December 1, 2018

From June 2013 to Bolsonaro: a rebellion against the Brazilian state

In its November 2009 cover, the magazine The Economist portrayed a picture of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue as a rocket with the headline “Brazil takes off”. The article commended Brazil’s emergence as a global player, comparing the country favourably to the other BRICS. One of the points stressed was the apparent stability of its democracy. Since then, the country has experienced major social unrest in 2013, a deep economic crisis and currently faces the real threat of authoritarian right-wing populism. In this piece, I will argue that the contradictions that are now leading the country towards a potential democratic rupture were already present in the “interpretation war” (Rolnik, 2013) that dominated the 2013 demonstrations. Drawing from the case of Belo Horizonte, I show how the protests, although unified by the FIFA World Cup, were actually aimed at the Brazilian state identified as corrupt, inefficient, and violent. Since then, the anti-state sentiment has only grown with the successive corruption scandals publicised by the Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigation, Dilma’s impeachment and the anti-popular government of Temer. The wide-spread disillusion with the state and politicians has been seized by Bolsonaro’s campaign, whose anti-democratic and ultraliberal discourse paradoxically positions him as an anti-state politician and, therefore, the hope for change.


The June 2013 demonstrations exploded in the end of a cycle of economic growth and decreasing poverty and inequality. During the 10 years of the Worker’s Party (PT) federal government, economic growth was coupled with the implementation of social programmes for income redistribution. These initiatives benefited millions of people who supposedly left poverty to join the ranks of the “new middle-class”. As a result, until March 2013, the president Dilma Rousseff enjoyed a comfortable 80% approval rate. Therefore, when millions took to the streets, politicians of all ideological strands were taken by surprise.

I was living in Belo Horizonte, when the protests began. Being in the eye of the storm, it was hard to interpret what was really happening but impossible not to be drawn towards what seemed to be (and many say that it was) the most important political event of the country since the re-democratisation. However, my attention was drawn to the heterogeneity of the demands featured and the consequent “interpretation war” (Rolnik, 2013) symbolised by the many different contents of the posters carried by an inconsonant crowd.

In Belo Horizonte, most of the protesters were young educated people belonging to the middle-income strata. However, they were not the only ones marching. While navigating the demonstration, it was relatively easy to spot the division across ideological and class-based groups: people carried signs with particular messages, shouted different anthems and even donned different clothes. As the protests progressed, such differences became more striking. Anti-partisan demonstrators were bothered by the presence of militants from leftist parties who they believed were trying to use the protests to advance their own agendas. Moreover, seeing an opportunity to attack Dilma’s government, the opposition parties started promoting the anti-corruption demand, which was mainly targeted at the PT. Therefore, the multiplicity of interests represented in the protests eventually clashed, exposing conflicts that were latent in the Brazilian society.

While many have tried to explain the common ground between those multiple actors, I would like to emphasise their differences. Although joined in that cathartic moment of thrown-togetherness (Massey, 2005), the citizens, numbering in their thousands, were splintered into groups along the lines of age, education, class, race, etc. In Belo Horizonte, the FIFA World Cup served as an umbrella that covered a multiplicity of rights-based claims and allowed them to be joined in one single massive protest – not aimed at the World Cup per se but utilising it to connect disparate claims. The mega-event became an amalgamation of everything people thought was wrong about the Brazilian state, the main target of all grievances.

Figure 1 shows a few signs carried by protesters that represent different claims on the state that can be roughly organised around three topics: (a) corruption, (b) inefficiency, and (c) violence. All three could be associated with the World Cup preparation. Firstly, for protesters, the infrastructure projects fostered perfect opportunities for corruption in the form of bribes, superfaturamento (overbilling), and “caixa dois” (slush fund). Secondly, many protesters emphasised the large expenditures in stadiums vis-à-vis the poor quality of public services in the country. Thirdly, the violent police repression during protests, as well as the displacement of the urban poor engendered by World Cup projects, compared with the daily violence against marginalised populations. Therefore, although those demands are normally associated with different ideological positions in the political spectrum of the Brazilian society, respectively from right to left, they were all accommodated in a protest against the World Cup, which became the common enemy. The three marches from the city centre to the stadium, when over 100 thousand people completed the twelve kilometres walk together, reveal the importance of the mega-event as a symbolic unifying cause.

