Wild Bunch

A nationwide truckers’ strike that resulted in the blockade of several major highways
throughout Brazil at the end of July, spoke volumes about much more than problems
affecting the trucking industry. Few would disagree with the truckers’ demands: lower fuel
prices and toll charges, better highway maintenance, and more policing against cargo
theft, a serious problem on Brazilian highways in recent years. It’s what the truckers’
action represents in a broader context that causes concern.

Rallies and demonstrations were a risky undertaking in Brazil until the end of military
rule in the mid ’80s. Participants and their causes were generally portrayed by the regime
as less-than legitimate, if not outright criminal. Such movements, labor or otherwise,
were often dealt with in violent fashion. With the return of civilian rule in 1985,
Brazilians gradually shed the aura of illegality created by the military, and re-learned
that demonstrating is part of one’s right to freedom of expression, not necessarily a
criminal act against the State or a breach of national security, as the uniformed rulers
of the past would have everyone believe.

Now, Brazilians are witnessing the other extreme, and at times being held hostage by
it: a concept that says a rally must disturb, paralyze, interfere, upset or interrupt as
broadly as possible, in order to be effective. Most troubling is the impression that
nobody seems concerned about the need to accomplish goals without trampling on everyone
else’s individual rights.

That was clearly the case with the truckers’ movement. It was the latest in a series of
similar actions by different groups, some isolated, others ongoing and growing in stature,
and they all fit into a trend. All have been loyal to the extreme approach to
demonstrations on the rise for at least a year, especially in São Paulo, Brazil’s main
city and economic engine.

With a population of 15 million, the city is difficult enough to negotiate under normal
circumstances—pollution, crime and monstrous traffic tie-ups are among its major
problems. City bus drivers know a rally at the wrong place and time is enough to wreak
havoc above and beyond the already difficult norm. And they put that know-how to use a
week before their trucking colleagues.

They caused two days of citywide traffic hell, by parking hundreds of buses in
sequence, one behind the other, along major arteries at rush hour. It was a protest
against delays in benefit payments by the private companies that own the buses, and handle
mass transit in the city. Not the most serious dispute of all time, but good enough to
paralyze one of the largest cities in the world, and disrupt the lives of millions of
people.

Free For All

A focal point for protestors has been Avenida Paulista, or Paulista Avenue, a major
São Paulo thoroughfare. Street vendors defending their right to set up on every corner,
van owners demanding licenses to operate legally, doctors, nurses and teachers who want
better pay, the HIV-positive who want better care, even a group protesting the recent
shutdown of a radio station—all of those, and many others for and against a myriad of
causes, have gone to Paulista to protest recently. Always when traffic is at its peak,
with predictable effects: nobody goes anywhere until the snag comes undone, usually
several hours later.

City officials ask frequently that such demonstrations not be held at Paulista. Since
participants and organizers attach little importance to the basic individual right to come
and go—few bother to get proper authorization for a demonstration—officials like
to remind them that in the vicinity of Paulista, there are nine major hospitals. In other
words, bad traffic in the area could put lives at risk. So far, the argument hasn’t made
an impression.

But perhaps the one example of maximum impact and visibility, that helps to understand
the current thinking behind protesting in Brazil, is what happens far away from major
cities like São Paulo. It’s in the countryside that the MST, the landless workers’
movement that’s been described as the largest left-wing organization in the Western
Hemisphere, gets away with snubbing the law on a regular basis, without consequence.

There’s a political side to what the MST does, which is a whole different story. For
those unfamiliar with the movement, a brief explanation would be that it has organized
thousands of so-called landless peasants throughout the country to pressure for land
reform. The technique is to set up camp near lands considered unproductive and pressure
the government to make it available for redistribution, either by purchasing the property
from its owner, or taking it away outright based on the fact that it was unproductive to
begin with. The land is then distributed to the landless.

