"The Brazil 'Success Story' Is Starting to Unravel": An Interview with Rodrigo Santaella

Late last month, massive demonstrations erupted across Brazil, initially in response to increases in public transit fares. We spoke with Brazilian activist Rodrigo Santaella, an organizer with the Socialism and Freedom Party and a member of the revolutionary current Enlace about what’s behind this upsurge and what the prospects are for the movement going forward.

For some background on the crisis in Brazil, we recommend:
Perry Anderson “Lula’s Brazil
Rodrigo Santaella “Brazilian Spring: a general panorama and some perspectives

Michael: The recent demonstrations across Brazil initially started as a response to hikes in transit fares, but what are some of the deeper issues now driving the protests?

Rodrigo: As many people know, Brazil is a very unequal society. We have many structural problems stemming from the country’s neoliberal development model, such as stark social inequality, poor quality of public services, and limited access to basic social rights like healthcare, housing, and education. These are the roots of the recent upsurge. Of course the uprising stated in response to transit fairs, but really took off in response to the brutal police repression of the initial protests. It began with the transit fare hikes, but that was just the catalyst that brought all of these other problems to the surface.

M: How have the ruling PT (Worker’s Party) government's policies, particularly the issue of corruption, helped set the stage for this upsurge?

R: Prior to coming to power, the PT had a long history of struggle as worker’s party of the left, but once in office they quickly formed partnerships with business and began adopting neoliberal policies. There are of course important differences between the PT’s policies and the neoliberalism of the more traditional political parties, especially in terms of social expenditures. But the PT has adopted a model of development that is very advantageous to capital, especially agribusiness. The growth in the economy has also been fueled largely by housing speculation, which is unsustainable in the long run.

It’s difficult for those of us on the left to confront this model, because many people’s lives have improved during the PT era. It’s a fact that the poor are eating more because of programs like Zero Hunger and the Family Allowance (cash subsidies for the poor), but inequality has worsened and now the economy is beginning to slow down. Basically, the PT has a model of class conciliation. Now with the protests, the question is will the government continue privileging the banks, agribusiness, etc. or will they forced to orient more towards the urban poor, indigenous people, students, farm workers, etc. The model we’ve had is reaching its limit.

It’s not just about corruption, though that’s certainly a problem, but it’s not a new issue in Brazil. The media applies double standards to corruption in the Social Democracy Party (the main conservative opposition party) and the PT. The primary issue is the broader framework of development. For example, people here in Fortelza, which is the fifth most unequal city in the world, are being removed from their homes to build high speed rails for the World Cup and Olympics. They’re spending billions on these infrastructure projects simply to just get tourists from the airport to soccer matches during the one month of events. People are increasingly realizing that this is the PT’s real project.

The government is planning plebiscites on political reform, such as public financing of campaigns and new laws on corruption. This has been their response thus far. The PT was once the promising party of the left, of hope, but its failure to deliver has resulted in a widespread anti-party sentiment. It has delegitimized the tradition organizations like left parties and trade unions for many people. This is a huge challenge for the left in Brazil.


M: Many reports suggest that right-wing elements are seizing the opportunity amidst the unrest to hijack the direction of the movement. To what extent is this true?

R: At the beginning, the right wing’s attitude towards the protests was to try and criminalize and isolate them. For example, the media portrayed people in the streets as vandals and rioters. They were also trying to ignore the significance of the demonstrations, but then as marches kept getting bigger and bigger, they shifted their strategy. Once journalists covering the protests suffered police brutality the media started to focus more on what was really happening. We had 100,000 protesters in various cities, then 200,000, and so on.

Given the somewhat undefined political character of the movement, the right saw an opportunity and started to participate in the demonstrations and draw a line between the radicals and more moderate civil society types and pacifists. They started to push corruption as their main issue and ride the movement as a way to attack the PT government. This drew many middle class people into the streets as well. Small fascist groups also started to participate.

