The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Revolt against Transit Fare Increases – the Other Side of the “Brazilian Miracle”

Jun 28, 2013

The following article was translated from the July-August 2013 issue of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the revolutionary workers organization in France.

In June, a wave of demonstrations against transportation fare increases swept Brazil’s major cities. On June 20th, one million people took to the streets – 300,000 people in Rio, 100,000 each in São Paulo, in Brasília, in Vitória, etc. For São Paulo, this was the sixth large demonstration in just two weeks. Police repression did not scare off anyone, even though it struck severely in one city after another. The demonstrations shook more than one hundred cities, from state capitals to provincial county seats of no major political or economic importance. According to the polls, three quarters of the population supported the movement. There has not been such a huge crowd in the streets since the 1992 movement that ended in the resignation of the corrupt president Fernando Collor, or since the 1984 movement in the last months of the military dictatorship that called for the election of the next president of the republic through universal suffrage.

This time, the main demand was economic, not political. On June 1st, bus and subway fares went up all over the country by about 7%. In the end, officials cancelled these increases in all parts of the country, even in São Paulo and Rio, whose governors had loudly proclaimed that they would never back down. But neither the disruptions nor the demonstrations stopped. The president Dilma Rousseff said on television that she understood the demonstrators but would not tolerate any violence. She talked about changing the Constitution and promised to invest heavily in transportation, education, and healthcare and to institute greater transparency.

The truth of the matter is that although the movement started when the government tried to raise transit fares, it touches on a much greater discontent that has simmered for years in the Brazilian population. The demonstrators’ demands are related to the organization and quality of transportation, but also to the cost of living, the poor state of healthcare and education in the country, the neglect of public services, the violence of the police, the corruption of the politicians, and the injustice of a society where wealth and poverty are pushed to the extreme.

Since June, there have been other demonstrations of lesser importance. But we observe these events from a distance and are not really able to tell what the different layers of Brazilian society think (in particular the working class). We know little about the social origins of the young people who seem to form the majority in the demonstrations and little about the forces at play.

In the rest of this article, we will try only to see the context in which this protest movement grew and developed.

Transit Chaos

Today, 80% of the Brazilian population of 195 million lives in cities, as opposed to 55% in 1970 and 30% in 1940. Seventy years ago, relatively modest cities with little industrialization had to content themselves with a rudimentary system of public transportation. In the space of fifty years, the cities have developed in an anarchic manner in all directions, along roads, valleys, and streams, and with no urban planning. The large metro areas like São Paulo (with 20 million inhabitants, 15 million of these in the city itself), Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Salvador de Bahia, etc. stretch for hundreds of square miles.

These cities developed at the same time as the automobile industry, with the huge assembly plants, mines, steel mills, and oil refineries that it relied on. For decades, road transport was all that mattered, and building highways was the only solution advanced. In São Paulo, the highway running along the Tieté River has no less than eleven lanes each way. Only four cities have any kind of subway: São Paulo, Rio, Brasília, and Porto Alegre. The oldest and the most developed, that of São Paulo, was opened in 1974 and today contains only 5 lines and 64 stations, five times less than in Paris, but for a city five times larger. The meager preexisting rail network, instead of spreading in and around the cities, has faded away. This prepared the way for the proliferation of millions of cars and hundreds of thousands of buses, minibuses, and trucks that encircle and asphyxiate the cities. Inside São Paulo there are seven million vehicles, of which five million are cars. These can only be driven once out of every two days, according to whether their owner’s registration number ends in an odd or even number.

Private companies run the bus system. The few attempts made in the 1980’s to turn them into locally owned public corporations have long since been abandoned. Yet these companies continue to receive heavy subsidies. The state or local government sets the fares, but the firms are guaranteed high profits. Indeed, along with the other public service providers like the trash collection companies, they play a major role in financing local election campaigns, and there is very little that their elected public officials can deny them. As for the subway systems, although they are publicly owned, their fares are in line with the bus fares and function according to the same logic of profit.

The conditions for bus riders are appalling. Riders are packed in to the point of suffocating. Along with the fare increases, the mayor of São Paulo raised the passenger limit to 75 passengers per bus, as opposed to the 65 previously permitted, although no one ever follows these completely theoretical rules. The numerous potholes and speed bumps rattle the passengers. These obstacles can be encountered on the road at any moment in the form of ruts or bumps. Many accidents happen on inadequate roads, which are most often torn up and not maintained. There is no fixed schedule, and passengers are at the mercy of late buses. Armed robberies and all kinds of attacks are daily occurrences, with women particularly targeted.

