Brazil’s Democracy Back in the Streets

Brazil’s Democracy Back in the Streets

If there is any positive aspect to Brazil’s current crisis, it is the reemergence of non-partisan, civil-society mobilization in response to impeachment and its fallout.

"Concert for Democracy" in Cinelandia Square, Rio de Janeiro, June 10 (Ninja Midia)

This article is part of a forum on the lessons of Latin America's "pink tide" for democratic socialists. To read the rest of the forum, click here.

Between 1993 and 2012, Brazil enjoyed a twenty-year period of economic growth and shrinking inequality, with only minor interruptions. This was a remarkable achievement, perhaps unparalleled in a period of growing inequality around the globe. But that is not all: the same period witnessed the consolidation of a renewed and greatly expanded democracy after decades of military dictatorship, the strengthening of legal and representative institutions, and the massive expansion of public education at all levels.

It didn’t feel like a golden age, marred as it was by cyclical political scandals, the proliferation of urban violence, and widespread environmental degradation, among other challenges. But it looks very good in retrospect, now that Brazil is in the midst of full-blown recession, indices of inequality are climbing once again, and the nation is beset by presidential crisis and a devastating mosquito-borne epidemic all at the same time. In the midst of the current storm, it bears thinking about what went right between 1993 and 2012 and what transpired to bring that period to an end.

The growth period was not a creation of the PT (Workers’ Party) or any other single party. Economically, it was the result of rising global demand for Brazilian commodities, the maturation of a process of technological development and an expansion of the education system begun decades earlier, and the continuation of stable economic policies from one administration to the next. Socially, it was the long-awaited conquest of civil-society mobilization begun at the tail end of the dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

That civil-society mobilization was, at least initially, non-partisan. But it had clear goals, chiefly ending the dictatorship and creating a pluralistic social democracy in its place. The vanguards of this civil-society mobilization were identity-based movements, such as a favela-residents’ movement for urban reform, movements for women’s, gay, and indigenous rights, and an environmental movement. These movements allied to exert political pressure on the dictatorship, on the new civilian officeholders of the mid-1980s, and on the legislators who crafted a new constitution in 1988.

The PT, along with other new political parties, sought to channel and routinize that civil-society mobilization in the service of party politics. This was an inevitable and largely salutary transition, given the volatility of civil-society mobilization without party structure. The PT and its arch-rival, the PSDB (Social Democratic Party), established competing coalitions that tended to diverge in their political alliances but to converge in issues of macroeconomic and social policy. There were important differences between those coalitions, but during the 1993–2012 period both largely accepted the constraints and compromises of a system characterized by emphasis on export-led growth, expanded social intervention by the state, and implementation of policies designed to redistribute wealth and opportunity, albeit in limited ways.

This convergence became the basis for a social-democratic consensus among the majority of the population. The consensus was not unanimous among all Brazilians: conservative sectors endured, and sought to undermine that consensus wherever possible. Within the majority, competing interest groups lobbied aggressively for preeminence. Brazilian social democracy did not function perfectly—far from it—but its performance was admirable in comparison to the rest of the region and the rest of the globe.

Over the last four years, this social-democratic consensus has dissolved, unable to withstand plummeting global commodity prices, a series of haphazard, unsuccessful economic interventions, and the revelation of a massive kickback scheme in government contracting. It was this dissolution of consensus that enabled the April 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on dubious legal grounds and the return of conservative sectors to political preeminence. Rousseff’s former vice-president, Michel Temer, temporarily occupies the presidency. With the left in crisis, Temer, from the centrist PMDB (Democratic Movement Party), has swung hard to the right. Recession has already eroded some of the economic gains of the growth period and the conservative resurgence threatens to wipe out many of the social gains, as Temer’s unelected government seeks to reverse twenty years of redistributionist policies.

If there is any positive aspect to the current crisis, it is the reemergence of non-partisan, civil-society mobilization in response to impeachment and its fallout. A wave of protests rocked Brazil in 2013, signaling the end of the social peace of the growth period. But the 2013 protests were notably inchoate, with no clear goal. The current mobilization, in contrast, aims clearly to remove Temer’s illegitimate administration and to restore pluralistic democracy. That mobilization comes, for example, from high-school students who have occupied schools in cities across the country, resisting school closures and spending cuts. And it has come from a broad coalition of citizens outraged by Temer’s announced elimination of the Ministry of Culture. Protests across the country, including occupations of Ministry of Culture buildings, led to a rapid about-face, preserving the ministry, at least temporarily.

Two cultural manifestations capture the current moment. The first is the film Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Come Back?), a drama that captures class tension and transition between a live-in maid, her wealthy São Paulo employers, and the maid’s daughter, an upwardly-mobile architecture student, the symbolic child of the growth period. The film beautifully expresses how much has changed in terms of social and economic opportunity between the maid’s generation and her daughter’s—and how much remains resistant to change. The second is the May 17 performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” by an impromptu orchestra and choir formed by the protesters occupying the Ministry of Culture in Rio de Janeiro. As the musicians played Orff’s eerie, majestic piece, the crowd sang “Fora Temer” (Temer Out). Videos of the performance went viral within days, and the ersatz version of “Carmina Burana” has now become an unofficial theme song of the movement to oust Temer.

Brazil can rescue most of the economic and social gains of its recent growth period, but only by stitching the fragile social democratic consensus back together. Leadership in that process will not come from the political parties, which are too locked in fratricidal struggle. It must come instead from citizens like the architecture student in Que Horas Ela Volta? and the ragged choir at the occupation of the Ministry of Culture—Brazilians who may or may not have supported Rousseff, but who unequivocally reject the current swing to the right. Civil society mobilization has led the way in the recent past and it can do so again.

Transition to a more radically redistributionist democratic socialism, in contrast, is not on the cards for Brazil. The social democratic consensus functioned because of buy-in from a broad range of interest groups, including big business, organized labor, and social movements. No democratic socialist project in Brazil could achieve anything like this level of consensus in the current context. And if a single party were magically to impose democratic socialism, it would inevitably fall prey to the kind of nepotism, kickbacks, sclerosis, and resentment that triggered the current crisis. (It should be noted that Rousseff’s impeachment only deepens these tendencies.) The modest, incremental gains of Brazil’s growth period had relatively little short-term appeal. But it is time to look back on the substantial transformations they wrought, and to protect and extend them.


Bryan McCann is Professor of Latin American History at Georgetown University, and the author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro (Duke, 2014).

To return to the forum, click here.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels