By Peter Storm
While the world has been watching Turkey, another country is experiencing revolt: Brazil. Just like Turkey, Brazil has recently experienced relative success in economic terms. But just as in Turkey, the spoils of this economic growth are divided extremely unequally. Just like in Turkey, a relatively small provocation has sparked a much more widespread chain reaction. Unlike in Turkey, that provocation is a direct attack on living standards. But the anger exploding as a result of it appears to run just as deep.
Brazil has seen strong economic growth in the past decade, although this is slowing. In 2010, the economy grew 7.5 percent; for 2011, the official IMF estimate is 2.7 percent. This temporary slowdown is supposed to be followed by stronger growth in 2013, although, with IMF statistics, you can never tell. However, the parallel with Turkey — also a rapidly developing economy gradually moving into slowdown — is striking. Economies like Turkey and Brazil are becoming quite an important force in the world economy. What happens there matters to the rest of the world. Better watch out — and better be prepared to extend the hand of solidarity when it is needed.
Right now, what is happening in Brazil and Turkey is revolt. In Turkey it was the defence of Gezi park that provided the spark. In Brazil, it is transport fares that drive people to the streets in anger. On 2 June, authorities in the metropolis of Sao Paulo raised the price of a single fare from $1.40 USD to $1.50. This hike, moreover, is being made in a context of 15.5 percent inflation. And for thousands of Brazilians, it proved to be the proverbial last straw. From June 10 onwards, the city was rocked by four consecutive days of demonstrations and riots. On June 13, 5.000 people took to the streets and clashed violently with police.
According to the BBC, “the demonstrators were mostly university students, but the authorities said there were also groups of anarchists looking for a fight.” The idea that some students might be anarchists by conviction, and that some anarchists go to college because they like to learn, apparently does not occur to either “authorities” or the BBC. And the ones “looking for a fight” were above all the rabid police troops themselves, who used excessive amounts of teargas and rubber bullets against mostly unarmed demonstrators, some of whom did attack shops and set fire to tyres. But that’s what desperate people do if you make their lives even harder by rising the prices of public amenities in a context of rapid inflation.
Overall, more than 50 people were left injured and the number of arrests exceeded 200. According to the BBC, “police say they seized petrol bombs, knives, and drugs.” Sure. And yes, “police acted with professionalism”, according to the state governor. Obviously. After all, repression is their profession.
All of this was reported on the BBC website on June 14. The next day, the Guardian had more. Demonstrations in Sao Paolo, Rio the Janeiro, Porto Alegre and the capital Brasilia itself; 130 people detained; at least 100 demonstrators hurt; 12 police officers injured as well. At times, police attacked entirely non-violent crowds. At times, demonstrators displayed their anger by painting graffiti onto walls, smashing shop windows, setting garbage on fire, and so on.
According to police, they decided to attack because the protesters took a different route from the one agreed upon with authorities, and because they threw objects at police. The police charges themselves were ferocious, replete with rubber bullets, tear gas and truncheons. Even the mayor of Sao Paulo was forced to admit that police have not been following “protocol” and announced an official investigation.
Why the anger? Of course there’s the price hike for subway and bus tickets — but there is more. “It’s about a society that is sick of corrupt politicians not making good on its promises to make improvements…” said one 24-year-old protester. “We want decent education, healthcare and transportation. That’s what the fight is all about.” It is the same story all over again: while the state pushes for economic growth, inequality grows. People protest, the police attack, and the revolt deepens and broadens.
But there’s more going on in Brazil than protests against the rising price of transportation. There is revolt in the countryside as well. The fact remains that Brazil has built its neoliberal capitalist economy on the back of slavery, land robbery and downright genocide of its indigenous population. The struggle against colonialism and for indigenous liberation continues unabated. In this struggle, communities clash with all kinds of resource exploitation and infrastructural projects that form the building blocks of neoliberal development.
In recent years, numerous actions have taken place against a giant dam projectat Belo Monte. This project threatens to harm the lands and ecosystems on which indigenous communities depend in order to make a living. On May 28, there was an occupation of the building site — not the first of its kind. On June 6, meanwhile, there was yet another major protest rally in the capital of Brasilia.
In the meantime, a shrill light is shed on a colonial and genocidal past that, sadly enough, continues today. Recently, a previously unpublished report by the state institution responsible for indigenous relations surfaced detailing the state’s treatment of indigenous people, and containing a chilling series of horror stories — ranging from thirty villagers being attacked and killed from the air with dynamite, to the purposeful spreading of smallpox, a deadly disease, in order to get rid of people. The list goes on, exceeding 1,000 crimes specifically mentioned in a 7,000 page text.
The report was submitted in 1967, but “disappeared”, as did so many of the victims. Only this spring, it reappeared, a fate that was not granted to the victims themselves. In the meantime, the military dictatorship has gone, but the terror instigated by landowners and agricultural capitalists against indigenous people and landless peasants continues regardless. So, fortunately, does the resistance.
In Brazil, the indigenous people are confronting an enemy that is not just colonial but neoliberal. They are attacked and murdered because they are in the way of profitable export-oriented agriculture, and of the giant infrastructure needed to feed energy to Brazil’s rapidly developing industries. The same neoliberal monster that drives the prices of subway and bus tickets to unbearable heights is driving the indigenous people from their lands; marginalizing the poor in the favelas; and keeping millions of young people out of university and out of work — just as it prioritizes investment into useless World Cup stadiums over investment in much-needed schools and hospitals.
In this sense, demonstrating university students and occupying indigenous peoples may be fighting different fights, but they are ultimately part of the same struggle — the struggle of humanity against neoliberalism, and of the self-liberating people against an oppressive state apparatus built on racist and colonial foundations. Better keep an eye on how that dual struggle unfolds in the coming weeks, months and years.