Love and Panic on the streets of Sao Paulo, Rio, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte….
To many living outside Brazil, and even plenty within its borders, the face of the street protests sweeping the nation is of young people being beaten with truncheons, sprayed with tear gas, peppered with plastic bullets. Or the disorder of a number of the protesters themselves, looting, sacking, breaking windows and battering their way through the doors of officialdom.
This is far from the whole picture. If you scratch beneath the surface, the Bus Pass Revolution, the Tropical Spring (though it’s winter in these parts), call it what you will, might be better monikered A Rebelião do Amor. The Love Uprising. A love that has more in common with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On than Barry White’s crooning, but love nonetheless. Love for one’s country. Love for one’s neighbour, whatever his or her colour, creed or social class. Love for the idea of living in a decent society. Amor próprio, as they say in Brazil, or self-esteem. In this most socially fractured of nations, in the middle of sometimes violent protests, Brazil has felt like one country for the first time in an age.
At a demonstration march in the swish Savassi area of Belo Horizonte on Wednesday, Monica Carvalho, a teacher, accompanied by her two young daughters, summed up the feeling on the streets. “We haven’t had indignation like this in a long time. It’s beautiful.”
The story is that the protests began over a bus fare hike, and to an extent, they did. But in truth the cost of a bus journey was only ever a metaphor for everything else that is wrong in Brazil. Not many would object to a 20 centavos increase if the buses were more frequent and not hideously overcrowded, or if the roads were less riddled with potholes, or if the traffic was less apocalyptic. Similarly, nobody would mind paying hefty taxes if it meant decent public schools, hospitals, and social care. Probably (this one may be a stretch) nobody would even mind the politicians receiving their exorbitant salaries, if they just spent less time filching, skiving, and scheming, and devoted a little more time to helping their country get better.
In truth, the protests are an amalgam of a dozen reasons why the patience of the Brazilian people has finally run out. The shoddy state of so many public institutions. The grubby capering of pantomime villains such as Marco Feliciano (the president of the Human Rights Commission of the House of Representatives, currently promoting a “gay cure”, and who believes that the problems of Africa are a result of a biblical curse) and Renan Calheiros (the president of the Senate, who positively drips with past and current corruption charges). Then there is PEC 37, a proposed constitutional amendment that will limit the investigative powers of Brazil’s public prosecution department. And in the middle of this, the £8 billion and counting cost of the World Cup, which may just have been the final drop of water (the local version of the camel and his straw) and perhaps lit the spark under this huge pile of indignant tinder.
All of that is without mentioning the astonishing, mindless brutality of the Brazilian police shock troops, who throughout the protests have randomly spewed out tear gas and plastic bullets at anything (including seven reporters from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper) in their path. Perhaps Brazil should even thank the police, for it is their savagery that has helped bring a revolted population onto the streets, and kept them there.
But back to the love. More than a million people took to the streets last night, and the protests are bringing together Brazilians of all social stripes. Upper middle class playboyzinhos, more accustomed to gated communities and shopping malls, have found themselves belting out the national anthem alongside their working class compatriots in shadowy downtown districts. Quem apoia pisca a luz, goes the chant from the street (“if you support the protests, flash your lights”) and the bulbs of plush apartment buildings dizzyingly flicker on and off, on and off. The protests have spread across the country, from Belém in the far north to Porto Alegre in the south, and all points in between. It is rare that Brazil has been so united.
At the same Belo Horizonte march on Wednesday, though further downtown, the mood was edgier than in Savassi, but equally upbeat. “Our parents fought against the dictatorship, but then we went to sleep,” said Lucio, a lawyer. He was with his friends Alex, a security guard, and Renato, an electrician. All had come in from the outskirts of the city, their faces daubed with yellow and green paint. “Now, finally, we’re waking up,” he continued, grinning. Across the street, Melissa and Gabriel were both carrying anti-PEC 37 banners. “The protests are about fundamental human rights,” said Melissa.
The fervour has even spread to the Brazil football squad. “I want a fairer, safer, healthier and more honest Brazil,” said Neymar before Wednesday’s game against Mexico in Fortaleza. “From now on, I’ll take the field inspired by the demonstrations.” “I’ve been poor,” said Hulk, “so the demonstrations are really moving for me.” Inside the stadium, 60,000 lustily sang the national anthem long after the music from the loudspeakers had stopped. It may just be that the Seleção, which has grown distant from its roots, is finding, through the protests, a way of reconnecting with the Brazilian people.
The picture is less rosy when it comes to FIFA. Opinions amongst the protesters were mixed. “The problem isn’t just the World Cup,” said Monica. “A country like Brazil should be capable of hosting the World Cup. I’ve dreamt about it since I was a child. The problem is paying for the World Cup instead of schools and hospitals.” Lucio was harsher in his criticisms. “Brazil and FIFA want to show the World Cup tourists a Brazil that has nothing to do with our reality,” he said. All have nothing but contempt for the expense involved in hosting the event.
Certainly, the Confederations Cup did not expect to find itself surrounded by such an incendiary climate. Sepp Blatter has left Brazil and flown to Turkey, and last night respected sports journalist Juca Kfouri reported that the Italian players were feeling distinctly uneasy about the scenes around their hotel. There were even whispers about the possibility of suspending the tournament.
No one knows where the protests will end. A worrying tendency is the growing element of violence and vandalism infiltrating the demonstrations. The aims of the protesters are mixed and confused, and the movement has no clear agenda. But the fact that Brazilians, from millionaire footballers to electricians to teachers, are united, is progress in itself. This Rebelião do Amor will not easily fade away.
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