Not about 20 cents
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The protests in Brazil have populated international media since last week. The pictures of police brutality and crackdowns echo a not-so-distant authoritarian past and seem to contest Brazil's standing as a thriving BRICS country. Over the past decade, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the Workers Party, PT) has accumulated a portfolio of achievements, of which conditional cash transfer programmes are but one of many examples. On the one hand, the systematic consideration given to the most excluded classes of Brazilian society has assured steady growth of support for each successive occupant of the presidential office. On the other, the model of development based on economic, rather than social, development has also exacerbated the contradictions of a country that has historically been primed for the politics of the very few.
One's social inclusion is determined by what one can buy. This only reifies the corollary that education, health and housing are only for those who can afford them. This "you are what you can buy" frame of mind goes against the political basis of a responsible social platform.
Moreover, the archaic general infrastructure of the country, coupled with a lack of urban planning, has rendered life in big cities expensive, insecure and unsustainable. In larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, economic inclusion without improvement in public services has deepened urban chaos. Brazilian cities are not places to be enjoyed by all, but rather by those who can afford housing, private transport and leisure. As the "new middle class" is now able to experience public spaces previously not available to it, the poor infrastructure of cities and the exclusionary character of the urban perimeter has come to the forefront.
This has polarised criticism against the government around two dominant strands. The first, coming from the right, claims that not only are the social policies of the government populist measures by the PT to extend its stay in power, but they also entail a blatant misuse of taxes. The second, on which much of the left agrees, is the perception that the party has compromised too much of its social commitments in the name of governance, and constituencies that have traditionally supported the PT are yet to see their demands responsibly considered. Between the former and the latter, lies varying degrees of general frustration with the current state of affairs.
The violent repression which met the protests against another hike in public transport prices proved to be the tipping point. Hundreds of thousands organised online and took to the streets on Monday. As Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro announced that the price of public transport would be lowered, protesters responded with the slogan — Não é por 20 centavos, é por direitos (It's not about 20 cents, it's about rights). No other eight words have been so important in recent Brazilian
The moment is ripe to formulate demands and seek out political futures that may both deepen and widen Brazilian democracy. No, it is not about 20 cents, it is about making sure that the chains that connect us to our authoritarian past are broken. It is about reforming the military police — an institution created by the regime to protect itself from political dissent. It is about demanding political and tax reforms. It is about demanding inclusive social policies that match the economic gains of the country. It is about actively listening to the demands of our youth. It is about demanding the reformulation of a penal system that has worked hard to criminalise the poor and black populations. It is about making amends for crimes committed during the dictatorship, and making sure that our truth commission is freed from the homophobic, racist and ultra-conservative views of the president of the Brazilian House of Representatives' human rights committee. It is about asking for a more sustainable future in cities and in the countryside, and insisting that the powers that be treat housing, healthcare, public transport and schooling as rights and not commodities.
And while there is legitimate concern that the movement might be hijacked by thinly disguised conservative platforms, there is also a general sense of optimism about the opportunities that lie ahead to build a more inclusive and democratic society.
The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at the New York-based Drugs, Security and Democracy programme, which focuses on Latin America, of the Social Sciences Research Council