Brazil: where is the protest movement heading?

Soon after massive protests started spreading in Brazil in mid-June, Spanish-language media began calling the protesters los indignados—"the angry ones," or "the indignant ones," a reference to May 2011 anti-austerity protests in Spain. It was obvious to most commentators that the Brazilian uprising fit into a pattern of spontaneous mass protests in response to the ongoing world economic crisis: the "Arab Spring" of early 2011, the Spanish protests, Occupy Wall Street in the US, demonstrations for free education in Chile and in Canada's Quebec province, and the more recent protests in Greece and Turkey.

The demonstrations in Brazil "raise awareness among people, they allow the whole of society to speak and serve as a strong point of pressure on governments," Emir Sader, a leftist professor emeritus of political science at the University of São Paulo, wrote on June 20. "Moreover, the movement opened up a discussion on an essential question in the fight against neoliberalism: the polarization between public and private interests, and the issue of who should finance the costs of essential public services." But a movement that is amorphous and politically inexperienced is also vulnerable to "external manipulation," according to Sader.

This is especially true in Brazil, after 10 years of government by the center-left Workers Party (PT). Some elements of the PT at first seemed to attribute the protests to rightwing anti-government sentiment. Other PT elements were more supportive, but their association with the government undercut their credibility, and the hostility carried over to parts of the left with no connection to the PT. On June 20 some unions, social organizations and political parties, including the PT and the National Student Union (UNE), tried to join the marches carrying their banners. But in São Paulo other protesters jeered them, calling them "opportunists" and telling them: "Go to Cuba!" and "Go to Venezuela!" The mainstream media have worked to use these sentiments to push the protests to the right. But in other cases leftists seemed to have a presence. A São Paulo newspaper ran a photo of a young woman carrying a sign with a picture of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in her youth, when she belonged to a guerrilla organization fighting the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Under the picture the sign read: "We want this Dilma back."

"The correct attitude [for the left] is to learn from the movement and act together with it," Sader advised, "in order to help it achieve a clear consciousness of its objectives, of its limitations, of the [right's] attempts [to use it], of the problems that have emerged and how to carry out a discussion regarding its significance and the best way to confront challenges." (Carta Maior, Brazil, June 20, translated in Links, Australia, June 22; Clarín, Argentina, June 20, from correspondent; Estado de São Paulo, Brazil, June 22)

Some of the movement's ambiguities were present in a support demonstration that several hundred Brazilians and others attended in New York's Lower Manhattan on June 22. The organizers stressed the similarities with other movements by holding the protest in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street's headquarters in the fall of 2011, and by inviting participation by New York-based Turkish and Greek activists. Despite the clearly internationalist and leftist orientation, right-wing elements were on hand. One man held a poster denouncing President Rousseff as a "terrorist" and a "communist." But the participants also cheered a speech by a Brazilian socialist who criticized the right-wing and notoriously homophobic legislative deputy Marcos Feliciano. The crowd joined her in the chant: "Fora Feliciano" ("Feliciano out"). (World War 4 Report, June 22; report from Update editor)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 23.