Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Doctor of Sociology of Law, Yale University, and professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal
[Photo source: Salon]
When they elected Dilma Roussef to the presidency, the Brazilian people opted to move more rapidly toward global-power status. Much of the leadership for that push came from behind, yet it had a new drive: the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (a.k.a. Rio+20) in 2012; the World Cup in 2014; the Olympic Games in 2016; fighting for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council; an active role in the growing prominence of the “emerging economies,” also kown as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the naming of José Graziano da Silva as director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2012 and Roberto Azevêdo as director general of the World Trade Organization starting in 2013; an aggressive policy of exploiting natural resources in Brazil as well as in Africa, primarily in Mozambique; and promotion of major industrial agriculture, particularly for soy, biofuel, and livestock production.
As the beneficiary of the positive international public image that President Lula da Silva and his socially inclusive policies have earned, this forward-looking Brazil stands before the world as a new kind of benevolent, inclusive power. So there could not have been more international surprise at the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Brazil’s major cities this past week. And while the recent demonstrations in Turkey were immediately understood as indicative of “two Turkeys,” it was more difficult to see “two Brazils.” Yet there they are, right before our very eyes. What makes it difficult to see is the very nature of the “other Brazil,” a Brazil that eludes simplistic analyses. That Brazil is made up of three narratives and temporalities. The first is the narrative of social exclusion (one of the most unequal countries in the world), estate-owning oligarchs, violent despotism, and restrictive and racist political elites. It is a narrative that dates back to the colonial era and has been reproduced in constantly evolving forms right up to the present day.
The second narrative is that of the demand for participatory democracy, which goes back some 25 years and reached its zenith in the constituent process that produced the 1988 Constitution, in the participatory premises of urban politics in hundreds of cities, in the 1992 impeachment of president Collor de Mello, and in the creation of citizens’ councils in the main areas of public policy, particularly in health care and education, at different administrative levels (municipal, regional, and federal).
The third narrative goes back just barely ten years and has to do with the vast social inclusion policies that President Lula adopted starting in 2003. They reduced poverty significantly, created a middle class with a lofty consumerist vocation, acknowledged racial discrimination against people of African descent and the indigenous population, and led to affirmative action policies and greater recognition of quilombola [descendants of slaves] and indigenous territories.
Since President Dilma came to power, these last two narratives have slowed down or even stopped. And since politics cannot allow a vacuum, this fallow terrain has been occupied by the first, older narrative, fortified under the new vestments of capitalist development and new (as well as old) forms of corruption. Participatory democratic forms were co-opted, neutralized at the command of large-scale infrastructure and mega-projects. They ceased to motivate the younger generations orphaned by family life and integrative community, dazzled by the new consumerism and blinded by a desire to participate in it. Policies supporting social inclusion ran out of steam and ceased to respond to the expectations of those who felt that they deserved more and better. The quality of urban life deteriorated in the name of international prestige events that absorbed investments that should have been used to improve transportation, education, and public services in general. The persistence of racism in both the social fabric in general and the police force specifically became apparent. Indigenous and rural leaders were murdered with growing frequency, having been demonized by political elites as “obstacles to growth” simply for fighting for their own land and their way of life against agribusiness and mining and hydroelectric mega-projects (such as the Belo Monte Dam, dedicated to providing cheap energy for the extraction industry).
President Dilma was the standard bearer for this insidious change. She assumed an attitude of undisguised hostility toward social movements and indigenous people, a drastic change from her predecessor’s perspective. She fought corruption, but she left the issues that she considered less important to her more conservative political allies. So, for example, the Commission for Human Rights, which has historically been committed to minority rights, was handed over to a homophobic evangelical pastor who sponsored a bill known as the “gay cure.” The demonstrations show that it was in fact the president, rather than the country at large, who woke up. With her eyes on the international experiment, as well as the 2014 presidential elections, President Dilma has made it clear that repressive responses would only intensify the conflict and isolate governmental authorities. With that in mind, the mayors of nine cities have already decided to reduce the price of public transportation. But that is hardly even a beginning. If they are to be consistent, the other two narratives (participatory democracy and intercultural social inclusion) will have to reclaim their past dynamism. If that happens, Brazil will show the world that the price of progress is only worth paying if it deepens democracy, redistributes wealth, and recognizes the cultural and political difference of those who regard progress without dignity as a step backward.