Archive | politics RSS feed for this section

Rapid political changes in Brazil

2 Jul

Wow, it’s been incredible to see the rapid changes that have been occurring in Brazilian politics in the last week, to see democracy in action and a political class in panic, wondering how they can respond to (and pacify?) the anger that has been roused.

Some of the unprecedented changes include:

  • Dilma has proposed a plebiscite on political reform, asking the public to give their opinions on the most pressing changes that are needed to take affect before the elections in 2014. She has also proposed bringing in doctors from abroad to improve the healthcare system, spending R$ 50 bn on metro lines in the major cities and spending 100% of oil royalties on education (the latter measure has already been passed by the Senate and Congress).
  • The Senate and Congress have voted to make corruption a heineous crime, increasing the sentence that can be imposed. This proposal had been waiting to be voted on since 2011!
  • A Deputy of Congress has been arrested under order of the Supreme Court. He is the first person to be convicted by the Supreme Court to actually go to prison since the end of the Military Dictatorship in 1988. He was found guilty of embezzling R$8.4 million in October 2010 and sentenced to 13 years in jail but since then has been dragging out his right of appeal (not in prison) and was reelected to Congress in 2011! The Court decided that he was ‘merely procrastinating’ and therefore should be arrested. He had claimed that as a Deputy he could not go to prison, however, the Court ruled that there was no incompatibility with being a Deputy of Congress and being in prison!! However, none of the people convicted in the Mensalão scandal have yet to be arrested.
  • Following specific protests against PEC 37 (a constitutional amendment that would make all criminal investigations led by the police) last weekend and early this week a mass u-turn in Congress ended with 430 Deputies voting against and just 9 in favour. The 9 people who voted in favour were rounded-on on facebook and twitter.

However, from the initial wide-ranging demands people have moved on to discuss much deeper political changes that are needed to systematically tackle all of the other problems including health, education and corruption. This represents a much bigger challenge to the political class and their power.

For instance, currently local elections work on Party-list Proportional Representation system but without representation for a particular district. In Rio there are 51 seats for the local chamber from across the city, they are not elected as representatives for a particular neighbourhood such as Copacabana or Barra but are elected across the entire city. Last year there were 1741 candidates from many different parties vying for these 50 seats. People have one vote and the number of total votes for all the candidates from each party are added together and the candidates actually chosen from each party are proportional to the total number of votes for that party. This system is used in many countries but it is open to abuse here. The large number of candidates means that there is no possibility to scrutinize each person’s opinions and background. The system assumes that people’s vote preference is based more on the party than a particular candidate. However, this is proved a lie by some of the tactics and party-hopping by candidates. Parties will often choose celebrities or well-known politicians in order to boost their party’s votes and help other candidates to be elected. Politicians have a tendency to change parties frequently depending on their likelihood of being elected (and possibly the sweeteners offered), the current Mayor of Rio has changed his allegiances enough times to back your head spin. Starting with affiliation to the Green Party he switched to the right-wing Democrats, then the centre-right Brazilian Labour Party, the centrist technocrat Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) and finally to the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) as Mayor. Also, people wanting to be voted in can target a particular area, such as the favela communities, through the drug bosses or through bribes helping them to be elected via high votes from that particular locality.All these issues makes it very difficult to kick out a particular politician as they can piggyback in with someone else.

Other political reforms suggested include reducing the number of Deputies in the Congress and their costs, removing immunity of prosecution for Senators and Deputies (currently they can only be tried by the Supreme Court whose members they also elect), making campaign financing public or through individual donations, banning the forming of coalitions which allows them the combined TV adverting time even if one of the parties is not putting forward any candidates, integrating all elections to happen every 4 years and introducing a political recall allowing voters to vote out a politician who is not following their election promises.