It costs a great deal to take public transportation, and the less wealthy are the ones who do. The minimum wage in Brazil is equal to about $326 per month, and the average wage for a worker in São Paulo is about two times as much. A worker who takes two forms of transit to go to work, which is the rule, spends about $110 each month on transportation, sometimes at the expense of food. Thirty-seven million Brazilians are estimated to be unable to pay for transit and are required to get around on foot. It is difficult to keep track of the number of strikes and student demonstrations demanding the right to free transportation. One of the organizations behind the current movement, the Free Fare Movement, has made this demand at the national level.

The population has become used to – as a necessity – this deficient, costly, and dangerous transportation system. The revolt broke out when, at the same time as the fare hike, it was revealed what insane amounts of money the authorities were spending to prepare for the sporting events of 2014 and 2016.

The Billions Behind the World Cup and the Olympics

The recent demonstrations played out against the backdrop of the FIFA Confederations Cup matches, a prelude to the World Cup of soccer that will take place in twelve Brazilian cities next year. Contrary to the expectations of some journalists, and certainly of the authorities, these matches, even those in which the national team was playing, did not stop the demonstrations. In a country as passionate about soccer as Brazil, hardly anyone is against construction and renovation projects for the World Cup stadiums. But the contrast between these billions and the fare increases for tens of millions of people was too striking. The familiar story is that three or four construction industry giants will take in some extra billions for the projects that they are going to finish late, which hardly ever even prevents the projects from turning out poorly. In Salvador da Bahia, for example, the roof of a stadium that was just finished has already caved in.

Not very long ago, stadiums and sports facilities generally belonged to associations made up of tens of thousands of members who paid in each year, or to the municipal governments. Many have now been sold or given to private companies who run them for profit in the form of a public-private partnership. The legendary Maracanã stadium in Rio, after more than a half-billion-dollar renovation, now belongs to Odebrecht, a multinational Brazilian construction company, with a smaller share held by Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment company AEG, among others.

The government has committed to spending 13.3 billion dollars of public money for the World Cup next year. How much more for the Olympic Games that will take place in Rio in 2016, for which the main infrastructure will be concentrated in the rich neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca? The president, Dilma Rousseff, tried to defuse the anger by promising that the contractors and concessions operators will reimburse these public expenditures, but no one believes her. The population is convinced that the money advanced is lost and that, as usual, their taxes will be what is used to pay for the loans.

These large projects are not limited to stadiums. Roads have to be built to transport athletes and spectators, as do hotels for them to stay in, restaurants, etc. All of these projects need land, opening the door for real estate speculation. Yet again, this goes on at the expense of the poorest Brazilians. In order to free up the land, apart from the technically legal expropriations, municipal governments are taking over public spaces that the working class and poor have illegally occupied for a long time – the favelas generally built on land not fit for construction, along roads and waterways or on steep hills. The figures given for the number of people expelled are around 170,000 to 250,000, mainly in Rio. In this city, the former capital of Brazil, where housing prices have shot past all previous records and where steep hills extend into the heart of the downtown and block road access, one in four residents lives in a favela. In Brazil, public housing is unheard of. For the poor, the favela is often the only solution. Lula’s government did launch an affordable housing program in the distant suburbs, in which homes were sold cheaply: Minha casa, minha vida (My house, my life). But a popular expression put it differently: Minha casa, minha dívida (My house, my debt).

The expropriations often take the pretext of “securing” areas controlled by gangs and drugs. The workers, who are the majority in these favelas, are certainly subjected to the extortion of these mafias, but a certain truce is often established in which each person knows to respect the rules. When the police go after the gangsters, using machine guns, helicopters, and sometimes tanks, they ignore all of this, shattering these fragile dwellings, plundering, and shooting indiscriminately, particularly at young people and black residents. They call their victims “suspects” or “delinquents,” and the reactionaries applaud. The police, then, take the place of the deposed gangs and often take up their traffic in drugs and guns. Even for those who lost neither their lives nor their few possessions, they have only changed masters and are forced to adapt all over again. Sometimes the gangs even come back with a vengeance and reverse the situation a second time. In January 2012, the police in this way “pacified” the Vidigal favela in Rio, which was built into the side of a hill not far from the beach of Ipanema and had a stunning view of the ocean. The price of land there shot up immediately.

