Photo Gallery: Marching towards Democracy in Brazil

Foto: Felipe Dana / AP / DPA

Corruption and Graft Brazil Rushes Headlong into Popular Revolt

Brazil has experienced an economic awakening in recent years, but democracy has had to race to catch up. With political corruption widespread, protests have spread across the country, exposing an enraged middle class.
Von Matthias Matussek

The Brazilian democracy was born in the days when Brazilian football was dying. It makes for a tempting lead, but it's only half true. The Seleção, Brazil's national team, actually played better than expected in the Confederation Cup, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. But Brazilian football also has an easier time of it than democracy. It has rules it has to comply with, and the results are clear. Democracy, on the other hand, is an endless series of trial-and-error, and the rules are constantly changing.

One rule stands out above all others at the moment in Leblon-Ipanema, the most expensive piece of real estate in Rio de Janeiro if not in all of Brazil. Protesters have set up their tents in front of the governor's mansion and they are being asked to stick to the allotted speaking time, a Brazilian version of the Occupy movement. Three minutes, says Bruno, who runs the stopwatch. But then he promptly ignores it.

Over the cliffs, at the end of the bay, the lights of Favela Vidigal are scattered like stardust and a soft breeze is blowing in from the sea. The pungent smell of churrasco wafts over from a food stand. But in front of the tents, people are deeply engaged in heated debates -- just as they are across the country. Brazil has awakened, and the people are demanding to be heard.

In this particular case, the people consist of a few art students, a handful of housewives and some retirees. Luiza, for example, is a jazz singer who lives in the nouveau-riche Barra neighborhood, Bárbara writes poetry and her parents are professors, and Jair, a Rasta from Bahia, swears he will "die for the cause." Everyone applauds enthusiastically, and yet no one knows yet what exactly they are demanding. Formulating those demands is the objective of this group, which they call "Aquárius."

Everyone is given a chance. Young fireman Álvaro, for example, was confined for a few days during the protests, which began in earnest in mid-June, to the Bangu 1 maximum-security prison along with 13 other firefighters. He is demanding to be rehired. He also wants better pay and training for the military police.

'You Can't Educate All of Humanity'

What? The others are astonished. Álvaro explains his remark, saying that better education makes for better people.

"But you can't educate all of humanity. That would take years," Sylvia, a housewife, interjects.

There is a heated argument before the group continues to the next item. Rodrigo says that something ought to be done about the recurring floods in the interior. Lúcio wants the homeless to be allowed to return to the empty buildings from which they were expelled. Retiree Rentao is mainly interested in eating bananas and takes a third while old Lourdes from Vidigal wants her house to be repaired, because the neighbor damaged an exterior wall during a renovation project.

Most of all, though, they want the governor to finally explain why the government is spending so much money to renovate Maracanã Stadium. Officials had initially promised that not a single real of taxpayer money would be spent. By now, though, the government has pumped hundreds of millions into the project.

As the grievances add up, one thing becomes exceedingly clear: Democracy is difficult. But the people gathered do agree on one thing: Football is the opium of the people, a sign of immaturity. "If the Seleção stops by in their bus, don't allow yourselves to be distracted," says Bruno sarcastically.

It is not without irony that the popular uprising is taking advantage of a Brazilian football festival. Certainly it also has something to do with the arrogance of FIFA officials, who enjoy themselves around the shimmering pool at the Copacabana Palace. It is enough to remind one of everything that is bad about football: corruption, waste and cynicism.

Vast and Angry

But spending billions for stadiums that no one needs, just to make Brazil look good? Equally questionable is the construction of a stadium in Manaus, deep in the Amazon rain forest, a city without a first-division football club and a place where it is so hot that asphalt melts. The administration of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva decided that almost every Brazilian state should have its own stadium, and the government provided generous funding for the effort -- instead of spending the money on schools, roads and hospitals.

The protests this summer, vast and angry, is the Brazilian parallel to the 2011 Arab spring. It is a leaderless movement organized through social networks, which is its strength. It may not be able to shape politics, but it can certainly exert pressure. It can mobilize the street.

It began in São Paulo on June 6 with a march of only 500 people protesting against an increase in bus fares. Since then, however, it has grown into a conflagration of discontent. On June 17, 200,000 people protested in Rio de Janeiro, Belém and about 20 other cities, and by June 20 some 1.4 million protesters had taken to the streets in more than 120 cities. Protesters danced on the roof of the congress building in the capital Brasília, creating images that have since been broadcast around the world. They are the tour dates of a popular uprising that newspapers are presenting as proudly as they do the victories of the Seleção. The people are agitated, and the political world is afraid.

