In response to anti-government protests and fears of a coup d’etat, Brazilian progressives make a show of force to defend democratic values.
In response to anti-government protests and fears of a media-backed coup d’etat, Brazilian progressives make a show of force in defence of democratic values and the rule of law.
Traffic on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista was blocked by protestors on Friday, for the third day running. This time, however, there was a noticeably different feel in the air.
Pushing through the tightly-packed mass, everyone stares at a rap group on an elevated stage, swaying to the beat beneath brightly-coloured balloons that float above the crowd. About a third are teenagers, with young and old represented more or less equally, alongside young parents with small children in their arms.
The crowd is black, white and – in technicolour Brazil – just about everything in between, a marked contrast to the anti-government protests of previous days, which were almost uniformly white, old and male.
A rapper steps to the front of the stage and begins in Portuguese, “The revolution will not be televised” – referencing Gil Scott Heron and the feared coup attempt backed by media giant Globo – to which the crowd erupts, drowning out his next bars.
The festival atmosphere obscures the fact that Brazil is in the midst of a crisis. The anti-government protests of the previous days are the latest in a series of demonstrations, spanning months, that have drawn sometimes millions to the streets. On the surface, these protests are a response to a corruption scandal which implicates the ruling left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), alongside much of the political and business class.
Friday’s counter-demonstration wasn’t quite in support of Brazil’s unpopular and embattled president, Dilma Rousseff, or her PT party, but in defence of the democratic process and against the increasingly politicised war with Brazil’s judiciary too. Led by Judge Sergio Moro, the judiciary seems to have declared war on PT in favour of the equally-corrupt opposition, or worse, a military coup. Some on the streets have been calling for military intervention, which occurred in worryingly similar circumstances in 1964.
An estimated 275,000 people joined the protests, which occurred in major cities across Brazil. Fearing clashes on São Paulo’s main avenue, police shifted the anti-government demonstrators from their stronghold outside the FIESP (industrial lobby group) building to another location earlier in the day.
“I’m here to protect democracy, the power of the people,” explains Biana Turner, 31, an artist and set designer with political hip hop theatre group Núcleo Bartolomeu de Depoimentos. “I’m not following any political party. But I want to protect equal rights, pressure for a more just country with a fairer division of resources and for corruption to end.”
Like many others in the crowd, Bianca accepts that PT have questions to answer, but came out with her friends regardless. They want to protest the “dangerous overstepping of the rules” by judge Moro, who leads the Operation Carwash investigation into corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras.
Moro has become a hero to those who wish to see PT removed from power, but has alienated many with his decision to leak an apparently illegal wiretap between Dilma Rousseff and former president Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.
In a move seen as an attempt to protect Lula from prosecution, Dilma appointed Lula as Chief of Staff – which sparked Wednesday’s protest. His ministerial appointment was blocked by a judge, a judge who had openly posted pictures online of his attendance at an anti-government rally. This decision was overturned, but then blocked again by the Supreme Court – in a circus that made a mockery of the judiciary’s independence.
Lula appeared on Avenida Paulista to call for calm. He avoided criticising his opponents and claimed he only accepted the government position to help Dilma through her last two years in office, until new presidential elections in 2018. “I want a country without hatred,” he shouted over a crowd chanting “there’s not going to be a coup.”
“The effort to remove Dilma and her party from power now resembles a nakedly anti-democratic power struggle, not a legally sound process or genuine anti-corruption movement,” writes Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept. “Worse, it’s being incited, engineered, and fuelled by the very factions who are themselves knee-deep in corruption scandals, and which represent the interests of the richest and most powerful societal segments long angry at their inability to defeat PT democratically.”
PT have governed Brazil since Lula’s presidential victory in 2003 and have a pretty impressive record: lifting 40 million people out of poverty, bringing disenfranchised groups into the political system, and engaging with civil society like no government before. “People here really believe in [the protest], because they can feel the difference with how their lives were before,” explains Acacia, 29, a photographer.
