The Revolution of Brazil – An Interview

Brazil is in a state of revolt. Demonstrations have been taking place all across South America’s largest country in over 350 Brazilian cities. Demonstrations against political corruption, poor education, poor healthcare, police violence, public transit costs and more are taking place on the streets. The public demonstrations are so large in scale that the nations political ruling class is working to enact legislation to calm the storm.

Tairone Leão, a close friend of mine, is an adjunct professor at the University of Brasilia at the Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine School in Brasilia, DF, Brazil. He is an Agronomist from Rio Verde, GO, Brazil where he was born and raised. He holds a graduate degree in Agronomy from the University of São Paolo and also a PhD in Geology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville – where we became quick friends. Rio Verde is located 430 km away from Brasilia where he lives now.

In this article, Tairone shares with us his thoughts on Brazil’s social movement – questions were developed with the help of C4SS contributors:

C4SS: A picture says a thousand words. This picture was taken at a recent demonstration, can you explain what is happening here?

Out to the sea

Tairone: This picture was taken in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil during last week’s protests. The protests took place in front of the National Congress building where there is a small lake, the ministry buildings can be seen at the back. At some point protesters tried to invade the building across the lake and were repelled by the police with tear gas and batons. They are known to have been using rubber bullets as well. Later in the evening the protesters broke through and ended up on top of the building. It was a huge symbol to Brazil when they broke through. A few of them were quoted as saying something in the lines of “we are taking our home back”. A  picture from the media will help show what happened.


C4SS: Brazil as a nation-state – what exactly is going on? What sparked so many people to take to the streets?

Tairone: As of now nobody knows for sure what is going on. We are slowly understanding the process and the direction it might take. A couple of weeks ago everything seemed perfectly normal. The president was going on TV, talking about the world cup, how inflation was under control and enjoying approval rates of up to 70%. However, behind all of that something was bubbling. The amount of taxes paid by Brazilians reached 700 billion Reais (1 Dollar is roughly 2 Reais), the amount of money spent on construction for the world cup kept rising well beyond the initial budget and several planned infra-structure works got cancelled because of budget and scheduling issues. FIFA (the soccer federation) enjoyed unlimited fiscal benefits and controls where, when and if things are going to happen. Meanwhile people die in hospital rooms because there are not enough doctors, equipment and money, public transportation in major cities is nothing less than chaos because of lack of basic infra-structure, and basic and high-school level teachers get paid R$ 1567.00 a month (around 700 U$). The straw that broke the camel’s back was a raise in public transport fare from R$ 3.00 to 3.20 in Sao Paulo city. A few hundred people from the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Public Transportation Movement) took the streets to protest and were violently repelled by the Sao Paulo police. The next day the word spread in social media and hundreds of thousands of people went to the streets, but now it wasn’t about bus fares only, people were now crying for political reformation, punishment for corruption, against the exorbitant amount of money spent in the world cup and against the PEC-37, a proposal of an amendment to the constitution limiting federal prosecutors to investigate crimes (mainly corruption by high ranked politicians). From there the thing took off and a couple of weeks ago more than one million people were on the streets protesting and rioting.

C4SS: Are you involved in any way? Do you support the movement? Why, or why not?

Tairone: I am trying to spread the word. I live in Brasilia and I went to the congress twice last week but people were dispersing at the time I got there. I fully support the movement. I was upset a week before the protests about how much we pay on taxes and how little we get back in public services because of corruption and the ridiculous amount of money spent to support politicians and their mostly useless staff.

C4SS: What do the activists on the ground think is happening? Are there goals?

Tairone: The main goal was at first to lower the bus fares. When the thing took off it became a fight against corruption and the exorbitant amount of money spent in the world cup while the population gets nothing in return. Last week the protests focused on the PEC-37 which was voted and did not pass. I think now the focus will be on several high-profile politicians which were convicted for corruption and are still in power such as Renan Calheiros (President of Senate) and congressman José Dirceu (ironically or not, he was convicted for active corruption and later became president of the Justice and Constitution Commission in the congress). The ultimate goal of the movement might be political reformation. As of now politicians cannot be judged as common citizens and this has been a major problem since they rarely or never get punished for anything. This is an old law that was meant to prevent politicians from being judged and condemned for activism during the military rule which horribly backfired in our faces.

C4SS: What are the main concerns?

Tairone: There are not a lot of thought put on concerns about where the movement is going. At first my main concerns where that the movement wouldn’t go anywhere or that it could throw the country in a chaotic state. Regarding the first, a few important changes in the congress have already been achieved, although there is a lot more to be achieved, we can already say the movement is successful. I also don’t think it will lead the country to total chaos, as violent protests and ransacks have not been as frequent. The media have been criticizing rioters nonstop; I however think that they might have their place in the long run.

C4SS: How are the protests organized? Are there known grassroots groups coordinating the protest? Is it spontaneous?

Tairone: At first it was coordinated by the Passe Livre Movement. After the first week it went viral and it has been controlled by social media. There is no clear leadership; protests are being organized mainly by Facebook. Anonymous Brasil has been playing a part in the movement as well, however as violent protests have been shunned by the majority, the amount people wearing Guy Fawkes masks is much less than it was a week ago. People are being encouraged to show their faces and show who they are in the movement instead of hiding behind a mask. The call for protesting is now coming from nearly all sectors of society, it is spontaneous at this point, and there are no political parties involved.

C4SS: Are there non-state solutions to social/economic/environmental problems being explored?