But these groups are quite marginal here. The right wing is not particularly strong in Brazil at the moment, but we do have a dispute between middle class elements and the left. So the direction of the movement is in dispute right now. I want to be careful in assessing the influence of the right, because the PT government started to say that the instability was creating the risk of a coup. This was a very dangerous thing to say. They were trying to get us out of the streets by stoking this fear. There is of course a tension with these sectors in the movement, but there is no risk of a coup. And of course the PT government’s policies, as well as corruption, helped set the stage for all of this.

The threat of a coup is illusory, but yes, the left is fighting to influence the course of the movement and develop clearer programmatic demands. We have a platform for the country and we are fighting for it, but of course more conservative trends have a different agenda.

M: Many people are unaware of how international sporting events can severely disrupt the lives of people in the host country, particularly the urban poor. How have Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup and the Olympics played into all of this?

R: The first thing is displacement. All of the host cities are being transformed. First the government has tried to create a “good image” for the tourists, by displacing many of the urban poor to build stadiums and other projects. There will likely end up being between 500,000 and two million displacements. We’re under the marshal law of FIFA right now. People are prohibited from walking in streets near the stadiums, street merchants can’t sell their goods, and so on. During the height of protests, we tried to demonstrate near stadiums, but we couldn’t get anywhere near them. Only people with tickets can go there.

The money they’ve spent on the World Cup/Olympics is enormous and those resources could have been put towards housing, health, etc. People see this every day and many now see clearly what the government’s priorities really are. When people are displaced and they and their children lack access to basic needs, but then see blond, white tourists passing by to the stadium, this changes their consciousness. This is how it’s affecting us in Brazil. No one expected this uprising, but I think next year it will be even bigger. They’ll have the police out for the sporting events, but people will be even angrier.

M: What social sectors have been represented in the streets so far?

R: The first protest started with the Free Fare Movement. They fight for free public transit for students, unemployed, and eventually for everyone. The upsurge started with a demonstration they had organized. When the police repressed it with disproportional force, people got angry and poured out into the streets. What started as a fairly small protest about fare hikes expanded rapidly. Big sectors of the middle classes then joined to fight against corruption and police repression. From the first demonstrations, we had a big growth of unorganized, poor sectors coming onto the street and channeling their general anger against the state, the police, etc.

For example, at a march here in Fortaleza, in the front, we had the poor, youth, students, and leftists and we were confronting the police very aggressively. Right behind us was a pacifist group protesting corruption and calling for non-violence. But they were only the streets for roughly a week. We’re still having demonstrations, but they’ve gotten smaller and smaller. People are not massively on the streets anymore at the moment. To some degree, it was kind of fashionable for people to come onto the streets. Many didn’t really even know why they were there and eventually went home.

The media tried to demonize the radical protesters and isolate them from the more moderate civil society types. But the experience of police brutality did change the way people thought initially. For example, I saw a guy with a Brazilian flag saying “no violence”, but then a couple of hours later after confronting police repression, he was burning a car. Many of these people will stay on the streets, but for now we’re back to organizing and developing a political platform for the next upsurge. We haven’t this level of mobilization in 20 years. From now on, everything will be different.

M: What role have radical left organizations like PSOL played in the organizing?

R: In organizing the protests, the left played a very small role. A lot of actions were organized through Facebook. But once it started, we in PSOL participated in meetings and inserted ourselves into the commissions. We had discussions and put forward our views, but it really is impossible to organize a mass of 100,000 people if you don’t have a firm base with them and we don’t. But we planned stuff and tried to confront this anti-party sentiment and struggled over the political content, rather than the form, of the movement. Some other socialist parties, for example, tried to control the form of the demonstrations, with flags and contingents, but were seen as opportunistic and were isolated from the protests.

We were open about being PSOL. We always had people in the front to fight the police and others in the back with people who didn’t want that kind of confrontation. This created a better attitude with the anti-party feeling. Whenever you build the fight with people in the streets, confronting the police, etc. it creates a sense of solidarity that gets past this anti-party attitude. Basically, we organize our people to try to the build the movement and contribute to shaping the political platform.


M: What has been the government's response so far?

