Porto Alegre, 11 years on, and Where are the Brazilian Indignados?

El País, one of the Spanish newspapers of record, ran a headline on October 16th, that the Indignado movement had spread all over the world.   This is, of course, a Spanish take on things.  As important as the acampados in Madrid have been in sparking the flame, Occupy also has its own roots: adbusters, Madison, disappointments with a certain occupant of the White House, and others. One of the interesting things to think about as 15O/Occupy builds up momentum in the United States is the way that different strands come together to animate people´s imaginations.   As my friend Michael Kennedy has said, how we think of the movement’s origins is now still an open question that has to do with what the movement will become and understand itself.

In that spirit, it is worth it, for me, to think back about 10-11 years and the shifting topography of global social justice. Back in 1999 there were the Genoa/Seattle protests and some of the contemporary moments that marked what would become known, for many, and despite efforts otherwise,  as the “anti-globalization movement.”  I remember a lot of the discussions that ensued after Seattle: the possibilities of  “turtles and teamsters” alliances, how to think of this new moment (movement? movements?)  the less-than-diverse composition of some of the crowd in Seattle and the role that people of color would play in its leadership, for example. But one of the important debates had to do with proposals. If the movement was against corporate globalization, what did it stand FOR?

The story from then on is well-known, but global social justice then became a largely Franco-Brazilian co-production.  Attac, Abong, and a few other Brazilian organizations  helped kick off  the World Social Forums, held in Porto Alegre for the first years.  The Forums were very much about proposals. Lots and lots of them. Though the decision was taken after the first year to disallow participation of representatives of political parties or by elected officials, political parties were always present in some way.  Of course, the sympathetic PT administration in the municipality and state made things possible.  But  Petistas, Chavistas, the Fourth International, French Socialists, the forum of progressive elected officials, Cuban government officials, were all in some ways always there. I thought that this was not a bad thing, and I wrote in 2004 that these groups, and principally the PT, respected the autonomy of the Forum.  The important thing was the productive tension between Forum spaces and party activity.

One of the interesting things of the recent global wave of events has been that the center of gravity has been Spanish and US American.   The mobilizations in both France and Brazil have been very muted, if not absent.  I know less about France, but the argument, at least according to some editorials in Le Figaro and Le Monde (and thanks to Ernesto Ganuza for pointing this out), is that the primaries within the Socialist party give voice to those who would be indignados.

And in Brazil, despite an internet campaign ahead of time, the acampamentos in Brazil have been small.  There is one occupation in Sao Paulo, one in Cinelandia in Rio de Janeiro, and a half dozen other even smaller ones throughout the country  You can follow them here.   On one hand it is nice to see, for once, that the United States is in the news for something positive, but on the other this is curious – Brazil, the country of superlatives when it comes to social justice (the largest democratic leftist party in the world, the largest social movement in the world,  the largest labor federation in the world, the supersized social forums, the fastest redistribution of income in a democracy etc.) is essentially not part of an incredibly significant global movement.  Why is this?

Part of the answer is that Brazilians have been doing well, better than probably in any time in recent memory.  A poor Brazilian today likely has better access to health services than a poor American.  Unemployment is low, and we have talk of upward mobility for the first time in generations.  Access to higher education has wildly expanded in the last eight years, and dire poverty has essentially disappeared thanks to cash transfer programs.

But at the same time Brazil does not lack for causes of indignation.  Landlessness continues to be a problem.  Violence and social exclusion still define urban spaces.   Racial inclusion has a long long way to go.  Police abuses are still the order of the day in many, if not most, favelas. And urban improvements in favelas for the olympic games/world cup currently threaten to go the way of South Africa (ie. urban cleansing).  And by no stretch of the imagination are lives of Brazilians not impacted by global financial markets.   The Brazilian government has continued a policy of political economy orthodoxy – running budget surpluses and making debt repayments, which as many have argued over the last eight years, takes money out of social programs and puts them in the coffers of international banks to service debts partially accrued during a dictatorship.  And whatever one´s position on the events of the last years with the Workers´Party, corruption still exists in all levels of government in Brazil.   In other words, many of the banners of the Indignados of  Plaza del Sol or on Wall Street could just as easily be adopted in Sao Paulo or Rio.

For me, those who would be  Indignados of Brazil have simply too many other places to voice their opinion.  On the ¨Democracia Real Brasil” page someone posted a satirical “Shut up Brazil” card, implying that all of the social programs have come at the cost of the people´s voice: in exchange for social benefits, the poor have decided to be quiet.  I think it´s quite the other way around.  I think people have had lots of opportunity for voice.    In some writing related to a project with my friend Ana Claudia Teixeira (in which Luciana Tatagiba, Lizandra Serafim, Evelina Dagnino and Rebecca Abers also participate), we relay some of figures from the last 8 years of participatory efforts under Lula in Brazil.

In addition to the thousands of local instances to participate (in health councils, participatory budgets, etc.), the government sponsored a tremendous number of national spaces of dialogue in terms of standing councils, like the national council on health  (an institution to mediate dialogue between government and society on the topic), and conferences, like the national conference on human rights  (a nation-wide meeting in Brasilia with representatives from civil society from all states).  By 2010 there were 68 distinct national councils in operation in Brazil; and during the Lula years there were 74 national conferences  on 40 different topics, 28 of which were recognized by the government for the first time.  These conferences mobilized over three million people, who came up with over 14,000 proposals and approved 1,100 motions.  Youth conferences mobilized an additional 5 million people.   That’s a lot of places to voice your opinion! Some have been critical of the limits of participatory conferences (as Ana Claudia and I have been in our essay), but it´s undeniable it has been a policy of recognition of many unrecognized voices.

In fact, some indignado themes have been subject of conferences, including corruption.  While people all over the world were preparing for the mobilization of October 15th, in Brazil, the National Conference on Transparency and Participation was moving through its preparatory stages.  After months of meetings in most cities, delegates from all over the country are now going to be chosen to defend proposals and motions at the final, national stage, in June of 2012.


I would love to hear from my friends Ana Claudia Teixeira, Regina Pozzobon, Sergio Baierle, or Luciano Brunnet on this.  Or from France, Heloize Nez or Julien Talpin.


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