People I talk to are also worried about the eventual outcome of these protests, with the military dictatorship not far in the back of people’s minds. To me Brazil’s democracy appears strong and to be growing stronger through these events, without the same deep societal divisions and antagonism present in other countries that are being rocked by protests, such as Egypt. Everyone I have spoken to from all political sides supports the overall aims of the protests, with 85% of the public supporting them from recent polls. They are further worried about whether there is any underlying manipulation occurring from either the left or right-wing. With the presidential election coming up next year and with Dilma’s popularity falling as a result of these events, she’s even chose not to attend the final football game after being booed so much that she couldn’t speak at the the opening, it could play into the hands of politicians on either side. On the left-wing there have been increasing calls for Lula to stand again for the Workers’ Party next year, indeed the Workers’ Party don’t appear to vocal in their backing of Dilma. On the other-hand these protests are targeted against the Government and the right-wing parties and newspapers would love to see the Workers’ Party lose power. Both could attempt to integrate favoured ideas or policies through the political reforms. The longer term effect on the parties will depend on what happens over the next few months.

Over the past week the protests have reduced, with a few thousand people marching in Rio every night rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands the week before. Larger protests have happened at the locations of the Confederation Cup games, points of symbolism of the corruption in politics and the poor priorities of the government. However, people generally seem to be waiting to find out how the politicians will react and to give them a chance to respond and put changes into effect. If nothing happens, the people will be back and I imagine with a greater roar. The politicians have a year till the World Cup kicks off to prove that they have really listened to the people.

A gigante acordou – The giant has woken

22 Jun

I’ve just arrived back in Rio from a week visiting the baroque towns and isolated splendour of Brazil’s colonial past to the protests, uncertain and rising spirit of the chaotic present. Hints of the movement rippling across the country came from short snippets of news on the TV, people leaving early from work to be able to arrive home and scenes of the giant marches and homemade placards in all of the major cities. However, it was only talking to my Brazilian housemate today, her experience of the protests, reading the news reports and watching the film clips that I really became aware of the scale of this uprise.

The protests started over a week ago, just before we boarded a bus for the interior with small marches of students and members of the Movemento Passe Livre (Free Movement) against rises in bus fares in several major cities including Sao Paulo and Rio. These were small rises, to R$2.95 in Rio (£1), but as I’ve discussed before are a huge cost if you are living on the minimum wage. A large but peaceful march in Sao Paulo was met by riot police with rubber bullets and teargas and huge indignation across the media and the public and were the spark for ever increasing protests across the country. There were giant marches in the centre of Rio every night last week but also smaller scale protests across the city. 500 footballs with red crosses were placed on Copacabana beach these morning, representing the half a million people murdered in Brazil in the past 10 years whilst people have marched and camped outside the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro’s residence in Leblon.

Although the politicians have struck a conciliatory note, saying that they need to listen to the demands of the people and that this is a sign of democracy, the police have reacted somewhat differently. Videos abound of teargas and rubber bullets being sprayed towards people, apparently without reason, as they stand on pavements, walk down the street, sit in their cars or film events from their apartment. My housemate told me of walking in the crowd towards the Prefeitura (the seat of Rio’s goverment) as helicopters flew lower and lower overhead, dropping teargas from above as crowds including young people, children and pregnant women fled away. This style of policing may be partly due to the use of the BOPE police, heavily armed shock troops more accustomed to entering and tackling drug gangs in the favelas than policing protests.

And what does this waking giant want? Although the spark was the rise in bus prices the underlying frustrations are multitudinous. The poor infrastructure and investment in health and education, friends constantly declaim the poor wages of teachers and the endless waiting and lack of equipment at public hospitals, any one that can pays for private education and healthcare plans. The cost of hosting the mega events of the World Cup and the Olympics, which appear to serve external international interests such as the International Olympic Committee and Fifa rather than the local population. In Cuíaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, a recently built stadium has been knocked down and a new one built specifically for the World Cup that is hugely outsized for the audience of the local lower tier football team. But overlying all of this is the corruption and self-serving interests that have chipped away at people’s respect, trust and belief in politicians, in their trust that these mega-events are not being used to line the pockets of politicians whilst public services are neglected. The recent mensalão (Big Monthly Payment) scandal where 25 senators, businessmen and PT (Workers’ Party) officials were found guilty of receiving monthly payments to vote with the government, has still not resulted in any of the guilty going to prison. The politicians appeared outraged that the Supreme Court had had the gall to actually prosecute them, let alone find them guilty.

