Published On: October 20, 2015

Brazilians are Angry

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In 1969, when the British rock band The Who titled a song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” an entire generation of young people knew exactly what that meant. It was an anthem of social revolution. Across Western Europe and the US during the 1960s, young people rallied in the streets to protest not just their governments’ policies, but an entire way of life. They were demanding change, and in unison their voices demanded: ‘The old ways of seeing the world do not apply to us. We’re tired of living by your rules; we’re going to make our own rules. We’re not gonna accept your way of life. We’re not gonna take it.’

Fifty years on, the revolution has arrived in Brazil. For those living here, history is alive. As in the 1960s in the US, the eruption of revolutionary passion in Brazil comes as a complete surprise, like a forgotten volcano. What’s even more surprising is that it’s not only young people who are fired up with political passion – students, workers, the middle class, and even the wealthy are angry. In a country known for its calm, relaxed way of life, a social revolution was as unimaginable as a boycott against coconuts on the beach. Until now.

Today, 87 percent of Brazilians disapprove of the job their president, Dilma Rousseff, is doing. While Brazil has much to be proud of politically, such as electing a female president before the US did, Dilma, as she is known by Brazilians, has proven to be the rallying point for the fervor. It doesn’t matter that her party, PT, whose full name is the Workers’ Party, (Partido dos Trabalhadores) has long been the opposition party. At least it was until taking over the presidency in 2002, led by Dilma’s predecessor, the charismatic Lula. Lula, one of the founders of PT, was elected on the promise of cleaning up the political corruption and cronyism that has plagued Brazilian politics since the country became a republic a hundred years ago; however, PT now finds itself tainted with corruption allegations on a scale greater than previous administrations.

Dilma & Lula

Dilma & Lula

Every revolution needs a spark, as the Vietnam War was in the US, and Dilma and PT have become that spark. Ironically, with every revolution, there is a tinge of sadness in the form of nostalgia. Many Brazilians, particularly those old enough to feel nostalgia, remember when politics weren’t an everyday topic of conversation, a discussion with strangers on line at the supermarket. Back then, people knew politicians were corrupt, but as long as there was food to buy, it was more fun to ignore the corruption and focus on the positive.

There is a tangible frustration in Brazil over the lost opportunities of PT. While only the most optimistic supporters expected Lula and PT to rid Brazil of its political corruption, did PT have to succumb to the same seduction of power and wealth as all the other corrupt leaders? Why did PT forget the principles of democracy: the purpose of government is to help people?

On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that many angry anti-PT protestors have forgotten what PT accomplished, at least until the economy slumped and the government ran out of money. For example, PT extended numerous education initiatives, particularly on the university level, such as Science Without Borders, which offers stipends for undergraduate and graduate student to study abroad. The PT government also increased the number of federal university seats by 50 percent in the last decade. (The federal system provides a free university education.)

Federal university in Curitiba

Federal university in Curitiba

Along with education, PT dramatically expanded social welfare programs originally started by former president Cardoso. They instituted direct payments to families, known as Bolsa Família, to motivate poor families to send their children to school and be vaccinated. Bolsa Família has ensured for the first time that most of Brazil’s children are attending school. The United Nations reports that in only one generation, Brazil has cut in half its rate of infant mortality, a remarkable statistic for such a short period of time.

PT also began a banking program (Minha Casa, Minha Vida) with state bank Caixa Econômica to make it easier for lower income families to qualify for mortgages, enabling millions of Brazilians to own their first homes. This program additionally provided a significant boost to the real estate and home construction businesses.

Thus, at one time, PT was heading in the right direction. As one Brazilian said to me, “All young people should be communists; it’s part of the education process before they become middle-aged and less radical.” Lula and Dilma were once revolutionaries fighting against the military dictatorship in Brazil. Lula was the head of one of Brazil’s most powerful unions, and Dilma was imprisoned and tortured by the dictatorship. So the current and former presidents once believed the axiom that the role of government is to help the people. Unfortunately, it has become quite clear now that PT has also continued the Brazilian tradition of allowing the government to rob the people.

