Brazil’s Great Moment of Hope: Interview with Paulo Sotero

“People in power are really ignoring the common man’s plight, and I think that is what made this thing boil over,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, of the recent protests, where hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in over 80 cities.

The size of the protests caught even the organizers by surprise, and though they began after the government announced a modest rise in bus fare, Mr. Sotero, speaking from São Paulo, said a deeper sense of disappointment in the government is what really made the protests catch fire. “It’s not bus fare rises, it’s not per se the lavish expenditures on the stadiums. It is the irritatingly slow pace of change in a country that has experienced the emergence of a middle class that was promised and has seen some of the benefits of a middle class life with some degree of equity, but that suddenly see that life is very hard, that they may not get there because the economy is stalling, because inflation is on the rise again, because there is too much corruption,” Mr. Sotero said.

Mr. Sotero said that the Worker’s Party, which many Brazilians felt, “had been a party that valued ethics in politics, a party that came from the bottom of society, the only grass roots party in the history of Brazil,” changed once it was elected to the federal government, where it’s goal became to keep power and to have access to public funds for their own objectives, creating disillusionment among its supporters.

“So, all of a sudden, the people do not have a way of manifesting or sending their messages to power about their grievances, and it’s no surprise in that environment that they take to the streets now. This surprised completely the political parties, the parties in power, the parties in the opposition–I would say, even the media. The scale of this was completely unanticipated.”

Mr. Sotero was very skeptical that a series of proposals made to Congress following the protests will make much of a difference. "A lot of those proposals have been around for a while. President Dilma Rousseff enjoys the theoretical support of a large majority in Congress. She could have already approved all of those things many months or a couple of years ago. The fact that she did not means that obviously she is not a very able politician, and she cannot reach agreement within her coalition about those proposals. " 

"In order for them to be worked on in a consequential way, I think there is a consensus here that you have to re-establish the connection between the government and the governed," he said.

Mr. Sotero said that if Brazilians begin to see vandalism and looting connected to the protests, the movement will start to lose legitimacy. “But, I think overall, most people that I’ve talked to here [in Brazil]—not only the young ones, these are mature people—see this as a great moment of hope, as long as we know how to use it.”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

Warren Hoge: My guest in the Global Observatory today is Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Paulo is a distinguished, long-time journalist from Brazil, who was the Washington correspondent of the prestigious Estado de São Paulo newspaper from 1989 to 2006, and who is a frequent guest commentator on Brazilian matters for American, European, and Brazilian media outlets. He speaks with us today from São Paulo, one of the many cities across Brazil that has been convulsed this month by large street protests of a kind seldom seen since the nation’s military dictatorship ended in 1985. Paulo, the thing that ostensibly set off these protests was a relatively small rise in the price of public transportation, but clearly there are much larger forces at play here. How do you explain what is behind these mass protests?

Paulo Sotero: You are right. The reason was, at the beginning, hiking bus fares, but what motivated people to go really en masse to the streets was an episode of abusive use of police force against protestors of the hikes. And this is important to know, because this turns the events into a civil rights episode. People that were irritated because of the young people protesting in the streets and causing traffic jams turned and joined them in the streets once they were beaten by police. And so this is an episode that shows a society that no longer tolerates certain type of behavior from authorities.

I think the backdrop of this is also something very important. We are having here in Brazil the pre-World Cup tournaments, Copa de Confederaciones. This tournament make evident to people in Brazil the wasteful expenditures of public money in lavish stadiums in cities that barely have teams to play. I think the fact that soccer, which is something that we absolutely love in Brazil, became also a subject or something that is used by authorities, by people in power, to spend public money in ways that they should not, I think helped to galvanize this enormous frustration there is in Brazil with something, to me, is the overall cause of the protests.

It’s not bus fare rises, it’s not per se the lavish expenditures on the stadiums. It is the irritatingly slow pace of change in a country that has experienced the emergence of a middle class that was promised and has seen some of the benefits of a middle class life with some degree of equity, but that suddenly see that life is very hard, that they may not get there because the economy is stalling, because inflation is on the rise again, because there is too much corruption. People in power are really ignoring the common man’s plight and I think that is what made this thing boil over.

