Social movements and activist groups are just one more challenge Brazil will face in a year of economic slowdown and political scandal. Protests over public transportation costs, land reform, work conditions and other issues have been on the rise in recent years and will test Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s second-term reform agenda, as well as the government’s ability to respond to the slowing economy.Â
Times are hard for Brazil, whose economic growth has slowed to near zero and whose investment climate is not as promising as it was in the previous decade. Having eked out a victory in the October presidential election, Rousseff and her administration have formed a new plan intended to revamp the economy. A new export plan will be put forth to offset the country’s trade deficit from 2014 â€” Brazil’s first deficit in a decade â€” but it also includes tax and interest rate hikes, social and unemployment benefit reductions, and other socially and politically sensitive measures.
However, these reforms come at a time when social activism and protests are on the rise in Brazil. A public transportation cost hike in mid-2013 triggered protests that evolved to include broader issuesÂ such as government corruption, police brutality, and the state of public services like health care and education. In June there were more than 2 million people protesting across the country, with over 100,000 participating in each of the large metro areas of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Manaus. While participation in protests was not as high the following year, they continued to bring out thousands of people across the country.
The increase in protest activity is in part a byproduct of a generational change in Brazil. The first generation of Brazilians born after the military regime’s rule (1964-1985) is only now entering adulthood. These are the first Brazilians who have lived their entire lives in a democracy and feel they have a right to hold the government accountable and protest. However, between learning how to relate to the state and security forces and determining what forms of activism are more effective for communicating demands, Brazil is still learning what it means to be a democracy. But there are also long-established movements, such as labor unions and rural and agricultural groups, which continue to play important roles in Brazil. Below are some of the main groups.
Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement)
The Free Pass Movement (MPL) began with a student and youth protest against a transport fare hike in the city of Salvador in 2003. The initial demonstrations set off another protest â€” with students, teachers and neighborhood associations participating â€” over a similar fare increase in Florianopolis in 2004. The MPL was then officially founded during the Worldwide Social Forum in 2005 in Porto Alegre. The group’s stated purpose was to advocate for free fares in mass transit. It sees transportation as central to the production of labor power and capital accumulation and thus a responsibility of the elite to provide to the working public for free.
The MPL is a nonpartisan organization with a fluid membership and a horizontal organizational structure. Advocacy, communication and legal support are conducted through national working groups. The MPL has demonstrated throughout the country every year for the past decade, and the movement played a crucial role in initiating the June 2013 protests through social media. The demonstrations eventually reversed the transport rate hikes in Sao Paulo and other cities, though they were raised again later.
While there were no demonstrations in 2014 on par with the June 2013 protests, the MPL remained busy throughout the country. And the group has already been active in 2015. On Jan. 9, it held a protest in Sao Paulo over an 18-cent increase in bus and subway fares; 2,000 people attended and there were limited clashes with police. Then on Jan. 21 it hosted a rally that brought out around 5,000 people.
The MPL will probably be the busiest of the activist groups when it comes to organizing protests this year. Demonstrations will likely intensify after the summer months (January-March), especially if the economy and austerity measures hurt the lower and working classes. The challenge from the MPL comes from its ability to stage demonstrations and bring out large numbers of people who then pressure the government to reconsider some of its economic policies.
Movimento Sem Terra (Movement of Landless Workers)
Unlike the relatively new MPL, the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) has been around for decades. The group was formed in 1984 as Brazil’s dictatorship was coming to a close. It has a leftist ideology, and its main agenda is land reform and access to “unproductive” land â€” held by the state, banks or big landowners â€” for poor workers in rural areas
Like the MPL, the MST is organized in a non-hierarchical way. Instead, there are various grassroots units; the group claims to have 350,000 families in long-term, legally recognized settlements, with another 90,000 members living in camps on contested property. The MST was very active throughout the 1990s and 2000s and often clashed with security forces over land rights. The intensity of the group’s activity has died down, however, with the emergence of the left-leaning Workers’ Party, first under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and now under Rousseff. (The group backed both candidates in elections.) But the MST has still organized protests and continues to play an important role among activist groups. For example, in February 2014, on the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding, the MST held a protest in Brasilia that drew 15,000 people and led to clashes with police.