Dilma under arrest by the military government

Dilma under arrest by the military government

Dilma’s second term, not yet a year old, has become a nightmare. Her recent economic shift toward neoliberalism has disappointed PT’s staunchest supporters. With the rapid demise of the economy – rising unemployment and inflation combined with negative GDP growth – the other political parties in Brazil’s coalition government have joined the anti-PT bandwagon, creating a congressional gridlock with alliances shifting on a weekly basis.

Nevertheless, there is hope. First, some major economic changes have recently been implemented from Brasília to trim budget fat, such as increasing the Social Security (INSS) retirement age formula. Dilma’s Finance Minister, Joaquim Levy, has made it clear that he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect Brazil’s currency, including increasing interest rates, which are already the highest in the world, or selling off some of Brazil’s dollar reserves. The Brazilian real has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year.

While liberal economists argue that implementing austerity measures during a recession will only heighten the negative situation and lead Brazil down a longterm path of economic self-destruction aka Greece and Spain, there is hope in that major changes are being made quickly. Rapid responses are necessary in dark times and to be applauded in a country with 28 political parties currently represented in federal congress (out of a total of 32 parties in the country).

In the US, with only two political parties, it should be easier to form a coalition, but instead political change is moving at a glacial pace. And that’s on a good day, when the Tea Party isn’t attempting to shut down the government entirely, as they have done in the past and threaten to do again over the issue of funding for Planned Parenthood, an NGO that assists poor and working class women with medical services.

Vietnam War protestor in US

Vietnam War protestor in US

The hope is despite a history of an inadequate public education system, Brazil is strengthened now by a growing middle class who can afford private education for their children, and a generation of young people who are refusing to accept the endemic corruption that has plagued Brazil’s history going back to the days of the emperor and the land-owning oligarchs.

The hope is although Brazil is saddled with an outdated criminal justice system, with backlogs going back decades, Brazilians are flocking to the courts. There are more lawyers per capita in Brazil than anywhere in the world. Against all odds of getting a timely resolution to a legal dispute, Brazilians from every walk of life are demanding justice, tired of those who ignore the law. Research polls show Brazilians support more police on the streets, including “meter maids.”

The hope is that modern-day Brazilian oligarchs like billionaire Marcelo Odebrecht, CEO of the largest construction company in Latin America, are in jail. The Petrobras scandal and the Mensalão trial have, for the first time, given optimism to the masses that the laws do apply to everyone. During the Russian and French revolutions, the royal families were executed. The hottest spark for any revolution is knowing the king’s head has fallen beneath the guillotine. During the Vietnam War protests, President Nixon was forced to resign, the only US president ever to resign from office.

Marcelo Odebrecht under arrest (right, front)

Marcelo Odebrecht under arrest (right, front)

The hope is Brazil has now reached what author Malcolm Gladwell refers to as the “tipping point” in his best-selling book of the same name. His thesis: “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” Brazil has reached its tipping point on government corruption and impunity.

Many revolutions fail, and even the ones that succeed don’t always turn out well in the end. Should Brazil’s revolution – still leaderless and organized primarily on social media websites – succeed in forcing Dilma to resign and dethroning PT, there’s no guarantee that the country will benefit. Things could get worse before they get better. Brazil needs to return to a growing economy, and to be led by an honest government, which are monumental challenges. On the plus side, I can’t imagine the anti-government anger rising in Brazil to the extremely violent levels it has reached in Cairo, Kiev, or Ankara.

Meanwhile each day Brazilians hold their breaths, observing the next revolutionary revelation on the news – corporate scandals, oligarchs in prison, rising inflation, failing infrastructure. Every day we are astonished to see a country that has awakened from its political slumber. Thanks to the Internet and the Olympics, Brazilians know the world is paying attention to them, perhaps for the first time, and this has the country engaged. Peaceful, diplomatic Brazilians are angry. It is a terribly exciting time to be in Brazil.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil.


{The opinions reflected in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the publisher of CIE.}

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  1. I.M. Levin says:

    Marvelous presentation of a complicated and volatile topic. Mr.Rubin has the ability to make the complex easily understood. Bravo!

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