Saturday, August 22, 2015

Letter From Sao Paulo: Paulista Avenue Protests

Letter from Sao Paulo: Paulista Avenue Protests

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The massive Aug. 16 Sao Paulo protests against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers' Party were, in many ways, similar to the protests I had previously observed in Rio de Janeiro. The march brought together a patchwork of social movements from the center right to the far right. Together they had two demands: an end to corruption and the ouster of the Workers' Party from government. From their perspective, these two things were essentially synonymous. As in the past, social activists led the marchers, including those from the Free Brazil movement, the Come to the Street movement and other similar groups. The crowd consisted primarily of well-off residents, although their personal beliefs varied. A majority of them were people moderately unhappy with Brazil's current political and economic situation. These were, however, accompanied by a fringe that supported a motley array of platforms: religious conservatism, libertarianism, a military government or monarchic rule.
Police pose with protesters on Paulista Avenue. (Stratfor)
The protest stretched along Sao Paulo's Paulista Avenue, where I was once told property is the most expensive by square meter in Latin America. It was here that the previous anti-Workers' Party protest occurred, reportedly mobilizing over a million people. The route was lined with police, while others were grouped around mobile support vans and armored shock battalion trucks. A family friend (and former soldier) had warned me to be careful because he had heard rumors of a counterprotest that would cause things to escalate, which may have required military intervention to stabilize. Fortunately, this did not happen. Even the sorts of lone counterprotesters whom I had seen at a demonstration last March on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro were hardly present. Rumors of military public order operations proved unfounded, since security guaranteed that there would be no chaos along Paulista Avenue, where the Sao Paulo Modern Art Museum and the influential Federation of Sao Paulo Industries is located.
Protesters hold up banners on Paulista Avenue. (Stratfor)
Large trucks carrying speakers, rented by each individual movement, were posted along Paulista Avenue, and around them congregated sympathetic listeners. Trucks rented by pro-military activists broadcast praise for Brazilian women who "inspire their sons and men to work." The religiously inclined condemned the godless ideology of the left. Many of these activists also spoke about how this protest did not consist of paid demonstrators, unlike (they said) Workers' Party rallies. Anti-government demonstrators, they continued, were upright citizens who earned their living honestly. Other miscellaneous slogans poured from the speakers: "Out PT," "Out Dilma," "Out Lula," "Out Renan Calheiros," "Prison for Corrupt Politicians," "Go to Cuba," "Our flag will never be red," "Thank God for the Federal Police/Car Wash Investigation/Military Police/Armed Forces," all mashing together with pauses for a round of singing the Brazilian national anthem.
Between most of these trucks there was still room to move. Crowds packed densely around certain trucks, especially the vehicles for the Come to the Street movement and the Free Brazil movement. Getting around them took 10 minutes of slowly inching between people. Elsewhere there was a great deal of room. This stood in stark contrast to the uniformly packed crowd I had had to wade through during the million-strong demonstration in March.
A vender watches protesters stream by. (Stratfor)
This protest did not seem to have gotten nearly as many people out in the streets. When I returned home, my sister told me that the rumor was that protesters were reusing photos from the March protest on social media. I saw one such online post showing an avenue with streets packed shoulder to shoulder with people under a sky that seemed more overcast than it was today. "We broke the threshold for one million people!" one of the speakers at a Paulista Avenue truck had exclaimed while I was near. I doubted it.
Indeed, Brazilian news is already reporting frustration at the relatively small number of people who came out to protest throughout the country. According to estimates by polling and data organization Datafolha, 135,000 people were on Paulista Avenue. This was smaller than the March protest of a million and even smaller than another in April that brought out over 200,000 people. Sao Paulo is both the commercial and industrial driver of Brazil and the main bastion of votes for the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the last election. The numbers in Sao Paulo's latest protest do not suggest that the impeachment movement is picking up steam.
The possibility that Rousseff will be impeached is still divisive in Brazil, even among those who are unhappy with the current state of affairs. "I think they're just hurting themselves," said a pro-business friend of mine who had voted for Aecio Neves, a Dilma opponent, referring to the Aug. 16 protests. I did not see many independent or opposition political parties taking prominent roles in the protest. For them, the measure is not clear-cut. Politicians such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso have said it will not happen. Though the government, with assistance from Senate President Renan Calheiros, may be standing on slightly surer ground for now, it continues to be unclear how much of a chance the Workers' Party has of winning the next election.