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As Protests Continue in Brazil, Hard Lessons for an Urbanizing World

As Protests Continue in Brazil, Hard Lessons for an Urbanizing World
Reuters

The latest round of the “Protest Cup” taking place on the streets of cities across Brazil featured President Dilma Rousseff, who on Monday proposed political reform, anti-corruption legislation and “pacts” for transportation, health, and education measures. Rousseff’s response is an apparent attempt to encompass the varied demands (and general dissatisfaction) voiced by two weeks of protests that have swept the country.

What originated as a more focused protest about rising bus fares has since morphed into an estimated one million outraged and generally fed up Brazilians, not dissimilar to the Occupy protests of 2011 or Spain’s indignados. Like those movements, the people involved have expressed a wide array of concerns, some of which can even be contradictory. Unlike those movements, however, they are at least achieving an official response. “I want to repeat that my government is listening to the democratic voice, to the democratic voices that go out and emerge on the streets and call for changes,” Rousseff said Monday. “We must learn to hear the voice of the streets. Only that can push us to walk even faster.”

Still, with yet more protests planned for this week, it’s worth remembering that all of this latent unrest was catalyzed by bus tariff increases in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in a country where nearly 85 percent of the population lives in cities and transportation costs are disproportionately high compared to incomes. Behind the now varied demands is a general frustration at the high costs, difficulties and barriers faced by citizens just trying to get from home to work and back again. In the more medium term, once the streets quiet down, these questions of fair access to urban transportation, services and responsive government will remain.

The original underlying issue can be boiled down to access: What theorists call the “right to the city,” the idea that all urban inhabitants should be able to enjoy the many economic, political, and social benefits of being in a city. Brazil’s recent experiences demonstrate the power of policy issues that might have been considered fairly technical until now. And it’s worth paying close attention to, as difficulties faced by Brazilian urban citizens – especially in the megacities – find echoes in cities around the world.

Urban mobility was included as one of the plans of action announced Monday by the president, who said there must be more of a focus on quality. She announced a commitment to invest $22 billion for new transportation infrastructure, referencing subways in particular, and said she will seek to create a national council for public transport, with citizen participation.

But when Rousseff met with the organizers of the original protest, the Free Fare Movement (MPL in Portuguese), she failed to convince them. They left the meeting glad to be heard, but skeptical of vague promises. The president said free mass transit was “unfeasible,” organizer Mayara Vivian told O Globo. “She did not give us any information. We are without any concrete action. We saw the president completely unprepared. They don’t know how much a free pass would cost.”

MPL’s organizers yesterday referenced the contradiction between spending on World Cup infrastructure and expenditures on social programs, an ongoing theme in the two weeks of protest. Anger over spending on international sporting events – the ongoing FIFA Confederations Cup is a prelude to next year’s World Cup – is providing a focal point for anger about other unmet demands. Soccer legend cum congressman Romário has been an outspoken critic of spending on stadium projects for the World Cup, calling FIFA Brazil’s “real” president. He pointed out that 150,000 units of public housing could have been built with the $590 million used to renovate just the Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasilia.

All of this comes at a time when Brazil is attempting to project itself as a leader on the international political stage. And Brazil has seen some very real social advances over the past decade, which saw 35 million people escape poverty and a meaningful expansion of the country’s middle class. But Brazil’s leaders are finding themselves hard-pressed to downplay the huge wave of protests, not to mention the four civilians who have died and general anger over a sense that corruption is still very much a part of Brazilian civic life.

Though it seems likely that “Brazilian Spring” headlines are exaggerated, Brazilian leaders will have to react to these demands in the short-term and in next year’s electoral campaign. The government’s reaction has been a bit slow, but open to dialogue in a way that other countries (see: Turkey) have not been.

But as MPL’s organizers pointed out yesterday, it’s still unclear to what extent the urban access message has been heard. The protests of the past couple weeks have put difficult issues on Brazil’s agenda. But authorities in other countries should be paying attention as well.

Top image: Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest in central Rio de Janeiro June 24, 2013. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday proposed a popular referendum to embark on a sweeping political reform in response to the country's largest public protests in 20 years. (REUTERS/Lucas Landau)

Jordana Timerman is a freelance writer and an urban public policy researcher living in Buenos Aires. All posts »

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