If the government is slow to respond, the camped MST supporters will simply invade the
property—recently they’ve taken to invading productive farms as well. Families then
divide the land into plots, and begin to plant crops and set up homes. The government is
then pressured to make the arrangement permanent, again by purchasing or moving to legally
displace the owner.

Without question, Brazil has a land distribution problem, and a serious one to be sure.
Cities like São Paulo are swollen by thousands who left subsistence farming to seek a
better life in the city. Many would go back under better conditions, so there is merit in
the idea of assisting that process, especially in a landmass as large as Brazil, with no
lack of arable land. But there’s a key element here: the current federal government can be
accused of inaction on a number of fronts, but not this one. In fact, during President
Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term in office, the federal government settled close to
250 thousand landless families throughout Brazil—more than all previous federal
administrations combined.

MST Tactics

The response of the MST to that effort has been to intensify land invasions, while
attempting to discredit what the government has accomplished. Add to this a number of
recent facts that have undermined the MST’s credibility, such as:

Efforts to “recruit” so-called landless peasants in major cities for new
campsites and future invasions;

Encouragement of ransackings of government food stores by poor peasants in Brazil’s
drought-stricken northeast;

Stated aims that have little to do with land reform, such as the need to not just take
away and redistribute land, but also “punish farmers”, as defended by MST leader
Pedro Stédile;

A recent survey by Brazil’s top weekly news magazine, Veja, showing that MST
numbers don’t add up: there are more landless peasants in Brazil now, by their accounting,
than before the government settled a quarter of a million families. At this rate, the
landless movement will also be endless;

Between questionable MST actions, and government land reform initiatives, there’s more
than enough to justify resistance to MST tactics. As there was enough to justify stopping
truckers from paralyzing the country, bus drivers from disrupting São Paulo, and so many
others from launching initiatives that harm the vast majority. Instead, as a recent
editorial by the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper said,

“… this is not what we see in today’s Brazil. A near-pathological fear of facing
up to transgressions permeates all levels of administration, and it starts at the
presidential palace, where tolerance and complacency are becoming the norm, all in the
name of a sort of abstract democratism that, in practical terms, is the equivalent of a
license for any sector—social or professional—to adopt pressure tactics that are
clearly illegitimate and even criminal.”

Impunity

Why so much government hesitation to stand up to such a broad spectrum of questionable,
often illegal actions? Impunity may be the key word. For decades, successive governments
in Brazil have tolerated blatant examples of wrongdoing that have gone unpunished. From
bankrupt construction companies that took the money and left thousands of would-be
homeowners empty-handed, to investment scandals where the investors always took the fall,
to politicians who seek office to benefit from congressional immunity, the list is
extensive—Brazilians have really seen more than their share of excessive tolerance.

In nearly all cases, there’s a common thread: those responsible seldom if ever pay for
their wrongdoing, certainly never go to jail, or have their personal property confiscated
to cover losses they’ve caused. It is always the public purse—the taxpayer—that
makes amends, while those who ought to be punished, in many cases, flaunt ostentatious
lifestyles.

Indeed, we may be witnessing a trickle-down effect of impunity, where society, perhaps
unconsciously to some extent, but openly and blatantly in many instances, goes to extremes
in the certainty that punishment will not be the end result. The more tolerance there is,
the further people will push and test the authorities. The more serious and numerous the
unpunished acts, the more difficult it becomes for the authorities to act. And to make
matters worse for the government, political opponents certainly do take advantage of these
perceptions, and encourage or even lead different sectors in acts of defiance of the rule
of law.

That may seem like a lot of theory, but it does bear a strong resemblance to the actual
sequence of recent events. A clear enough trend has been established, and to put a stop to
it, the government must press on with vital reforms, including a full review of the
judiciary. A clear message is needed that ending widespread impunity in Brazil is the
objective. The legal system must gain the ability to deal with the rich and powerful, or
risk being unable to deal with anyone at all.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com

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