Again in Rio, the municipal government boasts of having opened up several favelas perched on the Complexo do Alemão by building a cable car line. The inhabitants for whom it stops appreciate this, of course. But how many cable cars, lifts, and aerial tramways must be built in order to eliminate the division between the city and its estimated 1,071 favelas and to permit their inhabitants to lead a normal life? There are billions at hand for sporting events, but apparently not for the favelas, not any more than for the public transit system. As one demonstrator’s sign read: “We already have the stadiums of a developed country – all that’s left is to build the country around them.”

A Badly Developed Society

Once the fare increases were cancelled, the demonstrations began to denounce the permanent problems of Brazilian society, marked by colonization and slavery, racist, unequal, violent, and corrupt. Even if certain neighborhoods and certain facilities are among the wealthiest and most modern on the planet, the country as a whole, especially the poorest part of it, suffers from under-development, which is particularly hard felt in terms of infrastructure and public services. As we have seen, this affects transportation and housing, but also health, education, and wages.

Healthcare is in a poor state, while certain advanced medical technologies are among the best in the world. The public system managed by the Unified Health System is deficient and its health centers are overcrowded, all because its funding is constantly reduced in order to push the sick towards the private sector. Doctors and hospitals are needed all over the countryside. Even in places where there are many of them, like Rio and São Paulo, the price of appointments makes them nearly inaccessible to the poorest, as is medicine. The past twenty years have seen a succession of reforms cutting healthcare reimbursements, generalizing hospital privatization, and reinforcing discrimination based on money. Those with the means pay into costly “healthcare plans” based on the U.S. medical insurance model. A well-paid worker often spends one quarter of his or her salary on family coverage.

Education is also under the dictates of money. Public schools do exist, but not more of them, while more and more young people have started going to secondary school and college. As a result, they are overcrowded. Most often, they function in three sessions: the children attend in either the morning, the afternoon or the evening. The classes contain around 60 to 70 students. Teachers earn very little. Tarso Genro, the former president of the Workers’ Party, instituted a minimum salary of around $550 for 40 hours of teaching per week (or two sessions every day) when he was Minister of Education. However, when he was elected governor of Rio Grande do Sul, the state with the highest level of education, he refused to pay this salary to “his” teachers and succeeded in crushing their strike for the $550.

The number of private schools is vast. These cost parents a great deal and make up a very profitable sector for investors. Furthermore, once a student finishes high school, he or she needs to pass an exam called the Vestibular in order to get into a university, and it is only possible to prepare for this in private courses. The public universities are the best and most prestigious, whether run by the federal government, the local states, or the municipalities. But there are very few of these, and the selection to get in is very severe. The large majority of students fall back on the profit-making private colleges which flourish everywhere and which can cost as much as $1400 per month. Lula’s government did these colleges a major favor: under the pretext of helping students pay for school, he set up a system of financial aid – aid that went directly towards expanding the profits of these private colleges.

The working class is “lucky” at the moment to experience such a low rate of unemployment, officially around 5%. It is true that, in light of the absence of actual unemployment benefits, the statistics are hardly reliable. Even in the major cities, only half of all workers have a contract of employment. However, there certainly is work, particularly in the huge urban conglomerations to which the landless and jobless workers of the northeast continue to flock. But wages remain low and especially unequal, even if Lula reduced the spread in salaries somewhat by raising the lowest without increasing the others. In the same way, he sharply cut the pensions of federal government functionaries (and there is not even the question of a pension for workers and rank-and-file employees).

The national minimum wage has almost tripled over the course of Lula’s two terms in office. Today it is equivalent to about $300 a month. This is the normal pay for the six million maids and other household employees, who often come from the countryside originally, and the construction and sanitation workers, the workers in the small towns. In the large cities, workers generally earn twice as much, but a worker can earn eight times the minimum wage if he or she is lucky enough to get hired at a major company, a national or state bank, an auto or steel plant, an oil company, or the subsidiary of a U.S. or European corporation. The most well-paid workers are often the most combative, but these extreme differences help to divide the working class. The fighting spirit of the 1980’s, when the union bureaucrats from the dictatorship were swept aside one after the other by militants linked to the Unified Workers' Central and to Lula’s PT, is over. The union federations are now recognized as such, and each current has found it the simplest to found its own federation and to take in state funds, rather than to fight for influence within a common workers’ organization.

