Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Danilo Freire.
Last month millions of Brazilians took the streets to protest against the government. Although the social unrest was triggered by small demonstrations orchestrated by the left-wing Free Fare Movement against a 10 dollar cents increase in the bus fares in São Paulo, the violent police reaction to the protests served as a catalyst for a series of much broader, non-partisan upheavals across the country. Political corruption, excessive public spending on the forthcoming World Cup and the bad quality of public services were frequently mentioned as the main causes of the demonstrations. “First-world stadiums; third-world schools and hospitals”, ran one placard spotted by The Economist.
The protests also brought different groups to the political debate. According to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), a private research company, 43% of the protesters were 24 years old or less, 46% joined a protest for the first time and 77% were mobilised through Facebook. Furthermore, they show a remarkable disbelief in the Brazilian representative institutions: 86% of the demonstrators are not affiliated to labour unions or class/student associations and 89% of them do not feel represented by any party in the country.
The roots of the discontent, nevertheless, are not particularly new. Brazil’s economic performance has been lacklustre over the last couple of years, and growth forecasts are not particularly optimistic. Housing prices in São Paulo are on average 174% higher than in 2008, and annual inflation is currently at 6.5%, hitting the Central Bank’s inflation target ceiling. Brazil has also had significant problems in the political realm. Congress in Focus, an independent website, states that only 12% of Brazilians have any confidence in the National Congress and the AmericasBarometer Project, conducted by the Vanderbuilt University, show that Brazilians’ satisfaction with the public services has been notably low when compared to Latin American standards, ahead of only Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. Unsurprisingly, after the protests President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating has plummeted from 54% in June to 31% in July.
Faced with such demands, one could reasonably expect that the federal government would take bold, sweeping measures in order to please the discontents. Unfortunately, this has not happened. The government responses to the protests have been timid and underwhelming. Not only the government proposals were controversial to the civil society, but they did not find support in the political establishment as well: no initiative was implemented in the way the Executive wanted to. Here I will briefly describe three of the most important measures taken by the federal government to appease the protests: the hiring of 6,000 Cuban doctors, the pledge to direct all pre-salt oil royalties to education, and a political reform.
First, the import of Cuban doctors. It is widely known that Brazil has significant problems in its healthcare system. One of them is due to geographical constraints. The city of São Paulo, for instance, has four times as many doctors per person as the northern region of the country, since the domestic supply of professionals is limited and doctors remain in richer, urban areas. The federal government thus desired to implement a slightly modified version of a Venezuelan public programme, where under an agreement with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Cuba sent doctors in exchange for cheap oil. Although the idea had been originally proposed before the protests began, Rousseff later emphasised its importance as a means for address some of the issues raised by the demonstrators.
The proposal backfired almost immediately. The Federal Council of Medicine radically opposed to the measure, claiming that the training Cuban doctors receive is equivalent to a nurse in Brazil, what makes them under-qualified for the job. Moreover, the council also pointed out that the federal government could not guarantee that the foreign doctors would not move to urban areas, where work conditions are better and wages are higher. The solution, according to the council, would be to better remunerate local professionals as an incentive to serve in distant areas. Furthermore, it is not clear how, even if Cuban doctors were admitted in the country (or their Spanish and Portuguese fellows, as it has recently been proposed) the government could provide the better healthcare infrastructure that the small cities dramatically need. Without proper working tools the newly-hired doctors would not do much.
Another initiative put forward by President Rousseff was the idea to designate all oil revenues to education. The project, which please more left-wing sectors of the society, had been discussed for a long time, but the government classified the measure as “urgent” after the protests. Rousseff’s proposal, again, has not prevailed so far. While the government has still been able to secure that 75% of the pre-salt resources will be spent on education (the remaining 25% will be invested in healthcare), it could not guarantee 100% as planned. The government was willing to use such revenues to reach the symbolic goal of investing 10% of Brazil’s gross domestic product in education in the next 10 years, but now it will be more difficult to attain such target. Whilst the decision regarding the oil royalties is not final, the National Congress has already signaled that the modified decree is likely to be its last word on the topic.
Lastly, there is the so-called political reform. For about 20 years politicians have been proposing laws designed to change the party system and the constitution, but since neither President Cardoso nor Lula put much effort to reform the political environment in Brazil, the reforms actually never took off. The protests, nonetheless, provided a good opportunity for politicians to push their agenda into the fore. On the one hand, the government’s Workers’ Party wants to implement public financing of political campaigns, something it has defended for years, and the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party wishes to establish a modified version of single-winner voting. President Rousseff originally suggested the creation of an Exclusive Constitutional Assembly, but after the measure encountered strong resistance from large sectors of the civil society and the bureaucracy itself, including the Supreme Court, she later called for a referendum where five topics would be voted: the type of campaign financing and electoral system adopted in the country, the existence of political coalitions and substitute Senators, and the ban of secret voting in the Senate. Whereas such measures are indeed interesting and should be debated by the society as a whole, it should be noted that, as pointed out by Fernando Limongi, less than 1% of the protesters demanded a political reform and the complexity of electoral reform, for instance, rarely lends itself to binary choices. Details about the execution of the reforms, nevertheless, would still be defined by the government and the National Congress and this could easily distort the original intent of the popular referendum. Also, why insist in discussing subtleties of the political system instead of broad reforms in healthcare and education, for instance? If that is what brought the Brazilian people to the streets, is it not reasonable to discuss them first? The government and the opposition, as it seems, still refuse to hear what the people said a few weeks ago.
In a nutshell, the government responses to the protests in Brazil have so far fallen short of what Brazilians wanted. As summarised by The Economist, the plans “seemed rushed and unable to provide lasting calm” to the population. Elected as an “efficient manager”, President Rousseff has so far been unable to establish a firm contact with the protesters and gather support from the Legislative to push her reforms and address the streets claims. The reasons which took Brazilians out of their homes last month are still present, and while Brazilian democracy seems strong enough to weather these turbulences, President Rousseff’s reelection plans might be in danger.