President Dilma Rousseff has felt that ire directly; she was booed during the opening of the Confed Cup in mid-June and her approval rating has plunged by 27 percentage points. In a hastily arranged televised address, she promised reforms and held out the prospect of a referendum. The bus fare increases were reversed, as was a scandalous draft law that would have given corrupt lawmakers immunity from prosecution. Some €19 billion ($26 billion) in new funding for public transportation was suddenly approved. And now the first corrupt lawmaker, who had managed to delay his trial by three years, has been arrested. The government has been literally tripping over itself recently in its hurry to answer to the people.

Out of Touch

On the other hand, almost 200 members of the National Congress are under investigation. One lawmaker, who is accused of murder, allegedly dismembered his political rival with a chainsaw. Another moved $10 million earmarked for a road construction project to an overseas bank account. A third politician is thought to have ordered the abduction of three priests who had campaigned on behalf of the landless.

Today the Congress is probably the most despised institution in Brazil. The magazine Veja depicts it perched on the edge of a cliff, with lawmakers who look like rats falling into the abyss while demonstrators force their way into the building from the other side. "Brazil has perhaps never before been under the command of people who were quite as arrogant as Lula, Dilma Rousseff and the barons of the PT," writes Veja, in reference to Rousseff's party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or "Workers' Party."

In fact, the PT seems to be completely out of touch with reality. The bloated government bureaucracy, with its 39 ministries, consumes €100 billion a year. Rousseff spends €214 each time she visits the hairdresser. Why, people want to know? Has her hair turned to gold since she became president?

At a posh dinner party in the hills of the Jardim Botânico, constitutional law expert Carlos Bolonha bends over his crystal glass and explains how unfeasible the referendum announced by Rousseff is -- and how it would be tantamount to a top-down coup d'état. Venezuela's former left-wing populist president, Hugo Chavez, often used referendums to solidify his power.

These are hard times for the PT. It is in a glass house and cannot be throwing stones. Although the left, the traditional voice of the people, is in power, this traditional alliance has been shattered and trust gambled away since the Lula administration was involved in a bribery scandal. And trust was always its greatest asset.

Returning to Real Life

Now people in the streets are saying that everyone in government is a thief, regardless of his or her party affiliation. Brazilians today are faced with a fundamental breach of trust. A new civil society is defending itself against the very principle of politics, against representation by political parties. They are trying to protect themselves against institutional corruption.

The country's traditional amusements -- football, Samba and Carneval -- are too frivolous for this summer's mood. The dinner-party hostess, a professor, is calling for a modern-day storming of the Bastille. A young businessman is talking about high taxes and the few services that the government provides in return. They all agree that Brazil, a giant and powerful economic engine, has gained momentum in recent years, but that the tracks are rotten, the signal towers are outdated and the personnel is from the era of feudalism.

And it is true. In the gridlocked downtown areas of Rio or São Paulo, cars travel at the speed of horse-drawn carriages, about 18 kilometers per hour (11 mph). Perhaps the country is not going through a revolution, but rather a crisis of modernization.

A doctor with a white beard quotes a saying he saw at a demonstration: "A truly developed country is not one in which the poor have cars, but one in which everyone can use public transportation." As it happens, the overcrowded buses on the torn-up streets of Rio feel like prisoner transports.

The view of the sea from the heights of the coastal road Avenida Niemeyer is achingly beautiful. Volleyball teams are playing on Ipanema Beach below, in front of the Occupy camp. Marcus at the kiosk up here on the avenue is playing the classic song "País Tropical," while an old woman sings along. Is this Brazil disappearing? Is this Brazil suddenly wrong?

Sick to Death of Their Clichés

No. It's just that the patronizing grins that accompanied this aspect of Brazilian folklore in the past have disappeared. Nowadays Brazilians are sick to death of their own clichés.

In Favela Vidigal, a few curves down the road, just across from the Sheraton Hotel where the Seleção is staying, visitors are greeted by an adage, in black on turquoise-colored tiles: "All people are naturally inclined to seek the path to goodness. Everyone is naturally endowed with the same rights." The author is identified as Aristotle.

Pathos and idealism are as much a part of Brazil's sentimental propaganda as its cynical politicians. Such rhetoric is supposed to provide encouragement to those in the slums. There may not be a decent wastewater system, but pure morals -- so goes the message -- are more important.