One key issue for the movement this year is the recent appointment of Katia Abreu as agricultural minister. Abreu was a large-scale cattle rancher from Tocantins and has long had a contentious relationship with the MST. According to Igor Santos, one of MST’s leaders, Abreu “represents the most backward form of the landed gentry, who wield land as an instrument of power and real estate speculation â€¦ with no concern for the environment.” With changes in agriculture on issues such as land reform and the size of reserves given to indigenous groups among the planned economic changes under the new administration, the MST could be more active this year.
Workers and Labor Unions
Workers and labor unions have also played an important role in Brazil’s protest environment, spanning the automotive, energy, industry and agriculture sectors. The largest labor union is Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, or Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), which has close relations with the ruling Workers’ Party. The second-largest union is Forca Sindical, which distanced itself a bit from Rousseff’s government about three years ago. In the last presidential election, Forca was somewhat divided; some sectors supported Rousseff while others, led by Forca’s former president, Paulinho da Forca, supported Aecio Neves. Both CUT and Forca Sindical are umbrellas for several smaller labor unions.
With the economic slowdown, protests among workers could also play an important role. Last year was a difficult year for the auto industry in Brazil, with exports to Argentina dropping more than 40 percent and domestic sales dropping more than 7 percent, leading to demonstrations. On Jan. 12, auto workers from Volkswagen, Ford and Mercedes protested in Sao Paulo after Volkswagen fired 800 workers last week and Mercedes laid off 240 workers. The corruption scandal with energy giant Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, in which the company acknowledged it overpaid on contracts to various engineering firms and channeled part of the money to executives and politicians, is also having an effect. On Jan. 13, Comperj refinery employees protested over unpaid wages, likely in relation to the Petrobras probe. Petrobras delayed payments on contracts that are behind schedule, including some of the works at the Comperj refinery. Protests are likely to continue and possibly intensify this year, depending on the evolution of the economic situation.
Other Groups and Issues
Opposition parties could also spur protests and demonstrations. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party, whose leader, Neves, Rousseff narrowly defeated in the recent elections, will likely try to capitalize on any discontentment within the government. Indeed, there were some opposition protests in Sao Paulo late last year calling for Rousseff’s resignation, but they died out with the vacation season, and there have not been many signs that they are renewing. The main barrier that the Brazilian Social Democracy Party faces is that it lacks the broad popular appeal that movements like the MPL and MST have with the lower classes.
Student movements have also traditionally been important in Brazil. The main student organization is the Brazilian National Union of Students, which was especially active during the military dictatorship and until early 2000, but since then its ability to mobilize supporters has diminished. Its activism began dropping off when Lula came to power mainly because many of the people who are part of the union are close to left-wing political parties such as the Workers’ Party. Instead, other movements, such as the MPL, have been absorbing the more activist types of students, as have the so-called Black Bloc anarchist group. The Black Blocs matter because they have been known to infiltrate larger protests and spur violence. This causes several problems: Once the fighting starts, security forces tend to get a bad reputation for reacting, and the violence tends to discredit the protests. Therefore, violence among demonstrations and whether police reliability becomes an issue will also be key to watch this year.
In addition to specific groups that are likely to be active in the coming years, there are several issues that may also pose a problem for Rousseff’s government. One is Sao Paulo’s water shortage. The Sao Paulo state government’s struggle to effectively respond to the shortage has sparked protests in recent weeks. While the state is run by the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party, demonstrations could grow in the coming months and could be channeled against the national government if it is forced to implement power rationing. Another is the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, which, like the World Cup in 2014, will attract demonstrations and provide activist groups a unique opportunity to attract attention globally. Therefore, the government’s ability to rebound from the economic slowdown and implement politically and socially sensitive reforms will be tested.