Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Brazil upheaval stuns leadership

When I visited Brazil in April for a look at the country’s once stellar HIV/AIDS prevention and care program, I never imagined that the distressing but, I thought, relatively narrow complaints of my counterparts there would resonate throughout the entire country a mere two months later. But that’s what happened. Not that their specific beefs attracted much attention then or now, but their analysis of how the leftist Workers Party (PT) and its government evolved over a dozen years in power is exactly what we’re now hearing from the streets of every major Brazilian city—and quite a few minor ones.

Brazil once had one of the most innovative and successful HIV prevention and care programs in the world after decades of steady work through complex public-private partnerships. Governments of different ideological hues paid some attention to what grassroots leaders and service providers were saying and recommending, and the Brazilian model was widely lauded and applauded. But then a few years ago, said our Brazilian counterparts, the PT leadership abruptly decided that they didn’t need any further dialogue and would make policy on their own.

The anecdotes and tales were very consistent: one after another, NGO leaders, doctors, public health experts and long-time activists told us that the government had simply stopped listening to them, consulting them or paying any heed to their criticisms or complaints. What had once been vibrant consultative bodies and advisory councils now had fallen into disuse; long-standing nonprofits, cut off from international aid (since Brazil is now a prosperous ‘BRIC’ country and no longer officially ‘poor’) and getting no domestic subsidies to fill the gap, were shutting their doors by the dozen. People felt powerless to do much in response given the PT’s considerable popularity and president Dilma Rousseff’s personal standing. They could be brushed off as middle-class whiners while the government’s base among the poorest of the poor remained intact.

But suddenly that’s all changed. A 20-centavo (US $0.10) fare hike in São Paulo triggered the national revolt, but it’s also pretty apparent that the disaffection goes way beyond the cost of a bus trip. Many people told us that the spectacle of seeing the country’s prosperity grow enormously while most citizens’ lives remained unaffected by the bonanza had seeded profound disgust. The consensus, based on considerable evidence, is that much of the new wealth was and is siphoned off by the elites through corruption and insider dealing.

The last straw for many was the sight of new soccer stadiums and other infrastructure going up around them in preparation for the 2014 World Cup with far greater spending to follow for the 2016 Olympics. Remarkably, given the country’s image, it turns out that Brazilians want good health, education, and transport services instead of more frivolous games and parties, which must have come as a quite shock to the leadership.

Another jolt for the PT-led coalition is seeing its natural constituents among the country’s lower economic strata pouring into the streets to denounce the entire political class and Madame Dilma personally. If our conversations are any indication of a broader reality, the PT chiefs may have turned their collective back on what is often called ‘civil society’ in the Latin American context—nonprofit staff, academics, some civil servants, activists of all sorts—the people who maintain links between the state and its citizenry. Instead, Dilma & company privileged deals with Brazilian and sometimes foreign businesses in pursuit of growth, growth and more growth—not to mention the juicy emoluments that could accompany it for those few plugged into the unfair system of rewards.

We expect right-wing governments to behave in this way, and a natural response is to place one’s hopes in the more progressive or populist political alternatives as a channel of protest, Lula over Sarney, Obama over Bush, and so on. But what happens when that nice-sounding team becomes complicit in the same old exploitation? In the Brazilian case—which may be instructive for the future elsewhere—the popular revolt comes with an explicitly anti-party stance. Brazilians now insist that none of the existing electoral players represent them, forcing the leadership to show quick results. Dilma has already announced major investments in public transport as a first step to calm the roiling protests.

It’ll be interesting to see what else they have to do to defuse the unexpected rebellion in the streets.

For general background on the PT’s evolution, this two-year-old article by Perry Anderson remains useful and prescient:

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