For several years, however, there has been a different antidote to the misery. The UPP, or neighborhood police. They are responsible for security on what was once one of the most violent hills in Rio. Since the elite troops of the BOPE ended the reign of "Comando Vermelho" and drove out the drug bosses, the hill has become appealing to the middle class. Speculators are buying up property in an area where the views are simply irresistible.

Some graffiti from the old days can still be seen on a wall, depicting one of the drug bosses as a capitalist with a cigar. Now the boss is in prison -- and the boys playing with a couple of fighting dog puppies on the walled football pitch have a low opinion of the police officers who patrol the area with their assault rifles.

The Culture of Jeitinho

"Maybe it's become safer for the tourists and the speculators, but nothing has changed for us," says Felipe, who is dabbing at a bloody nose one of the dogs just gave him. The bosses are gone, says Felipe, but it's still easier to get drugs than bread. Okay, he says, it has become quieter. In the past, snitches were burned to death using car tires. But aside from that?

UPP police officers are frequently rotated so as to avoid corruption. But Felipe doesn't believe the strategy works. Everything will go back to the way it was after the World Cup, he says. Theft isn't just a fact of life at the Congress in Brasília. Everyone takes part in "jeitinho," or the culture of official corruption, and everyone takes his cut.

Marco Túlio Zanini, a young man with a business degree, took a closer look at the BOPE units. In a highly regarded study, he concluded that the special forces troops, -- heavily armed soldiers with a crest consisting of pistols crossed in front of a skull -- are inspired by ideals. "They don't do their jobs for money, they see themselves as missionaries," he says. Devotion, self-sacrifice, esprit de corps. Perhaps it's the only government institution of which that can be said -- yet another indication as to just how far the situation in Brazil has deteriorated.

Still, BOPE has cleaned up in the city under the leadership of Rio's security chief José Mariano Beltrame, an outsider who owed nothing to nobody. Beltrame is clean, and so are his men, says Zanini.

Zanini focuses on the subject of trust, in both business and politics. The last article he published was called "Leadership through Values." But he believes that values have been compromised in recent years as everybody has tried to benefit from the country's economic upturn. And he believes that Lula's leftist party of economic miracles, PT, is to blame.

Exercises in Democratic Awareness

"One can only hope that the protests will continue, because they are an expression of civil society," says Zanini -- important exercises in democratic awareness.

The demonstrations are continuing. Some 6,000 military police gathered to provide security for the Confed Cup final in front of the Maracanã Stadium in early July. There was concern that a few militants would be among the protesters. But the middle class, in particular, has been showing, with its largely peaceful protests, that it wants more than refrigerators and cars. Instead, it wants the rights of a civil society, which include public services in return for taxes paid: a decent healthcare system, roads, public transportation and schools.

Ironically, it was the governing Workers' Party that believed stimulating consumption would be enough. But now the economic miracle is waning. According to the daily newspaper O Globo, government debt is higher than it's been in 18 years, Petrobas, the largely state-owned oil company, is practically bankrupt, and inflation is rising. The people are afraid.

But nothing has moved the public in recent years as much as the "Mensalão" scandal, a criminal operation that, together with the governing PT and government-owned businesses, had bribed several lawmakers to push large, lucrative projects through the Congress.

In a fiery speech, Joaquim Barbosa, appointed to the country's highest court by Lula, demanded that it was time to clean out the pigsty. Barbosa has been celebrated as a hero since then, as someone who stands for the values of democracy. People are saying that he would be elected immediately if he ran for office. By now, 74 percent of Brazilians want those behind the bribery scandal go to prison immediately.

Who Wins?

No one from the Occupy tents in Ipanema watched as the Seleção ran onto the pitch in Maracanã Stadium for the finale. Only Jair, the Rasta who wanted to die for his cause, suddenly defected.

There are only two kiosks with TV sets on the Copacabana. At the "Sindicato," on the other hand, a churrascaria on the esplanade, a few dozen fans have gathered. They have hardly had a chance to sit down when Fred, the country's newest football hero, pushes his way into the Spanish team's penalty area and scores an unlikely goal while lying on the grass. Neymar's second goal is spectacular, and the cheering gets louder. The Brazilians are playing well, a lean, imaginative and fast game. They have put the football world on notice that they are back. Once the 3:0 win is complete, the audience is on its feet, cheering frenetically. Football still works in Brazil.

But real life returned as soon as the game has ended.

This is especially true of the endless process of Brazilian democracy. The country's labor unions, which include most PT members, organized yet another day of strikes and marches on Thursday. Brazil's Workers' Party is mobilizing against itself at the moment, so as to resume its position of leadership.

All that remains is to see who wins.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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