Political Indignation, Protest and Privilege in Brazil

Image: Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos

Thursday 12th April, 2018

Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos

In the spring of 2017 I had the opportunity to organize a panel in the 1st Congress for the Association of Brazilianists in Europe (ABRE), which took place at the University of Leiden. Brazilian Studies’ conferences are not new and perhaps BRASA is the most known example. Brazilian studies programmes also exist in different universities across the world and it is not difficult to understand why people are so keen to discuss Brazil. Stephen Zweig, already in the dawn of the 20th century, coined what became a famous saying “Brazil, the country of the future”; many years passed until the ideas discussed in the book seemed to be finally reality, but those days were brief.

In 2002, when Lula won the presidential elections in Brazil he humbly announced in a national news programme that if by the end of his mandate every Brazilian had food on their plates he would have fulfilled his government goals, which were mainly focused on fighting hunger and extreme poverty. What followed was that Brazilians improved their life conditions supported by government programmes such as the Family Grant Programme (Bolsa Família), Brazil also advanced in the global scene with large development projects focusing on oil and minerals exports, and the country won the famous contest to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

Scholars across the world were trying to explain Lulism, or PTism (PT is the worker’s party which ruled when the major transformations mentioned above took place). But they soon had to change the focus of their analysis when the country went through what is called the June Protests, taking place in 2013, just before the World Cup. The sequence of protests, together with economic and political crisis, the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in the early days of her second mandate, corruption scandals, and even a pitiful performance at home during the 2016 World Cup, begs the question, is Brazil now the country of the past? But if so, what does the Brazilian crisis have to say in the context of G20 economies and their turmoil politics? Are there any parallels to trace between Brazil’s impeachment, Trump elections, or Brexit? These and other questions are part of examinations brought by area studies. When looking at Brazil across diverse perspectives, scholars from different countries and different disciplines bring comparative aspects to examine a region in a global context. I was one of those scholars.

The panel I co-organized with Michele Wisdahl (University of St Andrews) and Maria Nielsen (University of Aarhus) was called “Nation and indignation: Anthropological perspectives on contemporary politics in Brazil”. Considering events like Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, corruption scandals, and diminishing economic opportunities, we analyzed a variety of responses in the classrooms, streets, houses, and social movements around Brazil. What causes indignation? What does indignation affect or does it paralyze?

I discussed political indignation with a case study from a small Brazilian town. When the 2013 protests hit the streets in Brazil, I observed the phenomenon from Ouro Preto, where to protest was considered much of a privilege: to have time and the means to camp outside the prefecture or to be able to afford spending the day on the street. As such, many local residents promptly pointed out that most protesters were upper class students – coming from other towns and living in Ouro Preto for education for a determined period of time. 

When publicly voicing political indignation in protests is a socio-economic privilege, what do residents who lack such privileges in life do when outraged by political injustice? What is the role of the ethnographer in seeing protests not only in public spaces but also in the private realm? I addressed some of these questions looking at the reality of some residents lacking secure job and permanent housing, and for whom to protest is an advantage a few have. For this group of people indignation hardly ever takes the form of direct verbal confrontation. In a city where everyone knows everybody else and relies on social network to get by, many residents living in precarious job and housing situations referred to protests or institutional means to publicly participate in politics as “giving people rope so that they hang themselves”. To them a presumed chance to protest accompanied by social and economic dependency causes more loss than gain.

Looking at political indignation from the perspective of different cities, social groups, and in public and private spaces allowed me to discuss the living situation of those who verbally manifest their indignation and those who don’t. While indignation in Brazil clearly evidenced that public transport, education, health were not doing well, at the same time, direct confrontation, such as protesting on the streets, can also show aspects of existing livelihood security. The discussion in Ouro Preto helps explaining the reason why the number of protests diminished as the political and economic crisis in Brazil intensified.

Dr Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford .  

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