One of the specific complaints of the protesters is the amendment PEC 37 to the constitution which will be voted on this coming week, with today and tomorrow called the ‘Dia do Basta a Corrupção’ (Enough Corruption Day). This amendment would mean that all prosecution investigations would have to be carried out by the Federal or State Police, rather than some being brought by a public prosecutor, as occurs at the moment. People are worried that this concentration of power will give a monopoly to the police to investigate crimes, leaving some uninvestigated, especially those of corruption by politicians or police. Other people have suggested that a change is needed from the status quo, with local police forces needing more independence and better pay to increase their autonomy from State Governors and their ability to investigate corruption. Overall, it indicates the lack of trust in federal institutions.

Whatever the outcome and changes that occur from these protests, the giant has definitely woken. I am proud to see this spirit of change and demand for a better future speak on the streets of these cities, to see a people find its voice after so many talks with my colleagues, hearing their complaints about public services and corruption and their disbelief that any change will happen. Talking to people on our travels around Brazil they have told me how needed these protests are, for politicians to see the anger and frustration of the people and to know that they are watching and that they will demand change. Currently President Dilma hasn’t offered enough to calm this giant, we’ll see what the next week brings.

The price of a bus ticket…and musings on wealth inequality in Rio

21 Nov

The other day I got stuck in a huge queue on the bus on the way back from the university, not necessarily a strange occurrence but I was struck by the helicopter flying overhead. As we started moving again I noticed groups of people standing at the bus stops across the 8-lane Avenida Preidente Vargas that stretches into the centre of Rio, chanting as the buses passed by and holding placards with R$3.05 crossed out.

Searching on the internet I discovered that this was one of a series of protests against the increase in bus fares from the current price of R$2.75 (about 83p) to R$3.05 (92p) per journey in January. With the price rising from R$2.50 last January. The recent protests were met by the riot military police leading to some nasty looking arrests.

It made me consider some of the issues of wealth and inequality that exist here that are too often hidden. The minimum wage in Brazil in 2012 is R$622 (£100) per month or R$2.83 (85p) per hour. The average wage is R$1588. This puts into stark contrast some of the living costs. For people on the minimum wage, just traveling to and from work everyday by bus will take out 17% of their monthly income before the costs of food, accommodation, electricity or clothing are accounted for, whilst even on the average wage it would be 7%. It is easy to understand why there are protests about the rising fares and why people will wait to be packed into a crowded bus like cattle rather than get a seat in the minivans for 25 centavas extra.

It also highlights the massive geographic divide in the city. Zona Sul, encompassed by mountains and containing all of the sites that most tourists connect with Rio: the beaches, sugarloaf mountain, Christo Redento; is really a small town. The North Zone, an intermingling of favelas and middle-class neighbourhoods stretches out as far as the eye can see on the plain beyond the mountains, stifling hot in the summer. These are two different worlds with a one bedroom flat in the Zona Sul costing at least R$1000-R$1500 a month before condominium rates and rising to eye-watering prices in Ipanema and Leblon, which have the highest square metre prices of anywhere in South America. It is no wonder that the Zona Sul is a different world, where only the upper middle-classes and wealthy can live, unless you live in a favela precipitously perched on the hillside. Now these affordable areas are also under threat. With the pacification of the favelas comes property speculation and eviction pressures, with many of the favelas offering spectacular views. The effects of these changes on the social and geographic divisions in Rio are already beginning to happen.

When we first arrived in Rio we found money tight. Living on one income with rental prices what they are has meant that we have much less disposal income than in the UK. But this puts it all in perspective. My wage is 6 times the minimum, more than twice the average. We are definitely the wealthy. The excesses of the very wealthy are something else to behold. Closing the wealth inequality gap is not something that will happen overnight, but keeping the price of public transport low so that people can still get to work will certainly help.