R: First they lowered the public transit fares. The federal government is also proposing a plebiscite on political reform that deals with corruption, campaign reform, etc. These are important changes, but not deep enough. They’re trying to stabilize the situations with this referendum. Also, many cities are having local referendums on some of the infrastructure projects that have angered so many people.

The politicians are trying to respond but there are limits to this. We’ve always demanded 10% of GDP for education and 10% to healthcare. Right now half of the GDP goes to pay the debt and interest. But this isn’t being discussed in the government. They will have to respond more deeply. People are going to come back the streets soon. This has just started.

M: The PT has historically had a close relationship with the major trade unions. What effect have these protests had on the labor movement? Is the union leadership trying to accommodate the government, being pushed to the left, or both?

R: At first the unions were not participating in the protests. They didn’t have a clear position. They are so bureaucratized that they rarely go to the streets anymore. But once the protest become huge, they began to join. The anti-party sense I mentioned is also generally anti-organization, so there was antagonism between unions and others. Now they are trying to lobby the government on some of these demands, but they’re trying to compromise and stabilize the situation.

Some unions are trying to organize a general strike for July 11th, but they are so weak, they may not have the capacity to pull it off. The unions were pushed to the left, but we don’t know how long this will last. Brazil’s growth has slowed and inflation is rising, so the government is less flexible.

M: What other independent social movements have played an important role in shaping these events?

R: The most important was the MPL (Free Fare Movement). They’ve existed for eight years or so and have organized many demonstrations around transit access. We from PSOL have always participated in their demonstrations. Many youth collectives that existed before the demonstrations also played a key role in the organizing. Many LGBTQ collectives were an important force as well. But the main protagonist was MPL. The others were like us in PSOL - we jumped in to contribute, but no one group really leads.

M: Brazil is often portrayed as an economic "success story" for the global south, but a key theme of the protests is how this development has benefited only a relatively small sector of the population. Can you talk more about this?

R: The first thing we have to realize is that the Brazil “success story” is starting to unravel. This is the structural basis for the situation right now. We had a very successful development model, in some ways. The Brazilian government was able to distribute some wealth, like giving money directly to some poor sectors through the Family Allowance, and other such programs. So this grew the consumer class. For a while, more people were able to consume and drive growth.

But the model is also based on unsustainable housing speculation, agribusiness, and the financial market. People see where this is going and how the banks are reaping in money. A real crisis may be a few years away, but people are starting to become dissatisfied and going to the streets, even without a clear alternative political model. We think the crisis is going to get deeper and deeper because this is not sustainable. We think next year during the World Cup it’s going to blow up again.

M: How do you see this movement developing over the near and long-term?

R: Everything is calming down right now. People eventually tire of mobilizing when there aren’t clear demands and direction. So now we go back to organizing the base. This a good opportunity for the organized left to build the groundwork for the next wave. We still have demonstrations, albeit smaller, meetings, etc. And we’ll be planning many occupations over the next few months.

Many people have started to organize themselves and seek out organizations. So the left has to take advantage of this opportunity and build up in the near-term. In the long-term, I think this has fundamentally changed Brazilian politics. My generation has never seen such huge mobilizations and now people feel empowered. People saw the mayor of San Paulo, for example, saying it’s impossible to lower the fares, but then two days later he conceded. Dilma (PT President of Brazil) said a referendum was impossible, but then she was forced to do it.

People have seen that they can win through struggle and are gaining confidence. With the combination of the crisis going deeper and consciousness getting higher, we’ll have more mobilizations this year, but next year for sure. The World Cup and Olympics are concentrating the indignation of the population. We’ll be going back with clearer objectives, rather than just channeling raw anger with the police, etc. For now people will settle down. But this of course will depend on how the government responds. If these reforms don’t help, then people will be back on the streets and the movement will need to articulate a clear platform. That’s the main challenge right now.

Rodrigo Santaella serves on the youth leadership of Enlace, the sympathizing section of the Fourth International in Brazil. He currently lives in Fortaleza, where he works with PSOL's elected councilors as a social movements liaison. Also check out our previous interview with Rodrigo.

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