Rio teachers’ strike: epic lack of trust

If only dogs could talk

If only dogs could talk

Last Friday morning, a man was calmly walking his dog along the beachfront sidewalk in Ipanema. Another man came along from behind, walking faster, and inadvertently bumped into the dog (with his foot, naturally). The dog yelped.

“Bastard!” yelled the first man, causing heads to turn up and down the sunny calçadão.

The second man kept on walking, fast, stretching his arm above his head. Without turning around, he bent and unbent his elbow, hand extended, middle finger pointing skywards.

This was not a biceps workout.

“You kicked my dog,” shrieked the other man. “Asshole!” Perhaps forgetting that he wasn’t behind a wheel, he began to run, the dog struggling to keep up, after the bad-mannered morning walker. Finger still gesticulating, the second man strode on.

Eventually, bystanders convinced the dog owner to forego revenge.

If this incident were to get mainstream media coverage, one possible angle would be that a slow-moving sidewalk hog incited a serious exerciser to lose his temper, disturbing the Ipanema peace. Meanwhile, on Facebook, thousands of users would be denouncing the man who “kicked” a dog and his heartless, cruel behavior. A couple of right-wingers would defend the serious exerciser, but most people would side with the dogwalker and his four-footed companion.

Ramp this all up a thousandfold and you’ve got Rio’s municipal and state teachers strike, which has been going on for more than two months. RioRealblog readers may have been wondering why the subject hasn’t come up here until now. The reason is it’s so hard to grasp.

One city councilman tried to sum up events (from his point of view), noting areas of discord and debate. But, as you can see if you read his blog post, the issue is hugely more complex than the bus fare increases that sent millions of people into Brazilian streets beginning in June. Mayor Eduardo Paes says he won’t negotiate further with the city teachers’ union, that his dialogue with the teachers has been fruitless. The union says no true dialogue took place. The impasse led Supreme Court Justice Luiz Fux to call the interested parties to a meeting next week.

If all would truly listen

If only all would truly listen

Education has perhaps never been a priority in Brazil, which ranks low on international comparisons. While low-income students struggle to master the basics in a few hours of class a day, higher-income Brazilians tend to favor networking over intellectual pursuits. Poor preparation is now faulted for one of the biggest bottlenecks to economic growth: lack of skilled workers. In Rio today, most of the burgeoning population of expatriates is made up of Scandinavians working in the oil and gas sector, a core element of the state’s bustling economic activity.

The 1964-85 military government promoted economic growth and took on huge infrastructure projects, such as the Itaipu hydroelectric plant. Fernando Henrique Cardoso tamed inflation and stabilized the economy. Lula da Silva brought milllions into the formal economy and widened the shape of the socioeconomic pyramid.

And still, neither public nor private schools are full-day, schools are ill-equipped and teachers are poorly paid.  Teachers work in more than one institution, hustling from job to job to make ends meet, with little time to prepare for class.

Half-time pay for a Rio city teacher is as little as US$ 526 and as much as US$ 650 a month, equivalent. The city is responsible, mostly, for day care centers, plus elementary and middle schools. The state runs mostly high schools.

Mayor Eduardo Paes says he’s trying to move to a full-day educational system by 2020, and to increase pay and reorganize teacher career categories, providing equal pay for similar job descriptions and professional backgrounds. He’s also instituting merit-based pay.

The union says the increases aren’t enough, that poor school infrastructure limits performance, and that a merit system doesn’t take into consideration other variables affecting student performance and will churn out products instead of people.

Meanwhile, the infamous black blocs* have joined almost daily demonstrations, which have destroyed property worth millions of reais and wreaked havoc with cariocas’ daily commutes. Police have been erratic and violent in their response, with one officer discovered on the City Council building roof, throwing things at teachers.

The U.S. consulate sent out a travelers’ warning Friday:

The U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro alerts U.S. citizens traveling to and residing in eastern Brazil to the possible continuation of protests in cities throughout the region, including the city of Rio de Janeiro… On multiple recent occasions, demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro have turned violent, leading to injuries and property damage. 

Light at the end?

Light at the end? New tunnel being dug, in Rio’s port area

Critics say the union has political ends, that it doesn’t represent the teachers, most of whom, they claim, have gone back to work. Others murmur that former governor Anthony Garotinho is behind the strike (determined to upset the political applecart for his own ends) — with a gubernatorial election set in a year’s time. Others point to current governor Sérgio Cabral, saying he’s bypassing Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame, personally commanding the police (including miliciano infiltrators), the city/state political alliance that was so fundamental to pacification, initially, completely undone. There is also speculation on the identity and motives of black blocs. Last but not least, the Brazilian media has its own biases and blind spots, of which not everyone is aware but many suspect.

Thus keeping an eye on Rio can be a profession in and of itself, sometimes like watching China or the former Soviet Union. You’ve got to be as inventive as telenovela writer to sniff out all the Maquiavellian angles — and ultimately you can never be completely sure what truth there is in them.

Many cariocas sidestep the complexity of the issues and blithely rely on their own life experiences and assumptions to evaluate a given situation.

So, when you distill the teachers’ strike, the only element you can be sure to identify is one very large very potent drop of mistrust. The mayor, juggling myriad political issues and urban challenges, is an inconsistent interlocutor. The union, reportedly staffed by political party activists (which is illegal), has its own agenda. And why should public school teachers, who’ve never been given due value by Brazilian society, trust that Paes and Claudia Costin, the city’s education secretary have their best interests at heart? According to an interview in O Dia newspaper, the mayor’s children go to a private school.

Studies show that Brazilians trust relatives and close friends above all. In a society with a tradition of weak institutions, particularly given unreliable recourse to the justice system, it makes sense to trust only those whose hand you can shake or cheek you can kiss. You never know when some fast-walking chump is going to kick your dog.

But Brazilian society is in transformation and to achieve the country’s many national goals, especially given the need to get our young people educated and prepared for adulthood, we must get over the hump of mistrust. It’s a problem that exists in situations all over the world, and there are techniques to solve it. True listening is key, and of course, all parties must agree to participate.

So did the man kick the dog? Perhaps only this blogger (if you trust her powers of observation), who happened to witness the entire scene, would be equipped to affirm what really happened: the second man was walking so fast and concentratedly that he didn’t see the animal, and brushed past him, momentarily stepping on his paw.

And then, one can only guess at why the man didn’t stop to apologize and confirm no lasting harm. Maybe he’s a dog hater. Maybe he’s a dog lover, and his wife took Fido when she left him — that morning. Or maybe he dislikes people, particularly those with whom he shares public space.

* *  * * *

Today, the teachers union was set to meet with Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame, to ask for his help in reopening negotiations.

*For more information on black blocs, in Portuguese, click here.

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.

6 Responses to Rio teachers’ strike: epic lack of trust

  1. Laura Randall says:


  2. gshowell says:

    I agree with your comments about Brazil being an untrusting society. We see this reflected in the difficulty of doing business here, all signatures have to be checked and double checked at the cartorio. The system assumes that one wil try everything possible to pull a fast one, and sets barriers to this at every step. The result is paralysis, and those that really want to get round the system do so anyway.

  3. Rio real says:

    exactly, George! Let’s see what Supreme Court Minister Fux can do about all this, next week.

  4. ARvWD says:

    A Brazilian explained the famous Brazilian habit of finding a way around things to me like this: “We manufacture complexity so that we can sell you simplicity.” Which leads straight to corruption. Everyone puts a R$100 note in their driving licence as they show it to the traffic police who stop them in the emergency services lane, on the crowded way to and from the beach in Sao Paulo …

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