Brazil’s sofa generation takes to the streets
Unused to going out and protesting, Brazilians have suddenly mobilised into a formidable force for change
Amazing: in the “country of football”, protesters have even targeted Confederations Cup matches involving the national team, at which riot police have been deployed. Photograph: Davi Pinheiro/Reuters
In a country with a long tradition of political apathy, this week’s wave of protests across Brazil took even those participating in them by surprise.
“Look how cool! Brazil’s come to a stop and it’s not even carnival!” chanted marchers in São Paulo while, online, more demonstrations were organised using the hashtag #ogiganteacordou, or “the giant has awoken”.
Even more surprising is that a movement that has grown into the biggest challenge to the country’s political class since the return of democracy a quarter of a century ago started with demands for the reversal of a seven-cent rise in bus fares in São Paulo.
Brutal policing of those earlier protests helped spark a nationwide youth rebellion. As one placard put it: “The sofa generation has come to the street.”
Unused to such defiance, politicians quickly caved in and, by the end of the week, most large cities had announced a reduction in bus and train fares. But whether that will be enough to appease protestors remains unclear.
Since the rallies spread across the country via social media from their epicentre in São Paulo, the list of grievances of those taking part has grown beyond calls for lower bus fares. They have also taken to denouncing the abysmal state of public schools and hospitals and high levels of violence, as well as more esoteric issues, such as efforts by politicians to curb the ability of public prosecutors to investigate corruption.
For the former radicals of the ruling Workers Party, all this anger has come as a shock. Just a few weeks ago it was celebrating the achievements of its first decade in power, proud of having lifted 40 million people out of poverty. But the economy is sputtering, a consumer boom fuelled by subsidised credit is waning and most of the historic flaws in Brazilian society remain as intractable as ever.
“For a few years everyone was able to buy mobile phones, their first car or a new home so they felt better off,” says William Trindade de Jesus Bastos, a protester from São Paulo’s poor periphery. “Now they have to pay back the loans they got to buy all these things, so they feel less well off, while the public services we use are as awful as ever.”
This widespread dissatisfaction with the state of public services has been thrown into sharp relief by this month’s staging of Fifa’s Confederations Cup in the country. It is a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup, on which the government is lavishing taxpayers’ money, including on a string of new stadiums at least four of which will be largely redundant once the tournament ends.
“Brazil deserves a World Cup, but we deserve decent schools and hospitals more. We made the wrong choice on what to invest in,” says Bastos, a film student.
Amazingly for a land that likes to think of itself as the country of football, the Confederations Cup – even games involving the national team – has become a target for protesters. “Hey, Fifa! Pay my bus fare!” was one of the wittier chants heard this week.