June 16, 2013 -- For nearly a week now, Brazilians have taken to the streets to violently protest a rise in public transportation fares.
Thousands of young men and women across cities like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Natal, Florianopolis, and Porto Alegre have blocked important avenues and faced off against riot police in an effort to revert a 10-cent hike in bus and subway prices that went into effect on June 1. (The raise is below inflation, according to authorities, and it will not be reverted.)
The protests, initially led in Sao Paulo by Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), a Brazilian political group founded in 2004 that calls for free public transportation, spread across various cities and became ever more vicious as the week progressed.
By Friday, allegations of police violence, vandalism, and intolerance – i.e. frustrated motorists running over protestors -- made headlines in Brazilian newspapers. At least 235 demonstrators were arrested Thursday night in Sao Paulo in one of the week's most violent clashes, and 55 people, seven journalists included, were injured in the street battles in which the police acted "arbitrarily and violently," according to Joao Cardozo, Brazil's defense minister.
Already, the demonstrations have multiplied and grown in scope. Leftist groups, political parties, and university students have joined with activists from the Free Fare Movement, and are seizing the public transportation issue as a starting point to ask for other social and financial transformations.
"The problem has never been the increase of 10 cents at the turnstiles," wrote Gilberto de Souza, the chief editor of the Correio do Brasil, an online newspaper from Rio de Janeiro. "The issue is more serious.""Brazil is currently living through a generalized collapse of its infrastructure," Phillip Viana, an engineering student at the University of São Paulo who attended the demonstrations told The Wall Street Journal. "We have problems with ports, airports, public transportation, health, education. We're a poor country and the level of taxation is very high."
The Brazilian economy is not as strong as it used to be. In fact, it is currently experiencing a minor crisis. Inflation is high—6.5 percent in the past year—the stock exchange has been losing ground and, as El País notes, prices of basic services like public transportation are disproportionate when compared to the minimum wage. All of those factors have led to a decline in President Dilma Roussef's popularity.
Those issues, coupled with a feeling of resentment borne out of the massive expenses incurred by the preparations for the World Cup and the Olympics, have bred an environment for the sort of protests Brazil is seeing today.
The movement has spread on social media as well. There, Brazilians have expressed their enthusiasm for the demonstrations by promoting hashtags like #PasseLivre, #ProtestaBrasil, #BrasilAcordou, and #vinagre, which started trending after news broke out that a Brazilian journalist was reportedly arrested for carrying vinegar. (Vinegar, like milk and lime juice, can help counter the effect of tear gas, as any public university student in Latin America knows).
"Quality public transportation, this is the minimum," @LullySoder tweeted from Santa Cruz do Sul, a small city in Porto Alegre. "I'm Really far but I SUPPORT THE FREE PASS MOVEMENT!"
"#passelivre You cannot oppress the people for a long time without expecting them to answer that oppression one day," Acton Lobo tweeted on Friday.
Not everyone is psyched about the protests, though. The government, for one, has adamantly criticized the methods used by demonstrators, citing violence and destruction of public property as undemocratic behaviors.
"We are always open to dialogue, but [we] will never tolerate vandalism," Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin told Brazilian newspaper Globo.
Many civilians also oppose the Free Pass Movement. For some of them, the clashes against police and the overall enthusiasm show nothing more than a juvenile immaturity that is associated with leftist idealism in many South American countries.
"Anyone who is older than 20 years and is defending things like "free pass" simply does not understand how the world works," @razev tweeted.
Negotiations are currently stalled, since, according to the government, leaders of the Free Pass Movement have refused to negotiate.
The group has already called for a new demonstration in Sao Paulo on Monday at 5 p.m.