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons. Someone who is in the streets to protest corruption will not be mollified by lower bus fares. After a number of heady years in which Brazil seemed to finally be reaching the emerging power status that many thought it deserved much earlier the economic doldrums of the last two years have provoked a stock-taking. It is true that poverty and inequality declined, but crime and corruption have not.

Yet without a single shared demand, a meaningful response from the government is highly unlikely, if not impossible, despite the hopes of the protesters, who have rallied behind the vague Twitter hashtag #mudabrasil (“change Brazil”). On the other hand, the quickest way to give them one would be a heavy-handed crackdown, which would be anathema to the PT, proud as it is of Brazil’s democracy and its image as a rising power. The cacophony of voices is as problematic for the protesters as for the politicians, though. Unless they can find a common cause and articulate it together, the energy of the protests will be hard to maintain and no government response will be necessary. That seems likely, even through simmering discontent will remain. In just a few months, though, Brazil will be swinging into fast gear for the October 2014 election that will stop only for Brazil to host the World Cup in mid campaign season. Both of those events will be the real signs of how well the PT and Brazil are doing.

  • KATHRYN HOCHSTETLER is CIGI Chair of Governance in the Americas in the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.
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