Resistance in Rio

In the run up to the World Cup, strikes and protests swept across Brazil. Ali S, based in Brazil, looks at the background and character of the protests.

This is an article from the Summer 2014 rs21 magazine

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During the explosion of protests in Brazil in June 2013, protesters held placards stating anything they wanted, and demanded, to be different in their society. These were in any area: LGBT rights, better healthcare, less corruption, but the majority expressed some anger at the World Cup. The Cup became a way for the protesters to articulate their anger at the contradictions of contemporary Brazilian capitalism.

Rejection of all kinds of political parties or organisation was a common sentiment in the protests. Some of the protesters’ discourse had an undercurrent of nationalism, suggesting that change could come from all Brazilians, that they needed to unite regardless of class, race, etc. The government later established a discourse that links “supporting Brazil” as a country, with supporting the PT and the World Cup.

The organised left played a less important role than during other moments of rebellion, such as the “Fora Collor” campaign in the 1990s and the “Diretas, Ja!” campaign in the 1980s. The “anti-politics” of June 2013 caught the organized Left off-guard; they experienced widespread hostility and there were even physical attacks on members of left parties. For years Brazilians had heard left-wing rhetoric used while the government chipped has away at social and labour conditions. However, the protests had more to do with organized working class struggle than it might have seemed.

The majority of protesters in June last year were under 25. Over 40% of those demonstrating in state capitals were completing, or had completed, university education. Despite a high level of education, the majority were entering a job market in very precarious circumstances.

Under the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) government employment rose, but this was confined to the lowest income bracket – in short, the working class has grown as more people work for less. Work, and above all the employment of young people, is precarious. The movement in June 2013 came from various social classes, including a visible middle class element. But June 2013 occurred to a background of an increasing number of strikes since 2008. In 2012, 873 strikes were registered in the country, 58% more than the previous year and the most since 1997.

Since June last year, the social movement has split into different directions. Some remain focused on the construction of autonomous youth movements, and within this tactics such as direct confrontation of the state (with Molotov cocktails) and violence against property, such as banks, are still present. Confrontations with the police were common during the June 2013 protests. Thousands more were drawn to streets, angry at the police’s repression of the initial protests. This also gave the protests a link to those living on the urban periphery, where the state has an increasingly repressive and militarized presence in the favelas.

The actions of these protesters were used by the government to justify repression of the wider movement. The protesters were blamed for some casualties, such as the death of a cameraman during a protest in Rio de Janeiro in February. Whether this blame was well-placed isn’t the main question; the tactics clearly lost some support for the movement. The presence of those who support such tactics as the principle mode of action has lessened as the organised left are now playing a bigger part – both reformist and revolutionary organisations.

The organised left have been able to play a bigger role as the class content of the movement has changed. The movement has become less mixed in terms of class. Workers’ actions have become more visible, as strikes continue to increase. Since January this year, workers across a diverse range of sectors have walked out. There have been strikes in construction sites, by teachers, university administrators, federal administrators, bus drivers, metro drivers and more.

Many of the strikes organised have been declared against the workers’ unions as well as their bosses, such as the popular strike by street cleaners in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. The Central Único de Trabalhadores [CUT], the main general union that grew with the PT, has undergone a process of beauracratisation since the 1990s. It has frequently impeded and depoliticised the struggles of its members. Recent strikes are a revolt of the workers against this tool for the government to negotiate.

The week preceding the start of the World Cup has seen the Sao Paolo government harshly repress a widely supported metro workers’ strike in the city. At the same time, it conceded demands to the Movimento Trabalhadores Sem Teto (MTST), who marched in solidarity with striking metro workers in the city. Both reactions show the pressure the government finds itself under. Beyond the World Cup there will still be much for workers to organise around and to win.

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