Will the Brazilian Autumn blossom into progressive social change or wither on the vine?

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Brazil Protests photo by Flickr user Semilla Luz

Flummoxing my own assumptions about how change would not happen in Brazil, ‘the established inertia of Brazil has been transformed with the occupation of public spaces, from the National Congress to the squares and central avenues of our cities’  as CAFOD’s partner, Jubileu Sul Brazil, comment.  Over the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in the biggest protests in Brazil in over twenty years. Whether these mass mobilisations lead to lasting positive social change and increased openness of the government to listen to the people will be a hot topic for at least the next 12 months.

The demonstrations appeared as a spontaneous response to the R$0.20 increase in bus fares (which is equivalent to 5kg of rice, 2 kg beans, 3 litres of cooking oil and 5 litres of milk for a family of four making 200 journeys per month according to CAFOD’s partner Apoio). However, the demands from the street  echo many of the themes long tackled by CAFOD’s partners in Brazil. Lack of investment in public services, denial of human rights, and prioritisation of mega-events and infrastructure projects over education, health, housing and transport are not new concerns. CAFOD partner, Jubileu Sul Brazil has played a central role in the Comitê Popular da Copa  (People’s Organising Committee of the World Cup), and put the issue of families displaced to make way for new stadiums firmly onto the public agenda, to give just one example.

Clear wins have already been seen. City bosses in São Paulo and Rio have agreed to reverse rises in public transport costs. President Dilma has offered to dialogue with social movement leaders, to hold a referendum on political reform and to adopt new measures to improve public services. A proposed amendment to the Constitution (PEC37) – which would have removed the investigatory powers of the Public Ministry, an important route to justice for civil society – was  derailed after being voted down by parliamentarians.  Proposed cuts to teachers’ salaries have been revoked, new legislation on corruption brought in, and a new law approved which would see 100% of all future oil  royalties collected by the state being used for health and education .

The right to peaceful protest has been officially sanctioned by the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) who have offered their ‘solidarity and support’ in an official statement which was presented to President Dilma. Declaring that Brazil is experiencing an  ‘awakening of a new conscience’, they noted that the protests ‘bear witness to the fact that one can no longer stand living in a country with so much inequality any longer’ and affirmed that…’the solution to (our) problems will only be possible with the participation of everyone.’  They wished that the protests might ‘strengthen the people’s participation in the destiny of our country and announce new times for everyone, and that the cry of the people be heard!’

Whilst the protests have undoubtedly led to some concrete policy changes and an apparent increased willingness to engage from the President, whether or not they will be sustained by longer lasting change is far from clear. A vast range of groups have been present in the protests,  including, even, those who would support a return to military rule. There have been some violent clashes and the differential treatment by the police of poor and rich neighbourhoods where protests have taken place has been widely condemned by civil society. President Dilma’s popularity has suffered a sharp downturn since the protests began and  some commentators have noted the danger of ‘elite capture’ of the protests. Elections are due next year and the mainstream media has been criticised for its focus on  those calling for lower taxes and an end to corruption  – an agenda closely associated with the opposition.

Curiously, recent events mirror quite closely a ‘theory of change’ which I’ve heard Brazilian civil society groups articulate on several occasions. This is based on the understanding that change will come about through mass grassroots engagement, networking and organising of social movements. In this vision, intense and noisy public pressure leaves duty-bearers with no recourse other than to respond to these demands. Personally, I have always had questions around this view which seems to me to be more rooted in the history of post-dictatorship transition politics, the spectacle of participation and ritualisation of identity-politics, than in present realities of a complex and youthful society. It seems to leave little room for evidence-based models of advocacy, of incremental change, persuasion through reasoned dialogue, engagement in formal  policy processes, recommendations based on robust research and increasing influence through relationship building. However, it now seems that I may need to eat whatever the Brazilian version of humble pie is. But for now I’ll comfort myself with the thought that the next couple of years are certain to provide many opportunities for learning about how change happens (or doesn’t).

It’s too early to predict what will be the outcome of this latest ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Brazilian Autumn’ as some are calling it. Brazil represents half a continent of great political, social and cultural complexity. It combines middle income status with extreme social, economic and regional inequality and exclusion, weak public services, intense concentration of land and wealth, powerful oligarchies, political patronage and during election time, conspicuous vote-buying. Despite the old saying , ‘Brazil is a country of the future and always will be’, the future, in this case, is far from predictable. CAFOD partner Jubileu Sul Brasil has called the protests ‘a social breakthrough in favour, not only of the changes in public transport fares, but also structural changes in the economy and in the practice of another kind of development.’ We hope they are right – at the moment it feels a bit like watching the unwinding of  the twists and turns of a Brazilian mini-series – so watch this space to find out what happens next.

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