Protest against bus fare increase sparked nationwide protest movement demanding systemic change
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In Brazil, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of São Paulo Tuesday following a Monday night where an estimated 280,000 protesters took to the streets nationwide highlighting a range of concerns, including political corruption, inadequate social services, and to demand a just and sustainable development. The protests began last week in São Paulo over a hike in bus fares, organized by the Free Fare movement which demands free public transportation. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned the violence, but said her government is listening to the voices calling for change.
DILMA ROUSSEFF, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): The government and society knows that all violence is destructive. Sadly, it only generates violence. We cannot accept this. However, this does not detract from the peaceful spirit of those who were out on the streets to demand their democratic rights. These people must be heard. This was apparent. This transcends the mechanisms of the traditional political parties, class, and the press.
NOOR: Now joining us from Rio de Janeiro is Julia Michaels. She’s an American journalist and writer who’s lived in Brazil for more than 30 years. She’s the founder and editor of the blog RioReal Blog.
Thank you for joining us.
JULIA MICHAELS, FOUNDER AND EDITOR, RIOREAL BLOG: My pleasure.
NOOR: So you were on the front lines of the protest in Rio de Janeiro. Talk about the scene there. Some American press has described it as riots. What did you see? And describe the mood for us.
MICHAELS: Well, I wasn’t exactly on the front lines. I was–I’m older than most of the protesters, so I was actually a bit afraid, having seen what had gone on before in São Paulo, where the police were very violent there previously. We were told to take vinegar for tear gas effects and to go with our faces well washed and not wear makeup because the pepper spray and the tear gas would penetrate more if you had an oily face. I mean, it was crazy, scary.
But I was there, and I did see that the main avenue that cuts through downtown Rio was absolutely packed full of people. They say it was 100,000. I think it might’ve been more. That’s also where a samba celebration happens during Carnival. And people have been comparing photos from Carnival when that avenue also gets filled up and last night. It’s hard to say when there were more people.
But mostly what I saw was–everything I saw was peaceful. People were dressed in white to try to underscore that. They were carrying flowers. There were singing. They were chanting. They–the people up in the office buildings were flickering the lights, and everybody down in the street was cheering them and saying, come on down and join us.
And it was only really much later, in fact, after I’d left, that some people veered off from the main area, where the marchers sort of ended up outside a municipal theater, they veered off and went over to the state legislature building and with a small group, supposedly about 300 people, attacked that building. Somebody threw a Molotov cocktail. And this is on–you can see it on television here on video. And then they started–they went inside, they got furniture, they dragged it out, they made a bonfire in the street, they set a couple of cars on fire. They also hurt some police who were not prepared for this kind of thing at all. And they wrecked some stores, a bank ATM machine. The area was completely trashed.
But that–you know, the media here really has, you know, said that that happened, but not made that the focus of the way they see what happened here in Rio last night.
NOOR: And you’ve written yourself on your blog how even the media has gone from ignoring this to covering it. We’ve seen how the government has gone from initially cracking down on the protests that started a week ago to now Dilma Rousseff saying that the government is listening to these calls for change. Talk about how the protest has kind of in a way changed the game in Brazilian politics.
MICHAELS: Yeah. I mean, people have been calling on each other to protest corruption, for example, for years. There’s been, you know, a day when you’re supposed to go out wearing white or hang something at your window or go hug a tree. I mean, there’s a million things. But it’s been a very long time since this many people have really risen up. And I think the bus fare hikes, which happened simultaneously in Rio and São Paulo, and I guess in a bunch of other cities as well, just catalyzed so much discontent in the context of these mega events which are starting to happen here in Rio, and other cities, too–the Confederations Cup just got underway in Brazil, which is a prelude to the world soccer cup.
So I think, you know, the bus fare hike, which really wasn’t even that much in terms of the money, made people think again about a basic fact about Brazil, which is that it’s a two-tiered country. It’s a country that has hospitals that are private for the rich and crappy public hospitals for the poor. Same thing for schools. Same things–same for public transportation, and so that the bus issue just brought all of that into people’s consciousness in a very strong way.
