Open Veins of Brazil: Tension, perplexity and the (re)emergence of popular protests

By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

Brazil has posed one of the most puzzling dilemmas for politicians and academics alike: how is it possible that in a country where growth has been sustained for the last decade, where inflation levels have been kept under control, where purchasing power of the average wage has grown in real terms, where unemployment remains at a minimum, and where 50 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty to join the ranks of the ‘new middle class’, a massive popular protests has taken to the streets of twelve cities for the last ten days? Where does this protest come from? How is it possible that neither the government nor the opposition recognised the latent discontent? How can such discontent occur in a country that has consistently expressed high levels of support to and satisfaction with the government of Dilma Rousseff? Brazil is in tension and puzzled.

A spontaneous movement, born mainly out of small groups of middle-class students with unstated support of opposition political parties, took to the streets of Sao Paulo and spread to dozens of cities since last week. The protests were triggered by an increase in the price of an already overwhelmed and poorly maintained public transport. Other issues were coupled to that of public transport, particularly the colossal spending in preparation to the World Cup in 2014. There are parallels to what has been seen in Turkey, not only in terms of the nature and composition of the protest but also in terms of the repression carried out by the military police in Sao Paulo, which is what sparked widespread popular reaction.

This is the biggest popular protest since 1992, when hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets to demand the departure of President Fernando Collor de Mello, accused of corruption. Before that, in 1984, millions of Brazilians took the streets to demand democratic elections. On both occasions, political parties, leaders and social movements came together in pursuit of what was framed and expressed as a common goal. The protests witnessed in the last ten days are defined by specific claims. The extent to which these particular claims, which lack of any political platform, can grow into a ‘meta-narrative’ or ‘master frame’ of civic opposition in demand of alternative governance is still uncertain.

It became clear that no authorities, political actors or academics expected such a wave.  The focus on Brazil as a regional and global success is not misleading: nationally, Brazil has increased the formalisation of workers, increased minimum wage (and purchasing power which has grown over 70 per cent in the last ten years), created 19.5 million jobs in the last decade plus the coverage of social policies to combat poverty such as the ‘Bolsa Familia’ allowance. Brazil has also experienced an important rise in the average length of schooling (Lustig 2012). It has successfully reduced poverty from  37.5 per cent in 2001 to 20.9 in 2011 while extreme poverty was reduced from 13.2 per cent to 6.1 per cent in the same period (CEPAL 2012). Regionally, it has been the motor behind integration processes and South-South cooperation with a focus on health, energy, and infrastructure. Globally, it has been recognised as a rising power with a protagonist role in forums such as the G-20, BRICS, IBSA and in many organisations of the United Nations System.

Much is made of the milestone of becoming the fifth-largest economy on the planet, which is expected to be reached within the decade. Nevertheless, there are still 16 million people living in extreme poverty in Brazil.  Furthermore, one of the major challenges still facing Latin America, and Brazil in particular, is how to bring down its high levels of income inequality.  Broadly, the income share of the four poorest deciles averages less than 15 per cent of total income, with the wealthiest decile accounting for about one third of the total income (CEPAL 2012: 22). This level of inequality, aggravated by widespread levels of corruption, is inconsistent with an economy the size and international presence of that of Brazil. This creates a gap between glory and hell for millions of Brazilians. For academics, this brings up deep questions about quality of democracy and inclusion in post-neoliberal models of governance. So the big, puzzling questions placed at the opening of this comment may not be so puzzling after all. There are unheard voices that, although currently politically unarticulated and socially scattered, are signalling that inclusion and democracy must not be taken for granted and that are pending issues even in the most moderate of the Leftist projects in Latin America.


Lustig et al (2012) ‘Declining Inequality in Latin America: The Cases of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in the 2000s’, Policy Research Working Paper 6248, Washington DC: The World Bank.

ECLAC (2012) Panorama Social de America Latina, Santiago de Chile: ECLAC

Austerity leaves citizens raging against the short-sighted, self-serving leadership provided by politicians.

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, C2G2 and Politics & International Relations

Battered by the effects of austerity citizens have not lost faith in the capacity of government to deliver but rather have become massively turned off by the short-sighted, self-serving leadership provided by politicians. As far as the public is concerned politics is failing not because of the challenges of austerity but because of the flawed character of Britain’s political class. That judgement is widely shared but particularly strongly felt among those who form the backbone of Britain’s voters: those in their middle to later years. UKIP’s rise to prominence may be the most visible expression of anti-politics sentiment but it would appear that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most citizens think that government can make a difference and that politics is not a waste of time. This strong residual support for our democratic system, however, is drowned by a tsunami of derision for the behaviour of our political leaders.