Tairone: The concept of a stateless society is very little explored and knowledge about it is almost nonexistent here. In my point of view most people here were never exposed to that idea. We have a culture that goes way back to the Portuguese empire and monarchy in Brazil, followed by Presidents and military rule so people are indoctrinated to have someone in power telling them what to do. The idea of not having a leader, a strong figure in power, a savior of the country is seen by many as a passport to chaos and anarchy. Of course they understand anarchy in the derogatory sense of the word, not as a political system. I am and have always been open to the idea of a society organized in a way that each individual is free and knows his or her role to the functioning of the community and executes it without having to be told by an authority figure how and when to do it. We have a lot of NGOs here but in the end they all have their own agenda and their effectiveness addressing these issues is limited.

C4SS: Is this a leaderless (horizontal) movement?

Tairone: It is now for what I can see. Since there are no political flags it is hard to see who is behind it. The traditional leftist social movements such as the CUT (Workers Central), PT (Workers Party) and MST (Landless Workers Movement) that used to be behind all protests in the past are not being very welcomed this time because of their association with the corrupt government. The role of social media where everyone has an equal voice in raising awareness to the issues and the organization of the protests is a clear sign to me that people might not need leadership (or a formal state for that matter) to direct them in the long run.

C4SS: There have been reports that people have been reclaiming large tracts of land and farming it, is there a back to the land constituency?

Tairone: Up to now the MST or other agrarian reformation movements have not been directly involved in the protests. The agrarian problem in Brazil is very complex and probably needs to be addressed on its own. It involves big farming companies, logging corporations, native Brazilians struggle for land demarcation, small, medium and large size farms and the government. To understand a little more about the land problem here I highly recommend the documentary film Vale dos Esquecidos (Valley of the Forgotten) by Maria Raduan

C4SS: There has been talk, or at least insinuation, about right-wing and neo-nazi presence or influence in the protests, have you noticed this?

Tairone: Very little. Some of the more violent riots had skinheads and traditional anarchists involved. As people have been calling for dropping the masks and not using any political flags or t-shirts the participation of these groups is now minimal. At some point last week the media and sectors connected with the PT and the government tried to classify the movement as extreme right in order to weaken it and cause internal division. This however has been proven false.

C4SS: Are there noteworthy tendencies in how Brazilians have participated in the protests along regional, race, gender, and class lines?

Tairone: Protests are now occurring in all regions of the country, from the extreme south to small cities in the Amazon region. Besides the major concerns, every city has its own problems that are being addressed by the protesters. Specific classes are also protesting for specific problems, such as the medical class, cab drivers and others. For what I’ve seen, for the most part, the movement is mainly composed of young people, mainly high school and college students and young workers.

C4SS: There seems to be hostility to party flags, a growing narrative of opposition to corruption, and the preeminence of Brazilian flags. While the latter might be problematically nationalist, the former seem on the face of it quite praiseworthy from an anarchist perspective. What, in your perspective, is the make-up of the crowds? Do you see a generalized left libertarian populism being built that is critical of both state politics and neoliberalism?

Tairone: I see the nationalism as a positive thing in the sense that people are seeing themselves as the country. It is different from what happens in other countries. People don’t use the flag as a means of showing power and national pride but as a symbol for saying something in the lines of “we are this country, the politicians are not this country and we deserve better than this”. It is hard to say what the average political make up of the crowd is. Libertarianism is a concept little known by us, myself included. What I can say for sure is that the leftist populism is a big part of what brought us to this situation. Former president Lula was an extremely populist leftist leader and is now being viewed by many as the root of many of the problems being addressed including political corruption scandals and the FIFA sellout. Neoliberalism is not very well seen by most people. We had a strictly neoliberal president before Lula, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Although Cardoso is a highly regarded intellectual, scandals related to the privatization of public service companies during his government have caused the term “neoliberal” to have a bad connotation around here.

C4SS: As an academic, have you felt pressure from the state, from corporatism? If so, do your peers share your concerns – is this movement supported by the intelligentsia?

Tairone: The academia in Brazil is seen mainly as leftist in its core. Many of the traditional loud voices in the past are now silent because they were/are connected to or supported the government somehow. However every one of my colleagues I have spoken with fully supports the movement. Until now the government has not pressed us in any way. However the participation of academics in the frontlines of the movement has been minimal. A lot of the intellectuals and preeminent “bossa nova” musicians who were pivotal to the end of the military rule are also silent now because of their support of the government and PT in the past.

C4SS: What are your hopes for the revolution?

Tairone: From my part I would expect a more concrete revolution with the replacement of the form of government we have now by something more universal and with less monetary onus to the taxpayers. I don’t think that is going to happen though. In the end the politicians are rushing trying to approve laws and meet demands from the protesters in order to save their necks and their political careers. They might make enough changes to please people and get to stay in power and that is my greatest fear.

C4SS: Afterward – do you feel the current movement is the beginning of a better society

Tairone: It might be. People realized that they have much more power than they thought. But in the end for a better society we have to change ourselves. What we do ourselves is what makes a better society. We voted for these politicians in the first place. We are the ones trying to get personal benefits from them, we are the ones who cut in line, who throw garbage on the floor, try to cheat on exams or on taxes. When we realize that these small actions are what will help make a better society and that the politicians we put there are a reflection of us we will have a better society. Brazil have a culture of trying to find the easy way, not always legal, through things (The Brazilian Way or Jeitinho Brasileiro), when we change that mentality we will be a step closer to a better society.

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