Much more than twenty cents

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The political class and national media were clearly taken by surprise by the massive demonstrations that have erupted in Brazil's major cities, as if they could not quite believe that the people had taken to the streets to demand basic rights that have been denied for decades.

The initial lack of dialogue with the state and the threat of police repression contributed to the growth in size of the demonstrations, which saw an estimated 65,000 on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, on June 17.

The wave of discontent that has swept through Brazil was ostensibly triggered by a proposed 20-cent (roughly US$0.10) increase to bus fares in São Paulo. However, as the days go by, the demonstrators' complaints have multiplied from mere cents to an extensive list of demands that include combating corruption, criticism of the billions in public spending for the World Cup and a call for improvements to public services such as health, education and security.

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On June 19, São Paulo was entering its seventh day of street protests while an estimated total of 250,000 demonstrators have also taken to the streets in Salvador, Florianopolis, Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and another 40 cities throughout the country in the biggest popular mobilization since 1992 when the people demanded the impeachment of then-president Fernando Collor.


So, what has provoked such a massive uprising from the people? One of the answers lies with the heavy tax burden that Brazilians shoulder. According to a recent survey by the local tax agency (IBPT), the average Brazilian will pay in federal, state and municipal taxes this year the equivalent of what he/she has earned during 150 work days, or five months. Taxes for the average Brazilian are currently at a record 41.1%, but citizens see little recompense when they look at the dire state of public services. Patients die every day in waiting lines and people are being killed daily by thugs who do not fear the police and have even less respect for the flawed legal system.

Many are wondering where their money is going, while others suspect that it is being spent to host a one-off football event that will provide no lasting improvements for the average citizen. The government is estimated to be spending a whopping 28bn reais (US$12.6bn) to prepare for the World Cup.

These issues are now being exacerbated by the ghost of rampant inflation, the high cost of living and the headlines warning about the slow growth of the economy.


As befits a former political activist who was imprisoned and tortured by the military government, a calm and collected President Dilma Rousseff said on June 18 that peaceful political demonstrations are part of a democratic regime. However, her workers party -   Partido dos Trabalhadores - has been in power for 10 years and has been the center of the biggest corruption scandal in decades, which has somewhat stained her credentials.

Other politicians are trying to take advantage of the situation and some city mayors have already announced a reduction in transport fares. This tactic is likely to backfire, however, as the average 10-cent fare decrease is being interpreted as an insult to the serious and expansive nature of popular demands.


The people want their basic rights met and many have come out and said that they no longer feel represented by political parties which have been falling short of their needs for as long as most can remember.

Even though the outcome is so far unpredictable, the demonstrations could leave a positive legacy, as long as the demands are taken seriously and a political program is drawn up. If, however, the people feel their demands are not being listened to and if the police are ordered to act with violence, the movement could turn into a real revolution.