Brazil Protests 2013: Why the Protesters Are Right, and Why Protests Are Not Enough

“Order and Progress” — the words inscribed in the colorful Brazilian flag say it all. Yet in the past few days, there has been little “order” in the country, and in the past few years, almost no “progress.” Sparked by a R$0.20 increase in bus fares in major cities across Brazil, protesters all over the country have taken to the streets to demand a more transparent, efficient, and just government. The event marks a watershed in Brazilian politics: It is the first time since the impeachment of president Fernando Collor in 1992 that the Brazilian people have stood united with such confidence against the "untouchable" political elites.

To be sure, the Brazilian economy has been growing, and it would be unfair to say otherwise (although one could argue about who has benefited the most from this growth). Over the past 10 years, 35 million Brazilians have moved out of poverty and into the middle class, which now makes up 53% of the population, Millions others have moved out of the poverty range, and Brazil is now the sixth largest economy in the world by GDP, having overtaken the UK in 2012.

However, this economic growth has served to mask a much more important issue that has long plagued the country: the rampant corruption and inefficiency which pervades the Brazilian government. The examples I could give are countless, from the grandiose vote-buying scheme in Congress, exposed in 2005, to politicians being arrested by airport police with $100,000 hidden away in their underpants. This month, Congress will vote on a constitutional amendment that, if passed, will remove the power of the Public Ministry to conduct criminal investigations, leaving the highly corrupt Brazilian police force (exceptions excluded) as the only organ responsible for conducting criminal investigations in the country, therefore incentivizing even more corruption. Finally, while the government was able to conjure up R$27 billion for next year’s World Cup, Brazil still invests below the OECD average on education, and even less on public health. Even the aforementioned economic achievements, which have long served as a political shield for the government, have suffered setbacks: Brazil grew only 0.9% last year, and the economy is showing no signs of considerable recovery so far this year

In response, the people have finally taken to the streets. BBC Latin America reported that as many as 200,000 people have marched through the avenues of Brazil’s major cities to protest the rising costs of public transportation (which have not been accompanied by an improvement in public transportation), the over-spending in the World Cup, and the widespread corruption that the population has tolerated for years.  The protesters were met with both provoked and unprovoked violence from the police, which only served to increase the tension in the country. Some are already calling for an impeachment.

Thus far, I agree with the protesters' cause (although I am unsure about impeachment, especially with a presidential election coming up so soon, in 2014). We, the Brazilian population, have every reason to be appalled by our government’s performance, and we have the right to demand change. But we also have to take into consideration some key democratic fundamentals without which we will lose both our political and moral high ground. For one, we have to respect the fact that the current government was elected, through free and fair elections, for three consecutive terms, despite wide media coverage of the various corruption scandals which have taken place. Now, we can argue for ages over whether the people made informed decisions when they were voting, but for better or for worse, the people voted in the party they thought would make their lives better. Let us not forget that we are being governed by a majority-elected government. Secondly, many of the demands that are being made of government cannot be implemented without wider support from the private sector. An increase in the minimum wage, for example, will only lead to rising unemployment if private companies are not willing to pay the added employment cost. In this way, change in Brazilian society will not come through government actions alone – they must come from a concerted effort including both public and private actors. Thirdly, and this notably only refers to a small minority of protesters, we have to respect the limits of our freedom of speech. Vandalism will only provoke the police into violent responses. It makes us forget the real reason why we are protesting, and it gives the police a pretext to act aggressively. More importantly, however, it takes the media’s focus away from the real change we are trying to implement, and instead motivates them to focus on the violent police, not the corrupt politicians.

This last point is, in my opinion, the most crucial one, because as I see it, the main value of the protests lays in their ability to gain attention and spread information. And while it is unlikely that the effort will continue with the same momentum onto 2014, perhaps the outcry that has been generated by these protests will be converted into votes against the ruling party in next year's elections. In the end, we cannot realistically expect change to come from within the government, and we cannot forget the power that is bestowed onto us by the democratic principle of the vote. It is our responsibility as citizens to keep the government in check, by voting against them if we think they have done a poor job. And if we think that there were people who were uninformed while voting, then we should act to inform them. That is how we can change Brazil: not by the force of a punch, but by the echo of a shout.