Figure 1 – Protests in Belo Horizonte: different claims on the state

Source: Filipe Rivelli, from 17/06/2013 to 26/06/2013

Notes: (a) “We are hiring ‘cleaners’ to clean the corrupt Brazilian system”; (b) “Pretend that I am the World Cup and invest in me. Signed: Health and Education”; (c) “Violent is the state…”

However, although united at that moment in a struggle against the corrupt, inefficient and violent state, those groups were effectively at odds with one another. The different signs and demands revealed conflicting understandings of what the state is, and, more importantly, what it should be. Although the World Cup provided a target that could join multiple demands in one space, once we begin to unpack these divergent claims, it becomes clear that, after the end of the games, there would be no single cause able to reunite those opposing voices. That became more evident once FIFA finally left in 2014, and the conflicting grievances were represented in the federal elections. Brazilians then attended very different demonstrations to support the main candidates for the presidency: Aécio Neves, from the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and Dilma Rousseff, from the Worker’s Party (PT). Dilma’s tight victory after a contentious election has revealed the divided character of the Brazilian society. In 2016, her polemic impeachment process has further exposed such historically entrenched antagonism fostered across the entanglements between ideology and social class.

In the 2018 election, the process triggered by the 2013 demonstration has reached its grand finale. The Brazilian population, disillusioned with the state and politics, has clung on to a nationalist and populist discourse with strong authoritarian features. In the wake of the results, many international and national observers have been puzzled about the embracing of such discourses in the country, one of the largest democracies in the world. Bolsonaro, who is a military man and a conservative Christian, has championed an anti-corruption agenda, promising greater security and true liberalism. Above all, he is the promise of change, the third way in relation to the two political forces that have dominated the Brazilian political arena since 1994. Last but not least, he is the alternative to Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT), which has faced huge rejection rates and became almost a synonym of corruption, especially after the turbulent and atypical judicial process that led to Lula’s imprisonment under corruption charges. Bolsonaro has grown out of the hate against PT while representing an antithesis to the state, identified as corrupted and, thus, a hindrance to society’s progress. In return for change, Brazilians are apparently willing to partially give up democracy and some of its pillars such as freedom and the pursuit of equality. But how valued are those ideals in one of the most unequal countries in the world?

In Brazil, the 1988 Constitution extended political, civil and social rights to all. Nonetheless, many are still excluded from the exercise and access to those rights. In another words, formal – having rights in theory – and substantive citizenship – actually having access to those rights – are not coincident categories. In his work, Holston (2008) has explored the historical and geographical process through which a regime of differentiated citizenship has emerged in Brazil. He argues that, “by denying the expectation of equality in distribution, Brazilian citizenship became an entrenched regime of legalized privileges and legitimated inequalities”. He thus seeks to investigate how citizenship has been historically defined in Brazil in association with certain memberships – differences in education, property, race, gender, and occupation – that engendered different classes of citizens. Such paradigm has survived through historical transformations and remains an enduring feature of Brazilian contemporary society.

In a context in which equality has never been an aim pursued by society, recent attempts to bridge the gap of inequality have deteriorated the perceived social status of groups that have long enjoyed privilege or experienced recent impoverishment. Feelings of anger and frustration with the corrupt or incompetent political elite have been channeled through authoritarian discourses that explore those emotions to attract votes. The reaffirmation of democratic values and the rights of minorities as an act of resistance has been proved ineffective since those are potentially part of the problem. While left-wing politics are constrained by the rules of the “democratic game”, right-wing populists, such as Bolsonaro, have more room to propose disruptions to a system that has been discredited. Although in practice he might be identified as more of the same by an educated elite, he represents the possibility of radical change to a huge mass of people that have learned to regard the corrupted state as the enemy. In the root of Brazil’s current political crisis is hence the perception of the state as a separate entity from society. As once argued by Abrams (2006, p.126), “conservatives and radicals alike believe that their practice is not directed at each other but at the state; the world of illusion prevails.

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About Mara Nogueira

Mara Nogueira

Mara is a Fellow at the LSE’s Geography and Environment department. She is an urban geographer whose research focuses on socio-spatial inequality and the urban politics of urban space production in Brazil. She completed a PhD in Human Geography and Urban Studies at LSE. Further, she holds a BSc and an MSc in Economics from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Mara’s current research looks at the relationships between the informal sector and urban space. She is interested in how street vendors negotiate access to urban space in order to make a living, looking at the intersections between work and housing informality. She is also interested in the encounters between different social movements, the state and the middle-classes, focusing on how those encounters shape urban space, policy making and social class.

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