Radical group that sparked Brazil protests steps back from nascent reformist agenda
Free Pass group prefers to fight on concrete issues affecting poor
Brazilians participate in a demonstration near the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte yesterday. The banner reads, “No more repression. FIFA leave.” REUTERS/Jackson Romanelli
With thousands back on the streets of Brazil’s third city yesterday, there was no sign of a let-up in the protest movement demanding the country’s politicians end corruption and deliver better public services.
In an effort to assuage public anger the congress rushed through legislation late on Tuesday that will see all oil revenue spent on education and health. It also voted to shelve a controversial measure critics warned would have limited the powers of public prosecutors to investigate corruption, fulfilling a key demand heard at recent rallies.
It all adds up to a remarkable victory for a protest movement that is not even a month old, started when a radical collective called a march against a €0.07 hike in bus fares in the city of São Paulo.
The campaign by the Free Pass Movement caught the public’s imagination, becoming a lightning conductor for latent public discontent. Faced with mounting chaos, cities across the country scrapped the hikes.
Since then Free Pass members – as a non-hierarchical collective, the group says it has no leaders – have been to Brasília for talks with President Rousseff. Such a meeting was unthinkable a month ago when it was considered a fringe group of anarchists.
Those talks proved inconclusive and the collective is promising to continue its campaign for free public transport. Authorities dismiss this as a utopian scheme that would require rethinking the whole tax system.
But that is exactly what Free Pass wants, arguing that the poor pay to use the country’s buses with companies benefiting from this mobile workforce.
“We do not place a turnstile in front of schools. We do not pay to enter a public hospital. Everyone has access to them. Why is public transport different? Why isn’t it also paid for by taxes?” asks Caio Martins, a student member of the group.
Free Pass was formed at the World Social Forum in 2005 by social activists who had fought against previous fare increases.
Held as the anti-capitalist alternative to the annual meeting of the powerful and wealthy in Davos, the Social Forum gathering, in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, was facilitated by the local Workers’ Party’s government.
But with its young, often student, leadership Free Pass is a generational threat to the Workers’ Party, whose top echelons are still staffed by those radicalised during the political struggles of the 1960s.
“Brazil’s traditional social movements are linked to the Workers’ Party – the trade union and landless peasant movements. But the Free Pass Movement represents a new generation and a new challenge,” says Emir Sader, a leading Brazilian sociologist.
In part, Free Pass has been able to gain traction among Brazilian radicals because a decade in power has seen the Workers’ Party lose its appetite for social mobilisation. Many of the leaders of social movements linked to it are now ensconced in government-appointed jobs.
“The Workers’ Party has lost its characteristic of being embedded with the people. It is now the party of the status quo. It has made too many concessions to big business. But no one here feels represented by the opposition either,” says Guilherme Simões, a social activist from Capão Redondo, a slum on the edge of São Paulo.
It was here that Free Pass turned out on Tuesday in support of residents demanding better public services. It seemed a signal that the group will not be seeking to lead the country’s wider protest movement. With an increasingly reformist agenda, this movement has little in common with Free Pass’ revolutionary social aims.
Attacks by suspected right-wing sympathisers on left-wing militants who marched with Free Pass last week in São Paulo also alienated the group and have led to warnings that Brazil’s protests are in danger of being manipulated by right-wing elements.
At a march on Saturday student protesters tried to stop a small right-wing group from unfurling a banner calling for the arrest of politicians and abolition of most political parties.
“We do not want parties involved in this movement that is emerging now. That would just kill it. But we are not against political parties. What we are fighting for is a reform so they better represent us,” said demonstrator Alexandre Duarte.
This campaign for political reform will likely have to continue without the support of the group that, after decades of political apathy, managed to bring Brazilians out onto the streets.
“We are more interested in fighting for concrete demands, such as in transport and housing, that will improve the lives of people than in debating subjects such as corruption,” said Mr Martins. “We are not going to wait for the politicians to solve our problems.”