The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Protesting Everything (and Nothing)
Published on June 19, 2013

For the past few days, thousands of angry Brazilians have been flowing out into the streets of major cities in protest, paralyzing city centers, burning vehicles, looting and vandalizing stores, even attempting to storm government buildings in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasilia.

It’s quite frightening to watch so many people here in Brazil protesting against everything—i.e., against nothing. Truth be told, there is a long list of possible complaints, each of which is in itself worth taking to the streets. There’s the incompetent government, which is incapable of managing public investments or spending public funds wisely. Then there are Brazil’s crime rates, among the worst in the world. And then there are the abuses committed with public money—and I’m not even talking about corruption as such. Public services in disarray? Bad schools? Wasting money on subsided interest rates for the eternal friends of the government? Creating welfare programs that only make their beneficiaries even more dependent on government handouts? Big construction projects that go nowhere and cost twice what they were supposed to? You name it; we’ve got it. And it’s worth getting upset about.

Yet the current protests originally started as a challenge to rising prices for public transportation in some of Brazil’s biggest cities: a nine-cent rise in bus fares. This is actually an old and very familiar cause: a demand for free rides on public buses, subways and trains. Also familiar, though hardly universal, are calls for no private enterprises—and no profits. Who will pay for services, then? Romantic revolutionaries don’t have to answer that question. They trade in political mysticism, always fairly popular in Brazil.

That is why many of the protesters aren’t angry that inflation has been running persistently at 6.5 percent for year (the government’s management of electricity and fuel prices notwithstanding)—although they should be. No, they’re angry instead that the people should have to pay for anything that is “public.” The original organizers of these demonstrations are radical splinter groups that are notorious, among other things, for forging links with North Korea (in their view, a “democratic” country that is oppressed by the West). They propose a half-Stalinist, half-Maoist way of managing society.

The real question is how could these groups command such a large public response—especially considering that they have never managed to elect a candidate to office, whether local, regional or federal? To be sure, there is an atmosphere of general discontent in Brazil. There is (and I confess this is a very subjective judgment) a sense of fatigue over the antics of the political authorities, who are much more concerned with “narrative” and spin than with the realities and needs of typical Brazilians. These are nebulous, inchoate sentiments that no one has given a serious political direction to—yet. But speak with just about anyone in Brazil, and you will find that they are very common.

Finally—and this will not be a surprise to any student of the political sciences—in Brazil there is a general and chronic lack of respect for legitimate authority. I should perhaps clarify this point for an American audience, accustomed as Americans are to respecting symbols, whether political, religious, moral or social. For at least the past ten years, the political powers-that-be in Brazil (basically, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) have been flirting with legal transgressions, outright contempt of judicial decisions, and illegal occupations and invasions of land—always in the name of an ill-defined vision of “social justice.”

This is only part of the picture, however. This party has defined its goals as “national”, when in practice they are anything but. Faced with serious resistance—like the one carried out by land producers fed up with having their properties seized by militant groups of various colors—the authorities tend to compromise, or to fold, with the result that no one is happy. There is lack of a willingness to exercise political authority at the highest level: The President has on paper an overwhelming majority in the Congress. But for any practical purpose, this majority has to be re-negotiated over every single issue, making the government hostage to all types of organized groups, not excluding large municipal governments.

Why is this? Brazilians have come to identify government and authority with authoritarian rule. If there is a democracy, therefore, many Brazilians take that to mean that the leaders are equal to the people: They are just a bunch of regular guys. They don’t give orders, they don’t throw their weight around, they don’t seek to get their own way. The Partido dos Trabalhadores epitomizes this sentiment. So the government doesn’t act like a government, and the people, seeing what to all appearances looks like a vacuum of authority, end up both demanding and castigating government at the same time. If this sounds very confused, that’s because it is.

Foreign and domestic investors all recognize now that Brazil lacks clear or fairly applied “rules of the game”—that the authorities have lost any sense of strategic direction for economic reforms and instead focus only on issues that will bring short term electoral advantages, such as more subsidies or handouts. It’s little surprise, then, that Brazilians show no respect for public institutions—for the government, for the Presidency, for the Congress, for those responsible for public security in the major cities, or for the political parties. This, I think, is the main danger of the unrest sweeping through Brazil right now. Social movements without a clear sense of purpose or political direction tend to fade away, leaving the “store” to be looted by the usual suspects.

Brazilians have rarely taken to the streets in protest. In 1984 they challenged the military regime and demanded direct democratic elections (the country had to wait five more years for them). In 1992, they took to the streets against a corrupt president. The general sense now is that corruption has grown even worse since then. And it has.

I think we Brazilians could achieve even more this time if we were fighting for an ambitious goal: real reform of the political system. Brazilians don’t feel like their elected representatives at any level actually represent them, especially at a time when most leaders fear the stigma of making actual decisions (otherwise known as leading). We have lots of followers looking for their leaders, and they just can’t find them. That’s our main problem. It’s not about the nine cents.

William Waack is the anchorman of Jornal da Globo, on Brazil’s TV Globo.