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.”

Global Health News Last Week


The IH Section hosted its third topic-focused conference call, on Current Developments in MCNH, took place on Monday, June 27, 2011 from 1:00 to 2:00 EST. We had several members of the IH section offer their commentary and expertise on current issues concerning maternal and child health.  Speakers included Laura Altobelli, Elvira Beracochea, Carol Dabbs, Miriam Labbock, and Mary Anne Mercer.  Read the summary here.

IH Section Communications Chair Jessica Keralis attended APHA’s Mid-Year Meeting on healthcare reform.  There were several interesting sessions on technology implications of reform, the public health workforce, advocacy, and others.  Read all about it on the IH Blog.


  • In the first part of a two-part series called “The great billion dollar drug scam,” investigative journalist Khadija Sharife questions the accuracy of figures given by the pharmaceutical industry to justify the high cost of drugs.
  •  The American Chronicle reports how Brazil has been implementing numerous programs to reduce the rate of HIV infection within the country.



  • At the 7th annual meeting of the World Conference of Science Journalists, several speakers said clinical research trials done in the developing world lack adequate patient protections as well as an ethical and legal framework.
  •  Arizona State University Scientists have developed recombinant attenuated salmonella vaccines which they believe will make vaccines more effective.
  •  A test for dengue through saliva has been developed by researchers from Singapore.
  • Researchers believe that they have discovered the precise mechanism by which drugs attack and beat malaria. In doing so, they believe that they can gain a more precise understanding of how resistances are forming and develop better malaria medicines.
  • A recently published report on research and development by the Malaria Research Initiative examines the current state of malaria research and offers six recommendations in going forward to improve R&D.
  • A dramatic increase in support for malaria R&D since the mid-1990s puts the world well on the way to achieving global malaria control, treatment and elimination goals in the next five to six years.
  • A study has found that AIDS patients who take nucleoside analog reverse-transcriptase inhibitors experience premature aging.


  • The WHO has put together a series of graphs based on 2008 global health data to illustrate the 10 leading causes of death by broad income group. Heart disease, stroke and other cerebrovascular disease represent the top two killers in middle and high-income nations while they sit as number three and five respectively for low-income countries.
  •  A report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the CDC, has determined that UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti, which led to an outbreak last fall.
  • More than 350,000 women die in childbirth every year and 8 million children will die of preventable diseases before their fifth birthday. A new report concludes that more trained midwives could help save prevent millions of such deaths.
  • In a recently released report, UNICEF says as many as 70% of the world’s children are exposed to violence amounting to 1.5 billion children each year.
  • The drug misoprostol is saving women’s lives around the world by preventing excessive bleeding after childbirth, the leading cause of maternal death in the developing world; it is also causing controversy, as the drug can also be used to induce abortion.
  • Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is on the rise and hard to cure. Médecins Sans Frontières wants people with the disease to blog about it, to find out what they really need.
  • A new study in The Lancet shows that over the past thirty years the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has doubled to 350 million.
  • Ghana’s Food and Drugs Board (FDB) issued a statement to warn the public against the sale of counterfeit Artesunate tablets on the market, which it claims are from China; laboratory analysis had confirmed that contained no active anti-malaria ingredient.

Many thanks, as usual, to the Toms – Tom Murphy and Tom Paulson.

Global Health News Last Week



  • A paper published in Science by a research group at the University of Maryland demonstrates that a fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae, can be used to combat the malarial parasite inside the mosquito. Another promising study suggests that a compound produced by a seaweed in Fiji could be used to combat malaria.
  • A new study has shown that that Internet kiosks providing information on prenatal and postnatal care have helped reduce infant, child, and maternal mortality rates in rural India.
  • A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health last year found that the poorest third of the world’s population account for only 4% of surgeries worldwide, and that over two million people in low-income countries have no access to life-saving surgery.
  • The first phase trials of the HIV vaccine developed in India were completed with no side effects reported. Meanwhile, a three-year research trial on a vaginal anti-HIV gel has been launched in Rwanda.
  • The Trachoma Atlas, an open-access resource on the geographical distribution of trachoma, was launched by a team of collaborators from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the International Trachoma Initiative at The Task Force for Global Health, and the Carter Center. It is funded by a generous donation from (you guessed it!) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • The European Solutions Enterprise for Neglected Diseases (euSEND), a new initiative, based in the Netherlands, was launched to aid in the fight against neglected tropical diseases. The organization’s goal is to “take the role of matchmaker” to facilitate partnerships in research for NTD treatments and vaccines.


  • Swaziland has a large-scale circumcision drive in an attempt to lower HIV rates.
  • Cash-transfer programs as a means of assisting the poor are beginning to gain attention and popularity from development and economic professionals. Mexico’s and Brazil’s have captured particular attention and are credited with poverty reduction and GDP growth.
  • The first methadone maintenance program in sub-Saharan Africa recently opened in a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Heroin use is a growing problem in port cities, where the drug passes through en route from Afghanistan to Europe.