The way working people suffer on public transportation here is just unbelievable. There are people who get up at three and four in the morning and take several different buses to get to where they need to go. And they also pay a big chunk of their wages to be able to afford the transportation.
NOOR: And what would you say were the root causes that maybe sparked this protest? Would you say that the events in Turkey, the occupation of Taksim Square and other protests there might have inspired this, the rising up of protesters here in Brazil?
MICHAELS: Well, I think there’s two things going on. One is that the internet has a huge role, I think, both in Turkey and Middle Eastern countries and in Brazil. I think the twenty-something generation is just a completely different generation. They think about things differently. They see the internet and all that it offers them as a chance to make a difference, and they feel powerful because of it. And so in that sense, yeah, I think Turkey is an example.
And I also think–funnily enough, in Brazil here there’s something called a telenovela, which is, like, a six-night-a-week soap opera that’s on prime time TV. Add the telenovela that just ended weeks ago took place partly in Turkey. And it was about–it focused on–it was all kinds of, you know, romantic stories, etc., but also it had–it focused on the issue of human trafficking and women being taken from Brazil to Turkey to supposedly work in good jobs there, and then they got there in the story and found out that they were prostitutes.
So Turkey is very much in people’s minds. And I think, you know, maybe the novela had something to do with it. It’s a funny coincidence, anyway.
NOOR: And we’ve seen in places like New York, even, where you have these mass demonstrations and the police crack down using very violent measures, that seems to get the public attention and gain public sympathy for these protests. Was that a factor in–has that been a factor in Brazil?
MICHAELS: Definitely. Definitely. The police in São Paulo were totally totally unprepared for what happened last week, and the protesters definitely got sympathy nationwide because of that.
Here yesterday the police were unprepared in another way. There weren’t enough of them, and they weren’t able to protect these buildings and things, you know, the cars that were burned.
Now they’re saying that there will be thousands more police in Rio on Thursday for the next protest. And I also just read, just before we began to speak, that the army is saying that they’re–will be ready. And that’s very scary in a way, because, you know, the army are not meant to be acting against the domestic populace.
NOOR: And finally, what would you evaluate as the prospects that these protests can lead to concrete change? We played a clip earlier where Dilma–we played a–sorry. We played a clip earlier where Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said she’s listening to the voices for change. She herself was a former guerrilla that was imprisoned and tortured by the Brazilian dictatorship decades ago. How receptive do you think her national government is going to be to these protests? Or are these protests just the beginning of a much larger movement that’s going to need to take shape before change is implemented?
MICHAELS: Oh, those are all such good questions. Well, I did see just a little while ago that some mayors in some of the cities where there were protests last night have reduced the bus fares. So that’s already–you know, we can see the impact. And the mayor of Rio I think right now as we speak is meeting with protesters about that, and the mayor of São Paulo was doing the same earlier.
The thing is that, you know, even though Dilma Rousseff comes from left, comes from a dissident background in the 1970s and ’60s, the government basically, although it’s a leftist government, is sort of sewn on top of a political and social and economic structure that hasn’t–in some very basic ways has not changed. You know, the two-tiered society that I talked about before, it’s still there.
We have now included a lot more Brazilians in the formal economy. There are many more people who were lifted out of poverty, millions of people who were lifted out of poverty in the last decade. And that’s very much to the credit of Dilma and her predecessor, Lula. But the basic structures of the way life works here still have not changed. And I think that’s what these protests are about.
And so that is a huge demand. I mean, how are we going to rethink public transportation in the whole country, basically? How are we going to rethink health care? How are we going to rethink a school system where anyone, the moment they have the tiniest bit of excess income, the first thing they do is put their kids in a private school?
But I don’t think the demands are going to go away. There’s–an awful lot of listening and dialoguing is going to have to happen, and it’s going to take a while.
NOOR: Julia Michaels, thank you for joining us.
MICHAELS: My pleasure.
NOOR: We’ll certainly keep following these developments.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.