After the Violence, What Next for Brazil?

What is really shaking the political system in Brazil is that this scale of protest is unprecedented in recent history and - like the global Occupy protests - there is no single issue that can be easily addressed.

The people are on the streets of Brazil calling for a revolution, yet the president of the republic has now issued a statement declaring her pride in their actions. President Dilma Rousseff could hardly have issued a statement saying that they are all very naughty and should be off home now, but to talk of her pride in the protests looks like a blundering attempt to take ownership of the protest movement.

The President of Brazil and the Mayor of São Paulo are both left-of-centre politicians representing the Workers' Party (PT). Mayor Fernando Haddad has only been in office since the start of the year and has been busy announcing new housing for low-paid workers, better bus lanes, and improvements to the 'bilhete unico' public transport ticket system - similar to the London Oyster card.

To an outsider, it would seem that Mayor Haddad has been focusing his effort on improving housing and transport for those with lower-incomes - just imagine if his more right-wing opponent José Serra had won the election. But the public in Brazil has lost faith in the political class in general - the decision to increase the cost of a bus ride in São Paulo by 20 centavos (6 pence) was merely the straw that has broken the back of a very large camel.

What is really shaking the political system in Brazil is that this scale of protest is unprecedented in recent history and - like the global Occupy protests - there is no single issue that can be easily addressed.

President Dilma may be attempting to claim the protests as her own, but this tactic could easily backfire. Though Dilma, and her predecessor President Lula, have previously been considered to be leaders who rose from the working classes, they are now a part of the political elite - and therefore a part of the problem.

And though the calls on the street for a revolution could just be seen as anti-government brickbats, history is littered with precedents. When the Bastille was stormed in Paris in 1789 it only contained seven prisoners, yet the event became the single most important flashpoint of the French Revolution. Bostonians throwing tea into their harbour in protest at the British Stamp Act of 1765 could hardly have imagined their actions would precipitate the American Revolution. The paralysation of France in 1968 began as just a series of student protests.

Revolution is never crafted with an agreed strategy - it just happens.

But why is this happening now in Brazil?

If you ask 100,000 protestors you will probably get 100,000 answers, but one of the most powerful common themes is corruption. The corruption that affects every person in Brazil and means that only those who are in the know or well connected can ever succeed.

When a foreigner first arrives in Brazil one of the first (untranslatable) concepts to understand is that of jeitinho. It means social navigation or rule-bending and is often referred to by Brazilians speaking English as 'the Brazilian knack.' It doesn't necessarily refer to bribing people with money, but is closer to just affecting them emotionally.

Bureaucracy rules Brazilian life. It is not possible to sign a document and vouch that the signature is yours without first taking it to a notary office to have them stamp the form proving that the signature matches the one on their records. Jeitinho is a natural reaction to this endless onslaught of bureaucracy and basically allows people to bend the rules a bit through some pleading or attempts to make the person enforcing the rules feel guilty. It helps to get things done.

So there is already endemic corruption in Brazilian society from top to bottom. From the middle-class teenager paying R$400 (£120) to pass a driving test to the endless requests for a little Christmas 'bonus' from public servants - like the rubbish collectors who might just forget your trash for the next month if a gift is not forthcoming.

It is no surprise to find that in a society that bends the rules on a daily basis, politicians are far from spotless. If people with just a little power - like a driving examiner - can be bought for relatively small amounts of cash then it goes without saying that politicians who have access to the public chequebook can be bought.

Pork barrel politics and gifts for votes are seen in almost all democratic societies, but when I arrived in Brazil the universal contempt for politicians struck me as unusual. The general public in Brazil doesn't just dislike politicians, they actively loathe them and assume that they are all power-hungry, corrupt, and scooping up as much as they can while in office so that they can eventually retire to a beachfront house in Miami.

So the ingredients in the Brazil crisis are three decades of democracy during which Brazil has turned from a basket case into an economic superpower, yet political activity has not matured. Political and social maturity has not kept pace with economic maturity. The people no longer trust their leaders or the systems of government, yet the economy of Brazil is now the sixth largest in the world - bigger than that of the UK.

The government probably thought that a combination of maturing economic power, the FIFA World Cup 2014, and the Rio Olympic games in 2016 would all lead to a fantastic decade for the Brazil they created, but the people are now using the attention of the world to change their nation.

