Sean Ledwith looks at the background to the recent eruption of street protests in Brazil and the prospect of further unrest

Brazil protesters

The Brazilian elite breathed a collective sigh of relief at the start of this month when the ill-fated Confederations Cup football tournament drew to a close. The matches have attracted gigantic protests of up to a million people, voicing opposition to the expense of the tournament and the contrast between its glitzy marketing and the everyday squalor of the lives of millions of the country’s poor.

Respite for the ruling class may be short – lived, however, as the Pope is due to visit later this year and then next year brings the even bigger commercial behemoth that is the World Cup. In 2016 the country is scheduled to host the Olympics-assuming the World Cup is not seriously disrupted. 

All three events raise the possibility of a repeat of the scenes of insurrection witnessed on the streets of Brazil over recent weeks. The World Cup comes with a price tag of almost $15 billion to be paid for by the Brazilian government.

This grotesque waste of money-combined with a small but significant bus fare increase across the country-was the spark that lit the June rebellion. The country has witnessed its biggest demonstrations since the end of military rule in 1985. The irony is this year’s protests are aimed at a ruling party that was carried to power on the back of the unrest of the 1980s. The ruling coalition is dominated by the Workers Party (PT) that was born out of struggles against dictatorship but which has now become the principal agent of the neoliberal project in Brazil.

The scenes of thousands being tear-gassed and baton-charged on the orders of a PT government looks like a hideous betrayal of the party’s origins to many Brazilian workers. The party was founded in 1979 as an attempt to form a political vehicle for Brazilian workers who had endured military rule since 1964. A car worker from Sao Paulo, Luis Inacio da Silva, rapidly became its best known and most charismatic spokesperson.

Better known as Lula,he was a shopfloor militant who could boast of genuine radical credentials such as his humble origins in the city’s favelas (urban slums) and his numerous incarcerations at the hands of the army. Over the next few years, the PT made inroads into the legalised structures of the post-military political system and started to win positions in local and provincial government.


Lula ran as a presidential candidate on four occasions, gradually increasing his vote each time until by 2002 he was able to secure an outright victory For many on the international left this was a cause for unreserved celebration. Lula was undoubtedly preferable to the sunglasses-wearing generals of previous decades but there were portents of compromise from the start of the PT era. One of Lula’s first decisions as President was to appoint a former president of the World Bank, Henriques Meirelles, to head Brazil’s Central Bank.

This sent a clear message to the global financial elite that the country would not be cancelling its crippling international debt, which at that point stood at $400billion. The PT government also announced it would not be campaigning for withdrawal from the neoliberal Free Trade Area of the Americas, as previously promised in its manifesto.

Lula’s rise to power should also be understood in the context of contemporary events in Brazil’s neighbour and economic rival, Argentina. In 2001 that country had undergone a pre-revolutionary crisis triggered by the country’s massive international debt. The Argentinazo – as the uprising became known – sent shockwaves through Latin America’s ruling elites. Eager to avoid similar confrontations, many in the Brazilian ruling class would have shrewdly calculated the PT would be a viable safety valve for pressure from below.

Defenders of the PT’s record in power since 2002 point to Brazil’s rise to global prominence as part of the BRICS group of ascending economies and the government’s claim to have raised 40 million people out of poverty.

The slowdown

The shine has come off the economic miracle, however, as the country has been caught up in the global economic slowdown that has hit all capitalist economies in the second decade of the century. Growth has slumped over recent years, down to 0.6 in the first quarter of this year and inflation is currently running at 6% but is actually much higher for household items.

It is estimated a worker in the big cities would have to spend 20% of her income on transport to and from work.

PT economic policy has undoubtedly being highly beneficial to a particular class of Brazilian. There are now 50 billionaires in the country and 150,000 millionaires.

Despite Lula’s electoral promise to create Zero Hunger, the country is still rated as one of the most unequal in the world, one in which 1% of the population own the equivalent wealth of the poorest 50%.

The condition of many has certainly improved but there is still a quarter of the population below the poverty line – that means a staggering 40 million people in such a vast country.

Lula’s successor as President, Dilma Rousseff, has continued his reliance on privatisation and tax cuts for the rich since her takeover in 2010. The courting of the global elite has climaxed with Brazil’s successful bids for the World Cup and the Olympics. The former has included the government’s supine acceptance of FIFA’s Law of the Cup, which authorises that organisation to have de facto police powers in the vicinity of football stadiums. This has also been used as the justification for ethnic cleansing of the predominantly black and poor communities that allegedly will scare away sporting tourists in the big cities. As a senior FIFA official recently put it:

“…less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup.”

The current wave of protests has highlighted not only this racist dimension of the Brazilian elite but also its latent homophobia. The current Human Rights Commissioner in Congress is an advocate of the ‘gay cure’; the demand for his removal is just one of the multiplicity of demands that characterises this massive uprising.

The PT government has so far been unable to respond effectively to the protests as it is locked into a reformist agenda-just as it was under Lula. As Michael Roberts puts it:

‘…while the government appears to be making paper concessions, in reality it has no intention of reversing its neo-liberal policies. Finance minister Guido Mantega made that clear when he said that he will “raise taxes or cut public spending to compensate for any future subsidies it offers to support struggling sectors”.  Profitability in the capitalist sector will not recover without further hits to living standards and economic growth will remain low as long as the world economic recovery remains weak and China slows down. The carnival is over.’

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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