Politicians: You are the problem

We asked respondents in a YouGov survey[i] a series of questions about the ability and willingness of politicians to deal with the problems facing Britain today. Importantly, a majority of people (63% agreeing, compared to 13% disagreeing) still believe that politicians in government can make a difference to major social and economic issues. So it’s not fatalism about government that troubles most citizens; the public’s concerns are more about those who are steering the ship of state.

The most striking results from our survey concern the prevalent view that politicians are too focused on short-term headlines and are more concerned with protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society. A remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, with just 3% of respondents disagreeing. Views about the privileging of the rich and the powerful are similarly lopsided, with 72% of respondents agreeing that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just 8% disagreeing. There is a widespread feeling that politicians and politics has lost its way, and no longer look to stand up for the public in the face of powerful special interests. In the wake of further scandals over lobbying, presided over by a government dominated by Eton and Oxbridge-educated politicians, such feelings will surely only be reinforced.

Competence, Honesty and Blame

There are also strong undercurrents of public opinion that question the competence and honesty of politicians, and their taste for finger-pointing. Some 52% of people do not believe that politicians “have the technical knowledge needed to solve the problems facing Britain today”, compared to just 20% who have faith in their competence. Such a prevailing view is highly problematic in a political context where voters are increasingly less likely to identify with parties and now are more likely to vote on the basis of evaluations of their competence in delivering on policies and managing public services. To similar effect, there is a sense of a lack of courage on the part of politicians to “tell the public the truth about the tough decisions that need to be made”, with 40% of respondents rejecting the idea that the political class are able to show leadership (and just 33% believing they can). Further, there is substantial agreement that politicians have “exaggerated the scale of the economic crisis – by blaming either the previous or the current government” with 47% agreeing with this statement and 28% disagreeing.

Differences in Opinion by Party Support and Demographics

When we drill down into the attitudes of different sectors of society, the results are even more striking. There are significant differences in terms of party support and age – but not necessarily in ways that would be expected.

While disengagement with politics is often painted as a problem of younger citizens, we find that older respondents are most negative of all about politicians. Across almost every measure, older citizens hold more negative attitudes about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. Yet belief that government can make a difference is stronger among these groups. Disappointment is, perhaps, the inevitable product of belief that politics and government can make a difference but is failing to do so.

There are party differences too. Of all the parties, UKIP supporters are most negative about politics and government across the board. A plurality of UKIP supporters (44% to 39%) agree that ‘politics is a waste of time’ – in contrast to supporters of all the other main parties, a majority of whom disagree with this statement. UKIP supporters even more predominantly believe that politics is dominated by ‘self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society’, by a remarkable margin of 85% in agreement compared to 3% disagreeing (in contrast, 53% of Conservative supporters agree with this statement and 20% disagree).

When asked to weigh up how our politics is managing austerity and economic downturn it’s not fatalism about the capacity of government or politics that comes to the fore for most citizens. What emerges is a sense of being failed by a political class that lacks the competence and strength of character to follow the right policy options and above all is too short-term, media obsessed and in cahoots with the rich and powerful to provide leadership in the public interest. Britain is weighed down by a substantial fiscal deficit but as far as the public is concerned it is also suffering from a depressing shortfall in the quality of its political class.

[i]  Sample Size: 1905 GB Adults, Fieldwork 5-6th June, 2013. The survey was funded by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance.

Further details of the survey can be found here.

EU Security & Emergency Governance – a report from recent research events

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics & International Relations

Last week was filled with interesting research events. On Monday, I was invited to the Chatham Hose in London to participate in a workshop ‘Security-Development Nexus, Locating Praxis in EU External Relations’. It was a good opportunity for us, academics, to provide feedback to EU officials on the role of the EU in managing the security-development nexus in its external relations. Equally, it was very interesting to find out what some the recent developments and challenges in the EU’s external policy are.

