The Brazilian Spring: An Explainer

PHOTO:  Guy Fawkes masks are seen displayed for sale during a demonstration near the house of Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty

On June 20, more than a million Brazilians swarmed the streets across 400 cities to protest government policies, social inequality, and the exorbitant costs of the World Cup and the Confederations Cup.

Here’s everything you need to know about this headline-grabbing story:

Why is this a big deal?

Brazil’s is one of the world’s eight leading economies and a country that, for nearly a decade, was hailed as an economic role model for Latin America and the rest of the globe. The demonstrations echo economic and social protest movements that the world has seen recently in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, the U.S. and Turkey. Though the reasons for protesting vary in each location, they share a set of concerns and methods that some have linked to millennials, and others to our emerging globalized culture.

Abstract ideas aside, the protests have the potential of affecting the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, two pivotal global sporting events. For now, the international soccer authority, FIFA, has said that the competitions are safe and cancelling them is not an option.

Nevertheless, there is growing concern among soccer fans, especially after many renowned Brazilian soccer players came out in favor of protesters.

So what sparked this whole thing?

This round of protests began in Sao Paulo more than two weeks ago. At that time, they had a single objective – reversing a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares that had gone into effect on June 1. They were also largely led by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), a national organization founded in 2004 that advocates free public transportation. As the days went by, the demonstrations grew and, with media attention, they started attracting various political groups with other complaints.

What were the other complaints?

There are at least five basic reasons why Brazilians are protesting. The initial trigger was that rise in public transportation costs, but that issue was resolved after the governments of both cities agreed to end the price hike.

The exorbitant cost of hosting the World Cup and the Confederations Cup – the work needed just for the stadiums has a price tag of nearly $3.68 billion– is now a major source of anger. Demonstrators argue that the government shouldn't have spent such large amounts of money on controversial construction and renovations when Brazil still has significant health, education, and financial problems. This photo on Instagram sums things up pretty well.

Government corruption is another point of contention for people in the streets. Brazilians are wondering who is profiting from the World Cup costs, and they are also mad at historically light penalties for corrupt officials in the country. (See this video from the #ChangeBrazil for more information.)

Protesters have also stood up against the police’s violent response to the demonstrations. The Brazilian government, the U.N., and human rights organizations have criticized the authorities’ actions, alleging excessive force against protesters and journalists. At least three people have died and hundreds have been injured.

More broadly, a recent economic downturn in Brazil underlies the protests. The annual inflation rate is at 6.5 percent, income inequality has risen at the same time GDP growth has slowed down, and economists offer dim forecasts for the coming years. In the past decade, Brazil’s economic growth substantially reduced poverty and strengthened the middle class. But, as analyst Moisés Naím has pointed out, the demand for public services in countries where economic growth is leading to rapid change –i.e., countries like Brazil, Chile, and Tunisia—grows faster than the ability of governments to meet that demand.

How has the government reacted?

Responses to the protests have changed considerably as the movement’s scale and power expand.

During the first days of the demonstrations, when the number of protesters stood well below 1,000, the governments of Rio and Sao Paulo were defiant, challenging the Free Fare Movement and portraying the people on the streets as violent men who might be connected to criminal organizations. In the days that followed, as the number of protesters climbed above 20,000, the national and state governments changed their tone in an effort to placate the demonstrations.

The protests continued, however, and last Friday the government announced that the military could be deployed to halt the demonstrations.

Later on, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef delivered a 10-minute televised address in which she criticized the ongoing violence and pledged to enact social transformations. Roussef told Brazilians that she was willing to meet with the leaders of the protest to hear out their points of view and advice.

“Brazil fought a lot to become a democratic country, and it is fighting a lot to become a country that it is more just,” Rousseff said.

What’s the latest?

On Saturday, the Free Fare Movement, which had said that it would stop protesting after Rio and Sao Paulo lowered public transportation fares, announced that demonstrations from their members were far from over.

"We have always said that the fight against the increase would continue until the revocation. Now that the rate has fallen, we will continue the struggle, the zero tariff", the group said in a statement.

There were also large protests near the Estádio do Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, the site of the Japan-Mexico Confederations Cup match. Brazilian media reported skirmishes between protesters and police in what was largely a peaceful march of almost 70,000 people.

Thousands of Brazilians also marched on Saturday and Sunday in dozens of cities. The numbers, though, have dwindled considerably since June 20, when more than a million Brazils took to the streets.

In an effort to quell the demonstrations, the government agreed to meet with the leaders of the Free Fare Movement on Monday. Apart from that, Roussef has said that her government will develop a plan to improve public services and to fight corruption across the country. She is set to announce some of the new measures after the meeting.

On Monday morning, two women were run over by a car during a small protest in the outskirts of Brasilia (http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2013/06/1300307-duas-mulheres-morrem-emmanifestacao-no-entorno-do-df.shtml). They died before they could receive medical attention.

Authorities were expecting a large demonstration in Rio on Monday.

How can I follow what’s happening?

Twitter is a valuable resource, and there are various hashtags that can help you follow what’s going on: #ChangeBrazil, #protestos, #vinagre, #Revolta, and #Manifestação.

Other interesting social media resources include this Tumblr page, which features live testimonies, photos, maps, and videos from protesters. Countless videos of protests can be found on YouTube, where movements like #ChangeBrazil have their own channels.

The YouTube channel of the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper has some remarkable videos of some of the recent protests, and its website often has a live video feed of what is going on. For English-speaking audiences, the New York Times' Lede blog has interesting articles and is constantly updated.

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