RioRealblog steps out of the cage

A first-person exception to the rule


(c) Fabio Pamplona

When I first came to Brazil, in 1981, hit parade American songs took six months to show up on the radio here. When I first came, working-class people over 30 had false teeth. Now, they sport braces.

Last year, I tried to explain to Alessandra Orofino, 24, co-founder of the successful new Meu Rio digital activism group, how much the country has changed.

“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I wasn’t here to see it and I’m here now, and I want change now.”

Who are these young people?

Who are the protesters, people who have taken to the streets all over the country, at long last? There’s great variety. Today on television, I saw teachers in Juazeiro do Norte whose wages had been cut 40%. Discovering their mayor at a bank branch making a deposit (!), they surrounded him. Hours later, the police safely escorted him out.

From what I’ve watched on TV, read on Facebook and, last Monday night, seen on the streets of Rio myself, the protesters are mostly young men in their twenties, students. Not workers. So why are they protesting?

I bet the mayors of Rio and São Paulo rue the day this past January, when they bowed to President Dilma’s request that they put off the bus fare hike for six months, to help her keep inflation down. If the fare hike had taken place then, the students would have been on vacation…

As I said in my last post, the fare hike is a painful reminder of Brazil’s two-tiered socioeconomic structure, where rich and poor each have their own health care, schools, transportation, and public safety solutions. Many of the protesters may not use the public health system and may have gone to private schools. But they take buses. And though they  may not make the hours-long commute of a maid, waiter or gas-station attendant, they also feel the oppression of a system that provides poorly-managed, inadequate service at a real cost unknown to passengers.

The fare hike reminded them that this is the case in every aspect of life here. And, while workers, especially those with the long commutes, don’t have time to march in the streets, the students do.

I’m not saying they’re a bunch of altruists, marching for workers.

They just feel the inequality in their own skin–and they know, consciously or not, that a country with a system like this one won’t go far. That makes a difference in their futures.

Why didn’t bus-riding students speak up before? Brazil has become a middle-class country.  When it was a country of haves and have-nots, what was the use of complaining about injustices? Now, when Brazilians feel more alike than ever before, the system’s logic looks more skewed than ever before. No one invests in change until change begins to look possible.

Check out this video, to better understand this.

What will come of all this?

Dilma’s government, and every one that preceded hers, probably back to colonial times, is stitched onto the top of a society where you don’t know the real costs (nor the real back-room deals) of poorly managed, inadequate public services. She’s said the protesters’ gripes are legitimate and deserve to be heard– and this is the right thing to say.

But … how is she going to fix, as fast as Alessandra Orofino would like, the nations’s schools, hospitals, police, buses, trains, highways and metro systems? Not to mention airports.

Her government is built on shaky political alliances that involve a lot of bone-tossing, and I imagine she and many other politicians, at all levels, will try tossing bones to the protesters. Already, some mayors have lowered bus fares.

It’s not about twenty centavos

The world holds many surprises for us: who ever thought it possible to take down the Berlin Wall, in 1989? Who ever thought that hundreds of thousands of Brazilians would wake up to the inequities and injustice in their country? In the 30-plus years I’ve lived here, until last week, I thought change would continue to occur gradually. But you can download a song almost instantaneously now, and you can get a movement going without using personalist politics — collaboratively. Leadership is no longer as crucial as it once was.

So maybe, just maybe, the dialogue that comes out of the unrest will get us somewhere, a little less slowly than I thought. #CHANGEBRAZIL


As Raul Mourão’s sculpture indicates, much has been set in motion

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to RioRealblog steps out of the cage

  1. Elizabeth Leeds says:

    Great posts, Julia. Really helps those of us in gringlândia to understand what’s happening.

  2. Zaida G. Knight says:

    Bem dito e analisado. Great work, Julia. Parabéns! Na mosca. Esperemos que as coisas realmente mudem. É preciso, é urgente, é necessário.

  3. Geoffz says:

    I agree with most all of your insightful perspectives except one.
    “Leadership is not as crucial as it once was”
    Responsible leadership during and after moments of public crises (protests) is essential. Essential to establish a clear, resolute and longterm voice for change AND most importantly, to establish continued open dialogue and pro-active group(s) that help guide effective change through an always complex web of social/democratic bureaucracy.

  4. Rio real says:

    Thanks, Liz and Zaida. Geoff, you are right, it’s essential — but not as much as it used to be. And since I doubt we’ll get much of it….

  5. Jenny Byers says:

    Great blogging! As the saying goes: “País desenvolvido não é aquele onde pobre anda de carro; é aquele onde rico anda de transporte público”.

  6. As a yearly commuter, I left Rio last month feeling so little hope in my heart that the injustice I was keenly aware of would change in my lifetime. BAM! Shift happens! I’m excited to see what will emerge from this leaderless movement. And, I deeply appreciate your reporting with such clarity Julia.

  7. Rio real says:

    Thanks Jenny and Alanna– let’s hope I got it right!

    • For me, Rio is a living laboratory of paradox. I learn each time I’m there to allow all of life, including the parts I abhor, to exist side by side without my seering judgement. But this to me, is a sign of the evolution of consciousness rising up all over the planet. I need the hope right now, so will nurture it in my heart. Obrigada!

  8. ARvWD says:

    Julia, Thanks, insightful as always.

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