They saw the concessions as a sign of weakness. Not as a reason to desist, to clear the streets, but a powerful incentive to press on. And so, on Thursday night Brazilians came out in ever larger numbers – up to two million on the streets in 388 cities, 300,000 in Rio alone – demanding yet more of their bewildered government of one-time revolutionaries. The mole of revolution, burrowing unseen beneath the surface, has emerged and will not be sated – there are growing calls for a general strike. The protests are the largest since those in 1992 that pressed for the impeachment of Fernando Collor, the first directly-elected president following the years of dictatorship.
Notionally it started this time as a protest against bus fare rises, but rapidly assumed a more generalised character – marchers were taking up an array of grievances, from the $12 billion spending on next year’s soccer World Cup, to political corruption, high taxation and rundown schools. On Thursday several cities moved to defuse the anger by rescinding the bus fare increases. The protests increased.
Largely leaderless, inchoate, galvanised through social media, a new generation is expressing itself as others did in Cairo and Greece and through the spontaneity of Occupy-like movements. In some cities the marchers turned away supportive protesters carrying party banners in a rejection of all politics.
Why now? Brazil’s strong economic growth has helped lift some 40 million of its 195 million people out of poverty over the last decade, and the World Bank lists it as the world’s seventh-largest economy. But the country remains in the bottom 10 per cent on income equality, and the new middle class feels precarious and put-upon, paying developed world taxes for shoddy, primitive public services and creaking transport. Its quality of life matters. Brazil’s growth has slowed and annual inflation has accelerated to 6.7 per cent. Corruption is rampant – the governing leftwing PT has been implicated at the highest levels – while an unreformed police beats demonstrators with a savagery that has caused widespread anger.
The real question is why had it not happened earlier? Old Brazil is still kicking; new Brazil yet rooted. Expectations unmet.
For President Dilma Rousseff, once a member of the Marxist underground that battled the 1964-’85 military dictatorship, the protests represent a bewildering challenge. Her popularity ratings, and those of the reformist PT, remain high, though falling, and she has sought somewhat unsuccessfully to identify herself with what she says is the understandable mood for change. She has promised to listen to what she called “the voices on the street”. What is unclear is what, short of the sort of fundamental change the PT once aspired to and came to see as unrealistic, will satisfy the demonstrators. They are unlikely simply to fade away.