Students, faculty and off-campus guests crowded into International Lounge in Usdan on Tuesday, March 4 for “Global Protests, Local Realities,” a panel event designed to discuss the massive Brazilian street protests of 2013 and relate them to the country’s past, present and future. The event was presented by the Brandeis International Business School (IBS) Brazil Initiative, and put together by the Brazil Initiatives Coordinator Dr. Moises Lino e Silva.
Silva, a native Brazilian and a lecturer in Brandeis’ Anthropology and International and Global Studies departments, welcomed not only the students and panelists, but also the recently appointed Brazilian Consul General, Ambassador Frederico Cezar de Araujo, who listened intently to the discussion and met with panelists at the end of the event.
Silva began by saying that while “Brazil has a history of protest,” including the constant ones during the series of military dictators from 1964 to 1985, what he believed made the 2013 protests significant was the global attention they received. One of Silva’s areas of expertise is Brazil’s social issues, which compounded his interest in the protests, which seemed to be based around many issues and without a singular focus or leader.
The protests first began in response to a proposed 20-cent increase in bus fare, but quickly grew to address other problems with infrastructure and social inequalities, including an ironically very racist Human Rights department. Once the protests exploded in June of 2013, anarchists, workers and other Brazilian citizens were in the streets protesting the aforementioned as well as the country’s proposed $14 billion on the 2014 World Cup in the face of underfunded schools and hospitals. Western media continued to focus on the bus fare increase for a while, something that confused Silva, who asked the audience if they “really think this was all about 20 cents?”
Silva then showed a quick video taken from the head-mounted camera of a photojournalist taking powerful images of Brazilian unity, the protests’ massive size and the extremely violent response taken by police against protesters. “I think [the video] is extremely effective and touching if you have any personal attachment to Brazil,” said Silva to the visibly moved audience. Before introducing the panelists, Silva asked the audience to consider Brazil’s history of protest and political corruption, as well as the country’s recent troubles with infrastructure, while listening to the panelists paint a full picture of the events.
The members of the panel then introduced themselves and their positions of discussion one by one in a series of 10-minute speeches to the audience. The first panelist was Dr. Elizabeth Leeds, Research Affiliate at the MIT center for International Studies and the founder of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety. Dr. Leeds discussed the police brutality that is traditional in Brazil, especially in poorer communities, and the current government’s failure to address it. She also criticized Western media, saying, “By focusing on the amorphous and leaderless nature of the protests, the media completely ignored the social context” represented by the diverse nature of the protests. “Very little attention was paid [by Western media] to the protests in the favelas [slums], where people experience crime and police violence on a daily basis,” Leeds also said.
Next came Brandeis’ own Dr. Richard Lockwood, adjunct lecturer at The Heller School, who focused on the historical context of the protests, specifically Brazil’s uncanny ability to avoid food shortages and starvation, which Lockwood saw as evidence of Brazilians’ determination. To this point, Lockwood called Brazil “a modern miracle … you won’t see hungry people in today’s protests.”
The third speaker was Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center. Tracy described her discussions with Brazilian immigrant communities in the United States about the 2013 protests, including how some immigrants felt disconnected from the protests and others had their patriotism renewed. “The community wanted to know: Who are these protesters?” said Tracy. “Where do they come from? The city? The favelas?” Tracy was also interested in how the protests were addressing the prejudice against Afro-Brazilians and other ethnic minorities that has been common in the country.
Finally, the audience heard from Ed Morata, Partner and CEO at Eneas Morata, who provided a perspective of business. Morata, who has over 20 years of experience in the banking industry, also had some of the harshest criticism of the Brazilian government. “There has been recognizance [by the government] that recent economic growth did not translate into strong social development, but the government has failed to step forward and provide a platform of discussion,” Morata said.
This was the point that ended up dominating the following discussion moderated by Silva. The panelists agreed that there was a disconnect between the administration of current President Dilma Rousseff and the public, which could be traced back to previous President Lula da Silva. President Rousseff, who served as Silva’s chief of staff during the latter’s near 10 years in office, helped her predecessor with anti-poverty programs that have since lifted almost 25 million people into a new middle class. However, the Rousseff government is seen as failing to invest in social programs and infrastructure to support this new middle class.
The panelists, Morata in particular, also criticized Brazilians as a people who do not “have an idea of where to go in the modern world.” Leeds continued to focus on police brutality in Brazil, as it is an institution that has avoided reform. After about 25 minutes of discussion, the panel broke for a recess, then reconvened for a short Q & A with the panelists. The questions were mostly for clarification, and the panelists primarily reiterated their belief that Brazil has great potential for reform, but as of now, there is no platform for the government and the people to meet and discuss how to move Brazil forward.