But many of PT’s historic supporters, such as social movements and intellectuals, feel let down by the party’s shift away from its progressive, working class principles. “Lots of my friends, artists and intellectuals, have been long-time supporters of PT,” Bianca explains, “but then in power it seemed a little different, so everyone was frustrated. Although, they’d rather have Dilma running the country than people at the head of industries, who don’t consider artists, black people, poor people – just their own interests.”
As during the anti-government protests of previous days, street sellers pass through the crowd selling beer and water from chiller cases – but today they’re not the only black people in the crowd. Some are sporting their red CUT union bibs, proud of their recent unionisation.
The redistribution of political and economic power threatens the wealthy white elite’s stranglehold on power, explains Bianca’s friend and founder of Nucleo theatre, Eugenio. “Look at all the people here,” he says, pointing to the crowd, sporting a big anti-racism sticker on his chest. “We have black people, men, women, gays, trans, people from all over São Paulo – not just the wealthy whites who were here the other day.”
But this broad-based movement is seen as a threat to the country’s powerful, business interests – who have thrown their support behind the anti-government protests. “The wealthy are afraid of the new, young middle class,” Eugenio explains. “In Brazil, society is organised from the top to the bottom. Since the return to democracy in 1985, there’s been real pressure from the bottom, upwards. People with no jobs and no opportunity to go to university have fought hard to earn rights. But as the young and predominantly black lower middle class get organised and the pressure from below builds, you get a powerful reaction from the people at the top – like we saw with the military dictatorship that began in ’64.”
As darkness falls, there’s no letting up in the energy of the crowd, estimated at around 90,000. Female rapper Flora Matos is on the stage, belting out protest tunes as groups dance around bright red flares throwing acrid smoke into the night air.
A big group sporting the symbolic wooden staffs of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) stand out as the most obviously rural attendees. MST is one of the many social movements whose struggles were supported for the first time by the PT government – but they’ve grown impatient with the slow pace of change. Many similar groups have publicly denounced the government, but MST remain “critical supporters”, maintaining dialogue to advance their agenda.
Rosanna, 28, works at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and came to the protest with members of MST. “They decided the movement needs to be in the street,” she explains, “talking to people and making them aware there is still an alternative radical political project with wealth redistribution at its heart.”
Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a staggering concentration of wealth held by a handful of wealthy families. Going against global trends, PT have reduced inequality during their time in office, but this progress seems to have slowed – frustrating groups like MST. “For most of the social movements, the relationship with PT is very complicated,” Rosana explains. “In theory it makes an anti-hegemonic stand, but in practice its proposition is very disappointing. Few movements feel comfortable supporting the government, but they understand that rupturing ties are only reinforcing the dynamics that are trying to push for a coup de e’tat.”
Young progressives like Bianca and her friends, who want a more equal society, are left with few options in the current political system. In a situation familiar to many around the world, voting is process of picking the least worst option. “We’ve been a corrupt country for a long time,” Bianca explains, exasperated. “It goes back to the colonisation of Brazil by the Portuguese and it hasn’t stopped. This made me lose my faith in politics, I question everything and everyone. I think the whole system is corrupt, it’s not just about people. We need new, smaller parties to break the dominance of the big parties.”
But there are few short term options available, with all major opposition parties tarred by the same brush of corruption as PT. I ask Bianca what the alternative is. “I have no idea. I have no idea…” she says, trailing off.
“We need fundamental reform of political campaign funding,” Rosana explains. “The only way out of this crisis is through deep political and electoral reform. But I’m confused as everyone else as to what would be feasible in a short to medium time frame.”
I ask Bianca what comes next. “Art is the only way I guess,” she says, explaining how she choses only to work on socially engaged projects, like the politically-charged plays of the Nucleo theatre group. “Through music, through art, documentaries and photography we can fight for a more progressive consciousness. It’s the only tool I have, you know?”
Text by Alex King in São Paulo. Additional reporting by Kevin Damasio.