The Identity of a Protest

Most people are pretty surprised when they discover that I am Brazilian. You can look at my headshot on the “Bloggers” page if you want some idea as to why. Interestingly, most Americans and Europeans that I have met have accepted it with relatively little hesitation: when I explain that my mother is Brazilian, and that I am fluent in Portuguese and have a Brazilian passport, they nod in interest, and the conversation moves forward easily. With most Brazilians, however, the conversation goes quite differently; if you weren’t born in Brazil, there is a fair amount of skepticism in response to my claimed dual heritage. To a certain extent, I understand the reservation. But how do you classify a person with dual citizenship, fluent in both languages, who was born in one country but primarily raised by a mother from the other?

Such thoughts quickly bubbled to the surface as I was monitoring coverage of the protests in Brazil. What started as unrest over the botched construction of various World Cup stadiums and a nine-cent price hike of bus fares in São Paulo has erupted into a series of nationwide demonstrations so massive that they have turned the world’s collective head. The unrest caught the government by surprise (or, perhaps more accurately, with its pants down), and cancelling the fare hike and promising reform has done nothing to calm the national mood. A speech given by President Dilma Roussef last Friday has been dismissed by most as rhetoric.

The wave of protests began as opposition to transportation fare hikes, then became a laundry list of causes including anger at high taxes, poor services and high World Cup spending, before coalescing around the issue of rampant government corruption. They have become the largest public demonstrations that Latin America’s biggest nation has seen in two decades.

Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands. …At the protests’ height an estimated million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide on Thursday night with grievances ranging from public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for international sports events.

The fact that the protests seem to focus on government corruption came as no surprise to me. Corruption and government ineptitude is widely acknowledged and accepted among Brazilians to the point where it is almost a perpetual joke. They laugh at the poverty, the horrible traffic, and the virtual guarantee that pretty much everyone gets held up at gunpoint at least once in their life. My mother, who immigrated to America before the end of the military dictatorship, has never felt compelled to obtain U.S. citizenship to vote because, in her view, “all politicians are crooks.” My Facebook feed is peppered with memes disparaging government fraud and graft and decrying the state of the education system (several of my aunts and cousins are teachers). One night on Skype, my uncle made my mother and I laugh until we cried with the story of the multi-million dollar port that was built in a harbor too shallow for the ships it was designed to receive.

The last time I visited my family in Recife, we gathered around the computer so my cousins could show me the video montage made out of an interview with a woman who has become known on YouTube as “The Stutterer of Ilheus.” While I freely admit that it is tasteless to laugh at someone with a speech impediment, she became a minor social media sensation in equal part because of how vehemently she spoke out against the sorry state that her town was in due to neglect from local officials. Despite her stutter, she eagerly gave several interviews after her initial one.

The questions that remain for Brazil are much like the ones that followed Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring. How long will they last? Some say they might persist, but similar predictions were made about the Wall Street Protests. What really triggered them? As political scientist Takoma Park at Dart-Throwing Chimp points out, it could be anything or everything:

We can’t learn a whole lot about the causes of mass protest by simply cataloging the conditions and things participants tell us about their motivations in cases where they occur. That information is useful, but not so much on its own.

To make real headway on causal analysis, we have to engage in contrasts. To learn about the origins of mass protest, for example, we need to compare cases where uprisings occur with ones where they don’t. Yes, income inequality is high in Brazil, but the same can be said for many of its regional neighbors. If inequality foments uprisings, why aren’t we seeing waves of mass protest in Honduras or Bolivia or Colombia or Paraguay? Meanwhile, inequality was comparatively low in many countries touched by the “Arab awakening.” According to World Bank data, income inequality is lower in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria than in virtually every country in Latin America.

My mother told me this morning that there was a big protest in Houston held by Brazilian expats who wanted to stand in solidarity with the demonstrations in the country. It made me wonder: what gives someone a stake in these types of demonstrations. Is this, like the media analysts are claiming, a worldwide middle-class uprising? Do Brazilians living abroad truly understand what their countrymen are crying out against back home? What about those of us with citizenship and (some) culture, but no experience living there? Should I protest, or even blog about it?

There are a lot of analysts drawing parallels between Brazil and Turkey, and now it would seem that they have inspired similar demonstrations in Bulgaria. But when it comes down to it, I think each country’s movement – much like every individual’s sense of identity – belongs to, and must be defined, by them. As long as the voices are heard, maybe the demands are secondary.

My cousin Penelope sent e-mails to the family with two videos about the Brazilian protests. The first one is a short film about one of the marches held in Recife, my family’s hometown.

The second is an interview with a man commenting on vandalism and violence in some of the demonstrations. It’s in Portuguese, but the main point he makes in the video is that while he doesn’t advocate violent protests, he doesn’t think the government has any right to decry demonstrators for it. He says vandalism is when “politicians steal public money, when my son dies in a hospital because there are no doctors or medicines because of the rampant corruption.”

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