This weekend, hundreds of thousands were on the streets again all over the country, but it appeared very different. While military police were criticised for their violence in the June 2013 protests, which were notably young and had an anti-establishment feel, they were cheered at the one I was at in Copacabana. This time, an older and more affluent crowd – predominantly white – were protesting against the government under President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party (which I expect none of them voted for in any case).
Some, though not all, want the President impeached, though this will be a tall order seeing as there is no smoking gun linking her directly to the Petrobras graft scandal. The investigation is still ongoing, and the Worker’s Party’s treasurer has been implicated in it today. Nevertheless, even those calling for impeachment admit it is unlikely at this stage.
The most disturbing element I saw was the number of people calling for a military coup. Brazil’s military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, and while it is often viewed as being relatively benign in comparison to Argentina’s, for instance, the numbers of disappeared are almost certainly higher than the official figure from Brazil’s Truth Commission of 434 disappeared or killed. Sunday in fact marked 30 years since the country became a democracy, yet many want to go back to the past.
“We have to do what we can to get rid of this red wave,” Paulo Alberquerque, 48, told me. He was representing an organisation called Movimento Unificado and calling for a coup. “Just to clean it up. And clean is exactly the word. They are destroying Brazil, especially our organisations. Communism is not for Brazil.”
While the political scientist David Fleischer explained to me that this group is at best a fringe, mostly headed by retired military officers, there were also many individuals at the protest in Copacabana such as Rita Souza, 60, who saw military intervention as an effective interim measure to deal with Brazil’s persistent corruption problem.
“I’m here on my own,” she told me. “Impeachment won’t take out all the corrupt politicians for good. We need the military to take over for 90 days, then to hold another election.” Some I spoke to mentioned Fernando Collor, a former president impeached in 1992, who nevertheless returned to politics and has been implicated in the Petrobras corruption scandal recently.
Many have forgotten that as with other regimes, the promises of a temporary, provisional government and no restrictions on freedom of speech or the opposition were soon put aside the last time the military took over here. My initial reaction to these placards was shock, though a friend said perhaps it is a sign that Brazil’s democracy is in good health if people are able to take to the streets and openly ask for such a thing as a military coup. It seems as though often in Europe or the US, certain topics can’t be broached at all, which populist right wingers such as Nigel Farage take advantage of. Saying the unsayable has an appeal all of its own, and certain views have more power if they are seen as forbidden.
Across town, in the less affluent northern suburb of Meier, an “aulao” (big class) was held that night by history professor Wolney Malafaia. A group gathered in a circle to listen and debate the legacy of the military dictatorship. It was exactly the sort of gathering that a democracy allows you to have, which would not have been permitted under the military regime. I was reminded of how fragile this democracy is here, and how recently the reality was very different.
“We are not in a democracy, with the media, justice system and police that we have now,” Malafaia said. With institutions such as the military police still in existence, and Amnesty International’s recent finding that 82 young people are killed every day in Brazil (77% of whom are black), it is hard not to agree that the transition has been slow, and troubled. The impact of the dictatorship was felt more among favela residents, indigenous people and those in distant rural locations than the well-off, educated student protesters who everyone remembers, people at the gathering pointed out. These groups are still the ones who experience violence and discrimination today.
The plummeting Real, unemployment, deeply embedded corruption and the high cost of living here are all legitimate complaints, and it would be a deep disservice to describe everyone who took to the streets on Sunday as a far-right loon motivated by hate, or just rich people who don’t want to see concessions made to the poor. When the economy starts to crumble, people feel this in their pockets. A friend of mine who works for the federal health department is still waiting for her salary from three months ago. These are real issues, and it is no wonder people are unhappy with Rousseff (who has exacerbated matters by seeming distant and aloof in any public addresses she has made). I hope Brazil finds a path to political reform to address these issues, with or without Rousseff at the helm, starting with a clean-up of Petrobras. The worst thing that could happen would be to go backwards.