In June of 2013, mass spontaneous and acephalous demonstrations sprang up in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis, and rapidly spread like wildﬁre to other cities large and small. Observers were quick to suggest that the country was in the process of launching its own ‘Great Brazilian Spring’. Although the season was actually late autumn, and despite the fact that the country had been enjoying several years of relative prosperity as well as reductions in poverty and inequality under ‘progressive’ governments, people were obviously primed and ready to vent their frustrated expectations and social grievances. The medium-and longer-term implications of this movement are impossible to fathom at the time of this writing. However, the fact that the demonstrations were ignited in Brazil’s largest and most prosperous metropolis, and that the spark that set them off was an apparently ‘minor’ issue of public transportation (a 20-centavo increase in bus fare, worth approximately 10 cents of an American dollar), correctly reﬂects and encapsulates the far-reaching dilemmas of the country’s early but unbalanced urban transition. Most major Brazilian cities quickly picked up on the issue of disorganised and expensive public transportation systems – a neverending daily torment for the huge masses of workers and students who depend on them. The calamitous condition of mass transportation faced by most cities is a direct consequence of decisions made over decades that favoured the few over the many – but it is only one area in which unequal practices have left an imprint on daily urban life. Given the broad scope of latent injustices and complaints, the original protests over urban transportation unsurprisingly escalated quickly to include other
acute social issues, including housing, poor health services and the deﬁciencies of the educational system. The shady dealings and socially-insensitive manner in which infrastructure issues were being handled by larger cities in preparation for major global sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics also came in for tough criticism. Accusations of fraud and sleazy practices linked to public construction and urban remodelling quickly expanded to encompass issues of political corruption at the national level. Congress, alarmed by this sudden show of civic enthusiasm, immediately voted down a dubious piece of legislation (PEC 37) that would likely have limited investigations into corruption.2 The country’s very system of political organisation also came promptly under ﬁre, kindling discussions of the need for plebiscites, referendums or constitutional reform to redress ineffective representation and remodel inept public institutions. These massive Brazilian protests can be perceived as part of the post-modernist angst that has been ignited for a multiplicity of causes in different parts of the world since the 1999 Seattle marches.3 In contrast to all previous mass social movements in Brazil, the protests were not led by political parties, media moguls or traditional social movements. Classic political slogans such as ‘socialism’ or ‘revolution’ were eschewed, and efforts by the traditional parties to take control of the movement were quickly rejected. As in other manifestations throughout the world, quick-ﬁre inspiration and organisation through social networks among an increasinglyinformed public provided people with an opportunity to give voice to a variety of pent-up grievances that reﬂect the inadequacy of anachronistic institutions and their corrupt leaders. The factors underlying these spontaneous movements are sure to be multiple and complex, including the employment and education frustrations of a youth bulge (Pearce 2013) in a generation that was supposed to beneﬁt from the demographic dividend. At the same time, it was inevitable that both the spark and the stage for such rapid and massive mobilisation in Brazil would come from the heart of the largest cities. Not only because most Brazilians are urbanites whose aspirations are frustrated daily by governance glitches, but also because urban policy has been a critical centrepiece in the country’s efforts to make democracy a working reality since the adoption of the 1988 Constitution. Urban reform became, with the end of the military dictatorship, a core piece of participatory processes and the symbol for hope, decentralised decision-making and the reduction of social inequality (Caldeira 2007). Bold innovative practices, the creation of a Ministry for Cities and, ultimately, the takeover of institutional power by the Workers’ Party created great expectations for social and economic improvements in urban areas. Though the middle classes have grown recently and income inequality has been reduced, it is obvious that other fundamental expectations have not been fulﬁlled. Cities have become bigger and more important, but their capacity for satisfying people’s wants has ground to a halt in the persistence of poor governance. The larger cities themselves are often at the centre of the troubles. As noted by a former Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Cities:
The downturn veriﬁed in social policies during the years 1980 and 1990, notably in transport, housing and sanitation, besides the dismantling of the metropolitan agencies, has led our cities to the trivialization of urban tragedies. Despite its urgency, the metropolitan issue does not sensitize any political force or institution which assigns it a prominent place on the national agenda.