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Brazil’s left and right struggle for ownership of protests

Rival groups split on the political direction of the protests as two organisations back military rule. Jonathan Watts reports.

world Updated: Jun 28, 2013 01:59 IST
Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts
Hindustan Times

Rival organisations behind Brazil’s huge street demonstrations are struggling for control amid conflicting views about the political direction the movement should take.

With further action planned for Wednesday evening, the left-wing groups who initiated the marches suspect opposition parties are trying to hijack the protests and use them as a platform to challenge president Dilma Rousseff’s government before next year’s presidential election.

The protesters have proved a formidable political force, notching up victory after victory in the past week and forcing Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and regional leaders into a series of concessions. But the scale has ebbed in recent days. Although demonstrations continue on a daily basis in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and dozens of other cities, they are on a smaller scale than last Thursday’s march of more than a million.

The vast majority of marches have been unified, but there have been a few shouting matches between rival groups competing to set the ideological direction of the protests. Some would like a stronger focus on inequality and improving conditions in favelas. Others are pushing for tax cuts and a crackdown on corrupt officials.

In online chat rooms and microblogs, there is speculation that police are using agents provocateurs to stir up violence and pave the way for a coup. Evidence for that is scant, but differences have become more apparent. Groups such as Anonymous are calling for a period of reflection, and arranged workshops and public meetings in Rio this week to discuss where to go next.

But several organisations that are closer to the right pressed ahead with smaller gatherings on Monday and urged more on Thursday. Two of them, Organisation Opposed to Corruption and Online Revolution, advocate the return of militarism, according to an article on the Estado de São Paulo website. This followed tension in São Paulo during last Thursday’s march when some groups burned the flags of the Workers Party.

“We live in a democracy and this reaction is a kind of nationalism taken to an extreme. I fear this may be hidden fascism,” said Talita Saito, a 21-year-old law student at the protest.

But those who initiated the protests in support of cheap public transport are uneasy that part of the movement has morphed towards a campaign for lower taxes.

A major reason for the success of last week’s marches was that the organisers rejected affiliation with political parties. The amorphous movement embraced frustrations felt across the political spectrum, many of them brought into relief by the Confederations Cup.

About 50,000 people joined a demonstration on Wednesday outside a stadium in Belo Horizonte, where Brazil were playing Uruguay in a Confederations Cup semi-final. Police fired tear gas and protesters threw stones. In Brasilia, where the other semi-final was taking place, police shut down traffic in the city centre in expectation of unrest.

In recent days, Rousseff – a former student radical – has talked to organisers and responded to some of their concerns. On Monday, she promised a referendum on political reform, tighter penalties for corruption, a 50bn real (£15bn) programme for public transport and more support for healthcare and education.

The groups behind the protests say Rousseff’s promises are too vague and fall short of demands they have regarding evictions of residents for mega-events, excessive police violence (seen on Tuesday in a raid on the Maré favela in Rio that left at least nine people dead) and wider issues of inequality and environmental destruction.

In response to Rousseff’s promises and concerns about the vandalism that followed clashes with police, the organisers plan to set new guidelines for the protests.

One question will be how the movement can address inequality. Halting bus price rises alone will not achieve this if it means spending cuts in other areas of social spending, as the São Paulo mayor Fernando noted.

First Published: Jun 28, 2013 00:30 IST