WH: Paulo, I want to pick up on something you just said because we have all watched, from abroad, in recent decades, as Brazil grew in prosperity and created a viable middle class. Yet, it is that middle class you say that is now in the streets leading the protests and making the demands. Does this mean that modern-day Brazilians have expectations now that they did not have before?

PS: Yes. The protests are, in large measure, the results of a success. Brazil did improve as a nation since the restoration of democracy in 1985, since the stabilization of the economy in 1994, since the expansion of targeted social programs to deal with this enormous inequality that exists in Brazil, that has historic roots and more recent roots. So, Brazil has improved; Brazil has seen about 40 million people, in a 200-million people country, rise to the ranks of the middle class.

These people became consumers. Companies that produce consumer products came to Brazil in droves to expand this market. Proctor and Gamble has seen its profits rise here 30% a year for ten years. In the last three or four years, the tide has changed. I believe there are reasons, economic reasons, behind that.

The good economic times of global growth that we had, particularly during the Lula years; President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the first man of the people, a former union leader who rose to the presidency, was elected in his fourth attempt. That period, I believe, started to end with the 2008 economic global crisis. But Brazil was, during that period, going through an economic model based on precisely increased consumption by our rising middle class, increased consumption of commodities by the rise in Chinese middle class, and things like that. The end of the Lula government marked a change where we did not have a charismatic leader anymore; we had a bureaucrat as president. The situation started getting very tough–7.5% GDP growth in 2010; 2.7% GDP growth in 2011; barely 1% last year, and inflation comes up. And well, we have been vaccinated against inflation in Brazil. We don’t like inflation, especially poor and middle-class people, because obviously, it eats all the gains you get from higher salaries, more access to goods, etc.

And I believe that this started to be vocalized by different groups, and by the media at the same time, as the party in power, the Worker’s Party, that had really been an important actor in this enormous transformation, changed it substantially. The Worker’s Party, who historically had been a party that valued ethics in politics, a party that came from the bottom of society, the only grass-roots party in the history of Brazil–once it reached the federal government, decided to transform itself, and unions, and associations of students and nongovernmental organizations that are close to it into instruments of power, to keep power and to have access to public funds for their own objectives. And this started to alienate people from not only the Worker’s Party and from those other forms of social representation, but causing disillusionment with politics in general here, and this is why you see suddenly a people that no longer feels represented by a political class. The Worker’s Party was [a] disappointment. The former parties, the traditional parties in Brazil, had never been seen with great favor by the people, and so all of a sudden the people do not have a way of manifesting or sending their messages to power about their grievances, and it’s no surprise in that environment that they take to the streets now. This surprised completely the political parties, the parties in power, the parties in the opposition–I would say, even the media. The scale of this was completely unanticipated.

WH: Paulo, you talk about the Worker’s Party, the center-left government that, by its own definition, is supposed to be responsive to things like this, and yet all these protests are occurring. The new president, the successor to Lula, Dilma Rousseff, has said that public demand should be listened to, and yesterday she made a series of proposals to reform the Congress, punish political corruption, and even upgrade the transit systems in the country. Will this do anything to calm this crisis? And if it won’t, what do you think it will take to end the protests?

PS: I am very skeptical, Warren, that this will make much difference. A lot of those proposals have been around for a while. President Dilma Rousseff enjoys the theoretical support of a large majority in Congress. She could have already approved all of those things many months or a couple of years ago. The fact that she did not means that obviously she is not a very able politician and she cannot reach agreement within her coalition about those proposals. Obviously she is–or was until very recently–very well regarded. She is seen as a clean politician, as an honest person. And I think people are not rallying against her, but more against a situation.