On Wednesday, I flew to Catania, Sicily, to attend a workshop on ‘The EU Emergency Policies’, organised by Jean Monnet Chair Ad Personam Fulvio Attinà. The workshop brought together a group of scholars from around Europe researching the EU’s capacity (or incapacity) to respond to emergency crises. In my contribution, I reflected on the EU’s policy towards CBRN-related threats. This topic, as well as the topic of the first workshop, is discussed in my book The EU as a Global Security Actor.

Leveraging natural resources through regionalism in South America

By Dr Pía Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

Natural resources play a very important role in the economy of the Latin America countries but historically models of resource exploitation and exchange were considered to create a dependency-trap as they don’t add value to the products or services compared to other knowledge-based industries. However, this is being revisited as South America is seeking to leverage its natural resources through a continental project of scientific and technological development to increase the value of natural resources and redefining the terms of regional integration.

Like all forms of governance, regionalism is a form of coordination across and between different policy areas. Regionalism is organised in different forms of institutional architecture that open different kinds of political engagement; and thus different types of activism. Regionalism can be seen as the place ‘where politics happen’, a space for policy deliberation and action. These of course are not spontaneous deliberations and actions but context dependent and politically contingent. Latin American regionalism, from this perspective, manifested as different projects of political economy. Historically, the debate concerning the political economy of regionalism in Latin America has been marked by a tension between two development paradigms; namely ‘neoclassical’ free trade view versus ‘structuralist’ view based on building long term comparative advantage. This debate was fuelled by uneven growth despite early insertion into the global political economy as Latin America was tapped in a cycle of unfair terms of exchange based on the export of its natural resources and the import of industrial machinery. These tensions translated in tensions between production for the internal market and the global economy; difficulties with domestic capital formation and the presence of foreign capital across important sectors of regional economies; and class struggles over the direction of state policy – all this exacerbated by the presence of the U.S as regional (hegemonic) power that never ceased to loom large. The regional project thus echoed deliberations and actions in search for ‘a viable’ model of development, where regional integration became an instrument to promote national development and a platform for international economic insertion.

This situation has hardly changed, but what has changed is the context in which national policies, rules of integration and the projection of Latin America to the rest of the world is unfolding. The financial crisis in 2008 that brought down years of economic stability in the core economies has re-opened the political and academic debate regarding the appropriate balance of state- and market-led economic governance. This, however, is nothing new. Economic crises, boom and bust cycles, and financial meltdowns are critical junctures that produce a multitude of responses from national elites. What is particularly striking is the diversity of responses in grafting strategies of crisis management across the developed and developing countries. Whilst we are witnessing the resurgence of ‘state capitalism’ and emerging of new forms of ‘nationalisms’ in Latin America, the Eurozone crisis is generating a backlash against the failure of social democratic models.

This is key to understand why from the perspective of Latin American nations, and South American in particular, the key to successful integration lies not in the delegation of sovereignty to supranational bodies but in the creation of solidarity through increasing trans-governmental relations, a presidential diplomacy conveyed by the New Leftist governments seeking to define regionalism as an opportunity for political economic autonomy and social development. This transpires from recent inter-governmental events such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) conference on natural resources (Venezuela, June 2013), and the conference on social determinant of health (Rio de Janeiro, May 2013), where government-led deliberations and actions are attempting to ‘build (regional) sovereignty’ in three strategic geo-political areas: natural resources, defence and health. In support of this goal, UNASUR established two regional think tanks– the South American Institute of Health Governance (ISAGS) and the Centre of Strategic Studies on Defence (CEED). Last week, in the context of the UNASUR conference on natural resources it was agreed the establishment of a third regional think-tank to map natural resources, support research on biotechnology, and production of medicines. South America has almost 96% of the lithium reserves, 98% of niobium, 46% of copper, important reserves of zinc, bauxite and fossil mineral like gas and oil. It represents the biggest concentration of biodiversity and almost 30% of the fresh water reservoirs of the planet, not to mention its potential for clean energy production and the vast collection of medicinal plants and biodiversity.

The problem according to the Economic Commission for the Latin America (CEPAL) is that while export of raw materials grew from 38% to almost 70% between 1995 to 2008, these exports were mainly directed to China and lack of added value, indicating a process of re-primarisation of exports. Given the material and knowledge capacity, the institutional commitment, and the political confidence that South America gained in the last decade, a strategic courses of action to leveraging natural resources should include value added industrialisation; developing scientific and technological management towards innovation, environmental preservation, and for a more coordinated and longer term approach to alternative economic and social development.