Fare game: buses and football fuel protest in unequal Brazil

This is about more than a bus pass. EPA/Marcelo Sayão

It started as a protest against a 20 cent hike in bus fares - but has quickly escalated into the biggest civil unrest Brazil has seen since the call for direct elections in 1983-84, which brought down the military dictatorship of João Baptista Figueiredo. The protest began in Sao Paolo but quickly spread across all major cities.

There have been plenty of disturbing images and videos of police violence against protesters, with a scene of tear gas and rubber bullets being used indiscriminately.

Brazil has been the darling of the international press in recent years, with many lauding its economic achievements, growth rates and political stability. Previous president Luiz Inácio “Lula” De Silva scored record popularity in polls; current president Dilma Rousseff also appears to enjoy strong support both nationally and internationally.

But the protests, like those that have spread across Turkey this month, may have shattered that illusion, showing much of this to be a neo-liberal fantasy in which the economic growth has reached some, but not many. It must be remembered that Brazil still has one of the largest wealth gaps in Latin America. In a continent that hosts so many troubled nations, this is not something to be proud of.

So what does it all mean? There is a strong possibility that the protests will fade, and life will carry on as usual. The movements are outside of traditional political groups, unions and organisations, so whether they can form a formidable power bloc remains to be seen.

But if protesters are able to solidify into a stronger movement, this may spell real trouble for President Rousseff. And if one scratches the surface it is possible to see some of the deeply rooted socio-historical issues at play.

As one 56-year-old Brazilian protester stated:

It’s not the cents (the fare increase). This is a repressed demand reflecting the lack of prospects for young people.

This is a story of continual exclusion and government spending aiding only a few.

Much of the anger may have come from the press, which constantly talks up the economic situation in the country. Admittedly Brazil has shown some good growth, and a small shrinking the in wealth gap, largely due to it being a resource rich, large nation. So the economic story in the media has been one of Brazil being a new global powerhouse and with a balanced (read “not too left wing”) government. Its inclusion in the group of “BRIC” nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) shows more of a lack of understanding of the economic situation of each of these nations than anything else.

For many years, Brazilians have been told their lives are improving, and they are more and more equal. But with recent reports indicating that the global economic downturn will hit Brazil – and with a bus fare increase in the context of growing inflation, instability and police repression – a political space for the repressed of Brazil emerges.

The huge amount of money and the billions being spent on the upcoming World Cup and Olympics has caused ire for those who will not see a cent out of these extravaganzas. Never mind the fact that entire neighbourhoods have been bulldozed, and hundreds of families removed from their homes to accommodate these sporting events.

Meanwhile, crime continues to be a pertinent issue. As the head of Abin, Brazil’s intelligence agency, said last month regular crime will be a bigger concern than terrorism during such large events.

This is certainly felt by the citizens of Brazil. In Rio state, murders, muggings, and car thefts all rose in April compared to the previous year. In São Paulo, robberies followed by murder increased 74% during the first four months of 2012. Crime and insecurity are hot topics in the city.

And so the perception of continual inequality and structural unjustness – historically strong in Brazil – continues. Some protesters have even equated the centre-left president with the old conservative elites. The governments of the past decades have broken from this history in many ways, but maybe not enough to to bring real change for Brazil’s poorest citizens.

It is not to say that the lives of most Brazilians have not improved over the past 10 years. But when you are told that Brazil is now a world economic powerhouse and your lot hasn’t improved amid inflation, increasing crime, police repression and your wage is eaten up by a substandard transport system, you might think its time to mobilise.