By Lina Maria Useche Jaramillo
The world has heard many things about Brazil in the past month. Apparently something interesting was going on here and it wasn't the Confederations Cup 2013 or preparations for the World Cup 2014. Something different was appearing on the covers of newspapers and magazines all over the globe that could be summed up in the simple sentence: “It's not just about the 20 cents!” Rising bus fares had ignited a long-simmering protest movement against much more.
I do not believe in coincidence, but I must say a magical coincidence occurred in March when I attended a meeting of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers in Curitiba. One of our local hub members, Pedro, the 22-year-old co-founder of Instituto Atuação (Action Institute), an organization that fights political apathy among Brazilian youth, shared with us the essential flaws of our democracy compared to other countries. While Brazil has a solid democratic system, we’re near the bottom of the list when it comes to popular participation. So Pedro encouraged us to take action, introducing us to the Eleições Limpas (Clean Elections) draft law designed to transform the electoral system. The law was bold, even revolutionary. We couldn´t be more excited to be part of it and to start working for the campaign to collect signatures.
For the next two months, we waited anxiously to be given the green light to start, but something far bigger was happening, something we couldn't have predicted. The giant of popular protest was waking up and moving from the online world onto the streets.
The news on the morning of June 18 was completely different from other days. The images of crowds taking to the streets, parks, and public buildings to demand their rights – and the rights of an entire population – were unbelievable. Over the next three weeks, millions of people raised their voices. Said one tearful 60-year-old woman on a news broadcast: "I never thought I'd live to see this moment. I am thrilled to see that the youth arose and that this generation is willing to fight for a better country."
Everyday citizens, long frustrated with their inability to combat corruption and influence Brazil’s future, needed the motivation to get out of their houses and take charge. That motivation came in the form of an increase in bus fare. A well-organized movement called Passe Livre (Free pass) in São Paulo, had for many years investigated the price of public transportation, claiming there was no transparency regarding the contracts of private companies that run the public transit system, and no reason for increasing fees. So the movement started to mobilize people, through Facebook, on June 6, 7, and 11, to take the streets and say “NO” to this increase. Their motto: “If the cost does not fall, we will not stop!”
That initiative, driven by no more than 1,000 people, inspired the nation. Within days, more than 300,000 people were taking the streets all over Brazil not only to protest increases in public transportation costs but to also show the government that we have more to say – and more to fight for. People affirmed that they wanted better public education, better hospitals, and more transparency related to the cost of the Confederations and World Cup infrastructure investments. People demanded better laws, fought against the proposed “Gay cure” law, and asked for more security and less violence and robbery. Bowing to this pressure, the government announced that the transportation fees would not increase, and in some cities, they would go down, and we celebrated. That said, we still had a long list of wishes, so we didn't stop.
On June 20, the protest to fight against corruption engaged 1.5 million people in 120 Brazilian cities. I happened to be present at what would become the most violent protest in Curitiba. My husband and I joined the peaceful march to the government palace. Everything was going great and it was a beautiful scene to watch. I cried when thousands of protesters started singing the national anthem. But by the time we got to the government palace, the uproar started. The riot police were ready in big numbers and didn't let protesters get any closer to the palace. This provided a perfect excuse for a small group of vandals and troublemakers to strike, throwing sticks and stones at the police and setting fire to everything in their way. In response, the police threw stun grenades, sprayed tear gas, and fired rubber bullets toward the crowd. The last thing I saw before we left were groups destroying public buildings, breaking windows, and smashing cars in what looked like a war zone. Yes, it was sad, but that didn't frighten the people who took to the streets again and again.
Eventually, our collective cry was heard by our President, Dilma Rousseff, who affirmed that the Government and Congress would respond. During the week of June 24-28, Congress worked harder than ever, passing a series of reforms related to corruption and rejecting the Constitutional Amendment Project, which reduces the Public Ministry’s power to investigate wrongdoing. Also a ballot was put in place to revoke the mandate of lawmakers accused of irregularities and corruption.
As Brazilians, we celebrated, but kept our eyes wide open. More than 60 percent of protesters were between the ages of 21 to 35 – an entire generation that used to passively watch the corruption corroding our society – but not anymore. Our next goal is political reform. We need “clean elections,” as an alternative to the current system which perpetuates corruption and allows corrupt politicians to get elected only to defend the interest of a few.
The inertia has been broken. We are no longer merely Facebook activists. We have a dream for the future of our country, and will keep fighting until it becomes a reality.
Lina is Executive Director of Aliança Empreendedora in Brazil which supports organizations, NGOs, and governments in designing, testing, and implementing inclusive business models and projects that stimulate and support entrepreneurship for low-income communities. In 2010, IYF awarded Lina a YouthActionNet Fellowship for her role in founding Impulso Microcredit, a pioneering microcredit organization that launched the first crowd-funding platform to invest in low-income micro-entrepreneurs. She is Colombian living in Brazil.