SÃO PAULO — For the Penn students in Brazil this summer, São Paulo’s mass anti-government protests are more than a series of running news bulletins and Twitter hashtags. They’re day-to-day reality.
Rising College junior Mariana Frias, who is interning at a nonprofit in São Paulo, has chanted along with the marchers. “I have never [before] felt so exhilarated,” she said.
The protests, originally incited by public transit fare increases across Brazil, have evolved into an expression of public discontent with the government over a bevy of issues including corrupt politics, unsatisfactory health care, education, and security, runaway spending on sporting events and LGBT discrimination.
The rallies, which began on June 13 in São Paulo, initially saw violence and police brutality against the protesters. However, outcries and widespread support for the wounded and detained led the movement into a second, pacifist phase by the time overseas press began covering the protests.
During this more peaceful phase, city government officials entered into talks with protest organizers, even blocking traffic along the sprawling Avenida Paulista — the nation’s financial nucleus and the center of the rallies — to make way for demonstrations. On June 20 in São Paulo alone, protester numbers topped 100,000.
Though friends and family of Frias back home were initially worried, they have since calmed. Now they think she is “living history.”
But Angelo del Vecchio, sociology professor and president of the Fundação Escola de Sociologia e Política de São Paulo (The Foundation School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo), is skeptical of the notion.
“The press molds the way in which historians will interpret this moment, and this moment may be depicted as heroic,” said del Veccio. However, he says that more realistically, the anti-government movement is “disorganized, with no clear goals, and no leaders.”
Rising College senior Victoria Pisini, who interns at a think tank on the Avenida Paulista, is also critical of the emerging narrative, claiming that a “sensationalist” international press has overemphasized hooliganism and vandalism in their protest coverage.
She recounted the silence of international news sources through the first week of large protests in Brazil. During that first, violent wave, the military police repressed demonstrators with “tear gas, smoke bombs and whatever else,” Pisini said. One night during that period, she was a long block away from the Avenida Paulista when her eyes began watering, and her throat began burning because of the MP’s tear gas.
The deafening 100,000
In São Paulo, as in the United States, protestors chant, brandish banners and posters and march down avenues in dense formations. Speakers with megaphones spur on the crowds, cameras flash and record Youtube-ready video.
Here, however, the pacifist “manifestações” are unlike those common in the United States. Beyond the familiar chants, banners and marching, one also finds samba-like drum batteries, vendors toting hand-drawn lodes of ice and cans of Skol — a local beer — and impromptu dissidence-themed rap freestyle battles.
The protests also include open-air rock concerts and gleeful young men grilling shish-kabobs on the marchers’ periphery. Monochrome Guy Fawkes masks and clown noses abound.
On June 20, Frias found it impossible not to join the deafening 100,000. “I could hear the roar from my place blocks away.”
All eyes on Brazil
Jaime Molyneux, director of international risk management, explained that Penn’s independent security analysts, who determine the safety of University programs abroad, have concluded that Brazil is currently cleared for travel.
Rising Wharton and College junior Alonso Gerbaud is set to arrive on July 7 in Rio de Janeiro — another protest epicenter — for a semester abroad. He is as eager as Frias was to witness the movement firsthand.
While there has been much speculation as to why widespread anti-government sentiment has ignited at this moment, Gerbaud believes protesters are capitalizing upon increased exposure due to the Confederations Cup — a major international soccer tournament which ended June 30.
“Brazil is in the world scene right now and protesters are using the situation to get the world’s eyes fixed on them,” Gerbaud said.
The current tournament, which is a test run for new World Cup stadiums and infrastructure, has highlighted protests in Brazil to millions of world viewers.
“I keep watching the [Confederations Cup], and I keep getting updates about riots in Brazil, which multiplies the effect,” Gerbaud said.
Protesters say misallocated spending on international sporting galas has only further exposed Brazil’s woes with public services. Gisele Alves, a São Paulo hospital employee, asked, “If Brazil is bringing the First World here, how can it claim not to have beds for the sick?”
“WE WANT FIFA-QUALITY HOSPITALS,” read a demonstration sign at one of the protests, referencing the argument that Brazil’s focus on foreigners comes at the expense of caring for its own citizens.
Del Vecchio, the sociology professor, noted that participants have “no other channels within the political system to express their frustrations with daily life.” He affirmed, however, that the demonstrations are losing momentum for want of strong leadership and clear objectives.
For Frias, a traveler looking in, the movement “means letting free, letting go, together with people who have nothing in common with you but [the] common goal … [of] having [the Brazilian people’s] voice heard by government.”
‘Huge, universal, transcendental’
Rising College junior Fabio Marcovski, an international student from Brazil, is optimistic about that prospect.
Marcovski described the international prestige of events in Brazil’s future as “huge, universal, transcendental,” but agrees that public funds earmarked for the Confederation and World Cups and the Olympics have been ill-spent.
Builders are preparing Marcovski’s home city of Manaus for the World Cup by erecting a stadium that will fit 40,000. “But what happens after the tournament? The local team has no more than 700 fans,” noted Marcovski.
Above all, however, he is upbeat. “I feel very proud to be Brazilian. I feel as though a new time and a new life are coming to the Brazilian people, and the end of the problems has begun. We’re seeing the rise of the people.”
Universidade de São Paulo law student Victor Bertussi, however, is more cautious. He said that in a movement without concrete goals, such as this one, “such wantonness tends to end in violence, with no good political result.”
Echoing del Vecchio’s points, Bertussi claimed that “people just show up” on the street without a clear intention. “Most people are there because everyone is going, because people say it’s important, because it’s new and exciting. But nobody is truly informed about ‘real politics.’”
Some protesters agree that spontaneity inspired their activism. “I just made a banner and came here,” street vendor Mario Zacarri said during a demonstration.
The protests have seen some victories, such as the city’s rollback of a transit fare increase that had surprised Frias and Pisini. But these gains remain scarce, compared to the many political changes crowds keep demanding. Meanwhile, Friday’s protests disrupted operations at Guarulhos International Airport, where Frias and Pisini had landed in May, knowing nothing of the agitation to come.
Demonstrations carry on, fanning out across São Paulo and Brazil.
Though the yearning masses appear largely leaderless, a vanguard of activists — like the student group Juntos! — helps to organize the movement through social media.
At a rally around the Praça do Ciclista, a public square just off the Avenida, Juntos! “militante” Pedro Serrano stirred up a crowd of students, workers and captivated passersby.
“Our struggle is only beginning,” the activist declared.