Protests in Brazil #TsunamiDaEducacao. Photo: Mavanio Matheus

In their millions, Brazilian students and workers protest against education cuts, reports Orlando Hill

The tsunami of students and workers protesting against education cuts that swept through the streets of 250 cities in every state of Brazilian on 15 May not only caught Bolsonaro and his ministers by surprise, but also the organisers of the demonstrations. It was estimated that over 2 million people took part in the demonstrations. Rio, São Paulo and other major capitals witnessed marches of over 100 thousand. According to the National Union of Students (UNE)  “all federal universities and federal institutes paralyzed their activities against the (the 30 percent) cuts announced by the Ministry of Education.”

The hashtag #TsunamiDaEducacao (paraphrasing Bolsonaro’s warning the previous week that his government would face a tsunami, without stating exactly what the danger was) topped Brazil’s Twitter and reached second in the world’s ranking.

Fernando Haddad, presidential candidate for the Workers’ Party (PT) in the last election, at  the last minute had to cancel his visit to London where he was scheduled to give a talk organised by Brazil Solidarity Initiative, so that he could take part in the 250 thousand strong march in Sao Paulo.

According to an article published on the website of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil’s main trade union centre, there were so many people that it was hard to find your friends. But when you did tight embraces and smiles were exchanged. Being among people who shared your clamour for rights was priceless.

Alana (19), an interior design student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), said she went to the march to “unite with the people who are dissatisfied with the president’s decision, and to fight for our rights. Many students depend on the university to better their living standards.”

Federal and state universities are free in Brazil. Students compete for places by sitting exams. They have always been seen as a privilege of the middle and upper classes, since it was virtually impossible to get into one of them if you had gone through state education.  PT while in government introduced a quota system which guaranteed 50 percent of places in federal universities for students from state schools or who identified themselves as black or indigenous. Alana lives in a working-class neighbourhood, and managed to get into higher education thanks to the quota system.

The UNE and CUT emboldened by the huge turnout are organising another demonstration on the 30th of May as part of the build up for a national strike on 14 June.

The minister of education, Abraham Weintraub, on social media defended the cuts calling them a “contingency” and said he would be willing to talk to all those involved in “in the debate on education and proposes to return to the National Congress as many times as necessary to discuss the topic and show all the data and numbers.”

These “unexpected” demonstrations only seem to come out of the blue but are usually the result of an accumulation of struggles from below.

So far the forces on the left in Brazil have been successful in keeping a united front. As soon as the results of the first round in the presidential election came out, Guilherme Boulos, presidential candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), understood the importance of defeating Bolsonaro and gave his total support for Haddad, the PT candidate. All the other parties on the left and social movements, with few exceptions, gave their support and rallied behind Haddad. Campaign rallies were organised by the two political fronts, Povo Sem Medo (Fearless People) and Frente Brasil Popular. Haddad went from 29 percent in the first round to 48 percent in the second.

Faced with defeat and the certainty of an onslaught of government cuts and attacks on labour and civil rights, the left united under the banner of “we won’t give up one single right” (nenhum direito a menos) and “nobody lets go of anyone’s hand” (ninguém solta a mão de ninguém). The idea was to remain united in the defence of basic rights.  

Carnival in Brazil tends to have a political and radical edge to it. This year it was particularly more so. The most popular chant spontaneously sung across the country by people dancing in the streets was “Hey Bolsonaro, take it up your arse!”. Red flags and banners with political slogans were paraded to the rhythm of drums and brass instruments. Mangueira, the winner of this year’s samba school parade in Rio, displayed banners with Marielle Franco’s face stamped on it.

For the first time International Workers’ Day (1 May) was celebrated in unified rallies across the country organised by all central trade unions. Brazil has at least 12 of the equivalent of Britain’s one TUC. Bolsonaro managed to do what seemed impossible, unite all of them even the ones more resistant to industrial action under the banner of a general strike scheduled for 14 June.

On 6 May, 3 thousand students, teachers and parents from various state schools occupied the street  in front of the Military High School (Colégio Militar) where president Bolsonaro was attending a ceremony for the 130 years of the school. They carried placards and banners against the 30% cuts in the funding for federal universities and institutions. Many of the state schools are funded by federal universities.

The ruling classes in Brazil have always been very good in perceiving the change in popular mood and politically manoeuvring to guarantee their hold on power. On the Friday after the demonstration the three main conservative newspapers (mouthpieces of the ruling class) published editorials criticising president Bolsonaro. O Estadão described the president’s attitude of calling the students “idiots” one more similar to a “leader of a faction rather than the president of the Republic”. His behaviour might go down well with the Bolsonrista sect on Twitter,

but the fact is that the government begins to face the same difficulties in the streets that it has faced for some time in Congress, a situation that, as the recent history of the country shows, nobody knows how it begins, but everyone knows how it ends. 

In the editor’s opinion Bolsonaro is seen as a hindrance to the social security and pension reform. Folha de São Paulo and O Globo, were also highly critical of Bolsonaro’s “aggressive obscurantism” in dealing with the public.

Those three newspapers defend the neoliberal project and were instrumental in Dilma’s impeachment. They are now calling in doubt Bolsonaro’s ability to govern Brazil out of the political and economic crisis. Calls for impeachment are coming to the forefront not just among the opposition, but also among sectors loyal to the government.

A possible scenario could be one in which Bolsonaro is impeached and a compromise is reached with sections of the more “moderate” wing of the opposition. Lula might even be released from prison.

The social movements and the radical left have to be careful not to fall into that trap. They can do this by putting forward a radical agenda that while not necessarily breaking with capitalism, would knock down the neoliberal tripod (operational independence to the Central Bank, free capital flow and constraints in government expenditure with the aim of achieving a surplus in the primary budget), which was sustained even during PT’s governments.

The agenda can be read in the banners carried by protestors in the streets: demilitarisation of the police; democratic and popular land reform, a public debt audit, housing reform, demarcation of indigenous lands and others.

There is momentum to force this agenda. As the media student Vinicius (18) replied when asked why he was taking part in the students’ demonstration,

we live under a government with a neoliberal and reactionary project which wants to scrap our state education. We need a unified and organised movement with students and workers in the streets to show the power of the people.

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.