In the countryside, alongside the small peasants and their family farms, there are the large properties, the fazendas. “Colonels” still exist there in the old sense, as big property owners and local political bosses at the same time, enforcing their rule thanks to their gangs of jagunços. These killers have not disappeared, but they now work on contract, under the orders of modern bosses or directors. The majority of the big agricultural properties are operated intensively with the latest machinery, seeds, and fertilizer. Agriculture is, before mining, the country’s main exporting sector: sugar cane, rum, soybeans, coffee, corn, orange juice, beef, chicken, and pork. In one speech, Lula called the sugar cane manufacturers “heroes.” In any case, he did all that he could to please agribusiness, deregulation, looking the other way in the face of illegal deforestation, pollution of all sorts, and the expulsion and murder of Indians and small peasants whose land agribusiness took.

One percent of farmers possess 53% of all land, but more than half of those in the countryside live below the poverty level, and four million peasants have no land at all. 150,000 of them are part of the land occupied by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). The Workers’ Party, of which the leaders of the MST are members, for a long time had demanded an agrarian reform that would grant a part of the large properties to landless peasants. Once it came to power, however, the PT completely renounced agrarian reform, distributing even less land to peasants than its right-wing predecessors did. This has not stopped the leaders of the MST from continuing to support the PT, all while criticizing it slightly and continuing the land occupations. Furthermore, it is not only in the countryside that lands are “illegally” occupied. People living just outside the large cities have no land either, not to farm but to live on. Such land occupations have dramatically increased in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, where in January 2012 an army of 2,000 police forcefully drove out the 9,000 occupants of the Pinheirinho site in São José dos Campos.

Brazilian society cultivates inequality, including within the working class. But if it is one of the most unequal societies in the world, this is due first and foremost to the extreme wealth accumulated by the bourgeoisie. The Brazilian bourgeoisie is certainly in a subordinate position to the bourgeoisies of the imperialist countries, but this does not stop it from enriching itself in a scandalous fashion – in banking, industry, agribusiness, and in loans to the federal and state governments. Not only do the imperialist banks and their wealthy clients hold the enormous Brazilian public debt, but so too do rich Brazilians. These rich people take refuge in their protected neighborhoods, encircled with observation towers and security guards. In these “gated communities,” trees and lawns – not gates and walls – surround the houses, but outside of these peaceful zones, armed guards with dogs patrol incessantly to keep any intruders out of paradise.

In order to impose and maintain this brutal inequality, repression is everywhere. Brazil is a violent country, where 40,000 homicides are recorded every year. Many of these are due to the violence of misery, often among the poor, or to armed robberies and hold-ups. But a significant part of the violence is carried out for the benefit of the rich – against strikers, demonstrators, union activists, protesting peasants, Indians whose land they covet, beggars whom they want to clear from the streets, young people and black people whom they consider dangerous, and inhabitants of the favelas whom they want to intimidate. Every year, the police recognize about 2,000 cases of “resistance to arrest followed by death.” The death squads have not disappeared. They have moved on from political repression to social repression against the poor. The truly wealthy are sometimes the victims of base kidnappings. They protect themselves by surrounding themselves with bodyguards and going in helicopters or armored cars from their secure homes to their offices in skyscrapers or to a guarded shopping mall such as Daslu, where the Black employees are given the strict order to remain silent. Brazil is a real paradise for security companies, armored cars, and private helicopters, which get into real traffic jams in the sky over São Paulo.

Ten Years of Government by the Workers’ Party

The Workers’ Party (PT) has for a long time denounced all of these problems of Brazilian society, the poisonous fruits of capitalism in the Third World. The party was created in 1981 in the midst of the huge worker mobilizations against the dictatorship, as a means for the union militants coming out of these struggles to make a political intervention. It was a reformist party from the outset, and it did not aim to overthrow capitalist society but rather to adjust it a little in favor of workers and above all of the unions. When these mobilizations faded little by little, the PT moderated its language, became bureaucratized, and turned into a party of professionals and notables. It became preoccupied in winning offices through elections, drawing its strength from its historic weight and from the popular demands that it defended: wages, education, healthcare, housing, land, equality, and justice. But the more it governed states and cities, the less it put forward these demands. Nonetheless its reputation as a “clean” party still lingered: “the PT doesn't steal or allow stealing,” was often said.