And it's about time. I assumed that the Brazilian people would gradually demand greater transparency from their leaders in the same way that has been developing in India, but this sudden and chaotic wave of change could catapult Brazil into a new political and economic era.

Imagina na copa (imagine the cup) has become a familiar lament amongst Brazilians, as in "if you think the traffic is bad now then imagine how it will be during the World Cup." There is very little excitement about the forthcoming World Cup and Olympic games. The people are disgusted that billions have been spent constructing stadiums and arenas that may see very little use after the games, yet the health and education systems are both crumbling.

Many social media messages have called on foreigners to boycott the World Cup. I have even seen defaced Brazilian flags being circulated. I don't think that this reflects the general feeling of the people. Brazilians love their nation and they love it when foreigners appreciate their country, but they feel cheated that a government they don't trust is building pointless sports arenas in places such as the Amazon rainforest.

Democracy has broken down. Even though the politicians were not trusted before these protests, they were tolerated with a shrug of the shoulders because most people assumed they could do nothing about the situation. The recent wave of street protests and storming of the presidential compound in Brasilia show that we are now in a different place altogether.

The people will no longer tolerate the corruption of democracy because they don't feel at all represented by politicians who live in enormous castles and never visit their local bar or café.

But what will be offered. What will happen now? The people have stated that they will no longer tolerate the corruption of Brazil's political class and they want first-class infrastructure to reflect the economic and social status of the country.

The Occupy movement made similar statements, that the 99% don't feel represented by the 1%, but where is that movement now? It remains an agitator, but has Occupy succeeded in changing global political leadership? I can still see world leaders such as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron in office leading their countries using the same political structures that existed before Occupy began.

Will the same happen in Brazil? Already the protestors are talking online about taking a day off from the protests so they can turn their attention to supporting the Brazilian football team in the Confederations Cup. Is it possible to take a day off from a revolution because of the football?

I see two problems ahead. How the protests end and how the political class in Brazil can be changed to be more representative of the people, rather than just an established elite. Plus the unforeseen consequences of revolution - stripping away bureaucracy and tariffs will help to stimulate real competition and industry in Brazil, but it will lead to many job losses amongst the millions of public servants who assumed they had a job for life. The people may be calling out to be treated like Europeans or Americans, but that means embracing some aspects of globalisation that will be difficult to swallow quickly in Brazil.

But it cannot be denied that there needs to be an immediate change. The protests cannot continue indefinitely even though the police appear to have relaxed from their initial hard-line approach to crowd control.

But there has been an entire breakdown of trust in the political class. The President, government, and city mayors could attempt to ride this out, but I believe the people will remain on the streets until there is some tangible change.

Perhaps the only change that would address this situation is a change of guard - sweep out the old and bring in some new blood. Announcing that every public official will have to stand for election again, regardless of when they commenced office. With encouragement from the media and civil society towards 'normal' citizens - encouraging the man on the street to stand for political office. Even local councillors in Brazil tend to be big business owners or well connected to the local politicians. It is time for some bus drivers, schoolteachers, and shop owners to stand up and put their name forward.

If the media supports a wave of local and national elections where normal people are encouraged to stand and educated in the process of how to go about applying then a stake would be driven into the heart of the cosy political elite. The elected representatives might then be more representative of the people.

But after decades of cynicism the Brazilian people also need a better understanding of how politics should work - to counter the assumption that everyone in political office is automatically corrupt. During the last local council elections my wife asked her hairdresser who she was going to vote for and the hairdresser replied that she did not even understand what the local council did. Schools need to teach children about the role of councils, mayors, and other parliamentarians - and to reinforce the attitude that these people work for you.

In 1776, the great English pamphleteer and political agitator Thomas Paine described his vision of representative democracy in 'Common Sense'. Paine described the ideal form of government as everyone meeting under a tree to decide how to run the neighbourhood, then the next best option being for people to send an agreed representative to the meetings under the tree so they can get on with work or family life.

Over 200 years ago, Paine's description of common sense was that the people meeting in government were sent by the people to represent them. That's the kind of common sense that has been lost in Brazil as the politicians have drifted off to their own world of castles and bullet-proof Mercedes cars - far removed from the life of a minimum wage cleaner.

The cleaner, the company chairman, and the star footballer all have one single vote. In the eyes of a democratic society they are all equal. If Brazil wants to capture the opportunity that is so clearly visible, the political system needs to be adjusted to reflect this.

Brazil needs more common sense.


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