Now, what would have to happen in turn of actual proposals that would quiet the streets; I think it has to do, first and foremost, with issues related to political representation. There is actually one already being worked on that would, through direct action by the people, the Brazilian constitution allows this, you collect one and a half million signatures, which represents about one percent of the voters in Brazil. And you mandate Congress to vote on a proposal. The proposal is about political system reform. It would, one: ban companies corporate donations to politicians. Secondly, it would create a two-phased system of elections in Brazil, by which you would first vote on political platforms of parties and once those platforms are voted on, and the number of slots that each party will have in Congress is determined, you will chose the politicians that will advance that platform.

The idea here is to, one, reduce the number of political parties –we have almost 30, they represent nothing. And also to reduce the number of politicians in Brazil. So, to re-establish the connection between the people and it representatives; that connection has been lost. Other proposals, Warren, affecting public transportation, health, education–they have been all under the table. They obvious take a while to be worked on. But, in order for them to be worked on in a consequential way, I think there is a consensus here that you have to re-establish the connection between the government and the governed.

WH: I’ve been struck at how rapidly this spread and grew. At one point, I was reading about protests in a hundred different cities across Brazil. Is this because of social media? Is social media playing a big role in the spread and effectiveness of these protests?

PS: This is a great irony of the protests. The government claims as one of its big successes is the fact that it has its policies and starting even with the predecessor of President Lula, President Cardoso. Above all, Lula and Dilma Rousseff claim a lot of credit for the fact that Brazilians have now access to more and more goods, and among those goods: cell phones, and computers and Internet service. About 60% of the population in Brazil have access to those services.

And it is precisely those gadgets and those services that are being used to mobilize the population outside of the party structure. Last week, there was an attempt by the Worker’s Party to join some of the protest, and they were completely rejected and social media allowed the organizers of the protestors–this is a leaderless type of movement–but the social media allowed them to organize very well, very fast, and it is obviously something that traditional politicians in Brazil, and I would say almost all the political parties here still don’t understand, don’t know how to deal with, but it seems to be a very important contribution to the conversation, to the country as long as–and here this is a crucial point–from this situation, new leadership will emerge that is capable of understanding the situation and responding. It is the greatest challenge. This is a situation that requires leaders and that’s what, right now, we cannot see.

WH: Paulo, finally, do you imagine that all this will end up having an enduring effect on Brazilian society? Or will it acabar em pizza, “end in pizza,” as Brazilians like to say of things that end up producing nothing significant?

PS: Warren, I am very hopeful about this. I think this has a quality that we haven’t seen before. People are tired; people are fed up with being abused, with being disrespected in ways of a government that takes people’s feelings for granted. It started with soccer, saying that “well, this is a passive people, a people that has a negotiating soul” and that is true, that loves soccer and parties, and that is true, but I think people are telling that we are citizens, and we want to be even more “citizen.” We have those rights, we conquered this, and yes, we want more consumer products, and we want everything, and we want more and we want better. In terms of how they treat people here: there is a set history in Brazil of abuses, the use of police force. There have been massacres by police here, and nobody has been punished for those. And people are fed up with that. And it’s very interesting, the reaction.

There are now many cities where people going out to the streets with flowers and giving flowers to policemen and saying, you guys are with us. We are going to negotiate the itineraries of every protests – you’re going to follow that, you’re going to protect that. In some cities, you already see policemen that follow that are being applauded by the protestors.

So, I see this with hope- although obviously, those are massive protests, there’s always room for vandalism, there is always room for people looting, and the organizers of those have to be very careful about how they go about calling people to come to the streets. Because if people in Brazil start seeing more vandalism, more looting, then protests just justifies protest for causes that don’t connect to their daily lives, to their needs. I think the movement would lose legitimacy. But I think overall, most people that I’ve talked to here, not only the young ones, these are mature people, see this as a great moment of hope, as long as we know how to use it.

WH: Paulo Sotero, thank you very much for talking with us today in the Global Observatory.

About the photo: Protest in Uberlândia, Brazil, on June 20, 2013. Credit: Yassin/Flickr



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