When Lula was elected president in 2002, this final illusion went up in smoke. The PT revealed itself to be a party like the others – just as venal and corrupt as the numerous traditional parties of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. The most striking proof of this was the mensalão (big monthly payment) scandal, wherein a nationwide system was set up to collect millions in bribes from businesses in order to buy the votes of deputies and senators by means of monthly payments of $10,000 in cash. Apart from Lula, all of the party’s leaders and a number of mid-level officials were compromised and forced to resign.

It was thanks to this unexpected purge that Dilma Rousseff was chosen to succeed Lula, who seamlessly handed the presidency off to her. Until then, she had been a technical minister of the administration in Rio Grande do Sul, had not been a political activist since the end of the dictatorship, and had never run for office. This change in the presidency has not put a stop to the onslaught of corruption charges, since at least seven ministers have been forced to resign in two years, including Rousseff’s chief of staff, who was compromised in fraudulent operations. It is easy to understand why those disgusted with the fare increases have not turned towards the PT, even in places where the increases were imposed by officials from the opposition, and why they have declared themselves “apolitical.” It is also true that the two right-wing opposition parties, the PSDB of the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the DEM of Paulo Maluf, have been mired in just as many scandals as the PT and its allies in the government.

The PT remains strong. It has even improved its scores in the most recent municipal elections, thanks to the support that its social programs have gained for it among the most impoverished part of the population, particularly in the northeast. One example of these programs is the Bolsa Família, which allocates a certain sum of money to families with very low incomes (less than $56 per capita) who send their children to school. Twelve million families, or 50 million individuals, benefit from this program, which says a great deal about the degree of poverty in this country.

Furthermore, consumption seems to have increased over the past ten years as a result of wage increases and the extension of credit, given that interest rates have become more affordable with the end of inflation. The PT benefits from the continued popularity of Lula, a former worker and strike leader and a crafty politician who knew how to talk to the population in its own language, all while defending the interests of the bourgeoisie. Finally, the party can lean on a whole political, union, and organizational apparatus that is devoted to it and seeks a small slice of power. Certain union leaders linked to the management of pension funds have even transformed themselves into full-fledged members of the bourgeoisie.

Furthermore, the PT can trumpet its sound management of the country’s economy, which has risen to become the world’s sixth largest. Without a doubt, the PT’s leaders were not responsible for that. They have governed in favor of the rich, privatized highways, airports, university hospitals, etc., supported exporters of agricultural raw materials, sold off a significant chunk of the country’s natural resources, particularly oil, to imperialist companies, and provided dark-skinned soldiers to keep “order” in Haiti. However, they have been lucky that the global crisis has so far touched the country only slightly. The Gross Domestic Product declined by 0.3% in 2009, following the subprime crisis in the United States. But in 2010, growth climbed back to 7.5%. The demand for agricultural and mining raw materials remained stable, and the increased rate of return (around 7% in Brazil, while this has fallen below 1% in the rest of the world.) has continued to attract capital.

However, this favorable economic situation seems less secure today. The growth rate was only 2.7% in 2011, 0.9% in 2012, and it should dip close to zero this year. At the same time, inflation has kicked in again – 8% over the past twelve months, but 15% for food, including 120% for tomatoes and 150% for cassava flour. A strong memory still lingers of the rapid inflation of the 1990’s, when it went up to 50% per month, or 5,000% over the course of the year, and the government took off three or four zeros each time they changed the currency’s name (cruziero, cruzado, cruzado novo, cruzeiro real, etc.).

Some people denounce the negative effects of the growth of exports in the energy, mining, and agricultural sectors, in which they see a return to an economy privileging the primary sector at the expense of the processing industry. Others contrast Lula’s economic liberalism with Dilma Rousseff’s supposed state intervention. But Rousseff’s apparent change in policy rests on the fact the crisis seems to be overtaking Brazil. And no matter which policy is in control, the crisis will continue. Despite its vast territory and resources, Brazil is only a part of the world economy and has avoided the crisis until now only through a fortunate convergence of factors. If these circumstances change, the Brazilian economy will prove to be as fragile as it was during the time of hyperinflation, and the “miracle” can quickly turn into a nightmare.

This is the setting in which the recent demonstrations broke out. The future will tell what dynamics they contain. The capacity of the Brazilian working class to intervene as an independent force will be the deciding factor here.