Brazil’s Student Upsurge

Brazil’s massive student occupations are occurring against a backdrop of crumbling left parties and a vicious austerity government.

A makeshift barricade at an occupied school in Rio de Janeiro. Agência Brasil Fotografias

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On October 25, a high-school student shocked Brazil when she explained the reasons why the country is facing its most turbulent social movement in years. The sixteen-year-old Ana Júlia, testifying on the student occupations that have gripped both public high schools and university campuses across the country, declared that “one week of occupations has brought us much more knowledge about politics and citizenship than in many years of study in the classroom.” This is a new terrain for left politics in Brazil, but we must see the whole picture to understand why we are currently experiencing the most intense student struggle in decades.

The FIFA Standard

In 2013, Brazil faced its most intense rebellion since the 1980s. A massive struggle in the streets of the greatest cities of the country began against public transit-fare hikes. In cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Porto Alegre, and others, thousands of people spontaneously came to the streets to protest; and as this struggle grew, it became more and more diverse.

The timing of the protests, known as the “June Days,” was significant; it was right before the Confederations Cup, a rehearsal for the World Cup that would come to Brazil in the following year. At that time, FIFA delegates such as Jérôme Valcke (nowadays facing charges for corruption) were complaining that Brazilian facilities for the World Cup did not match the “FIFA standard.” His comment became the protesters’ unifying slogan: “We want the ‘FIFA standard’ for transport, education, healthcare and public services,” they said.

As a heterogeneous movement, the 2013 June Days faced clear obstacles for its growth. Police repression was intense, with bombs and all sorts of anti-riot weaponry used; the mainstream media, itself a target of the uprising, divided the movement in a false dichotomy that separated “vandals” and “citizens.” In some cities, left-wing militants were expelled from the protests, identified as “partisans” by supposedly “anti-partisan” protesters.

What’s more, left parties were not able to organize a narrative or leadership for the protests. At that time, when Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) was in her third year as president, many intellectuals close to the PT defined the June Days as a “fascist-like” movement. Socialist parties were also confused. There were criticisms of black-bloc tactics, especially after a camera operator died accidentally in a confrontation between protesters and the police. And to make things worse, Brazil won the Confederations Cup and the media regained their ground.

Soon enough, all Brazilians were watching TV advertisements using one of the slogans of the 2013 protest: “Vem pra rua!” (Come to the streets). Our “FIFA standard” struggle ended with some important victories in terms of public fares, but June was soon to be forgotten by the Left, viewed as a bad memory of a massive movement that nevertheless lacked a hegemonic left force.

Moreover, over the following year, right-wing movements started to organize using the slogan “Vem pra rua.” Other groups formed such as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), a similar acronym as the Free Fare Movement (MPL), one of the leading groups in the June protests. The mainstream media claimed, inaccurately, that these were “nonpartisan” movements. This was a serious mischaracterization. From 2014 until the October 2016 municipal elections, these right-wing movements grew considerably. And although they don’t claim the June Days of 2013 as their own, for a brief moment in Brazilian history, the streets were open for them to perform.

This year, Dilma Rousseff was overthrown by a crooked chamber of deputies and senate, establishing a new political order. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) became chief of state, controlling both the executive and the two houses of Congress. The PT was purged from government and became an opposition party. And the new president, Michel Temer, rolled out a radical austerity program, ironically called “Uma ponte para o futuro” (“A bridge to the future”). The program overhauls social security, education, and labor laws — all justified by the old discourse about “controlling the spending of public money.” In practical terms it is aiding the massive privatization of the public sector.

Temer’s unpopularity is his one major liability. He is now facing the same charges as Dilma Rousseff, related to 2014 campaign and slush-fund money. It’s possible he’ll be acquitted, but the clock is ticking, and one way to save himself is to approve the whole austerity package before it is too late. This is possible because he and his allies now control a massive majority in the chamber of deputies and the Senate.

Temer has so far been successful. On October 13, Congress approved a constitutional amendment, the PEC 241, which would freeze public spending for the next twenty years and bar adjustments not tied to the index of inflation.

In 2014, Rousseff was elected by championing “a nation of educators” and promising to increase spending on public education. Now, under Temer, austerity has arrived. So much for a “FIFA standard” education.

Students’ Lessons

In November 2015, a new social movement arose in Brazil. In the state of São Paulo, the governor Geraldo Alckmin, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), tried to pass a “school reorganization” reform, aiming to close hundreds of schools and packing classes with dozens of students to cut public spending. Students, taking after their Chilean neighbors, started an occupation movement. They occupied more than two hundred schools, thwarting the so-called reorganization and forcing the firing of the education secretary in São Paulo. It was huge and inspiring, creating a new set of struggles in Brazil. The first semester of 2016 saw another wave of occupations in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Goiás, Rio Grande do Sul, and a few other states.

Students have been organizing daily assemblies, reforming their classrooms, and organizing activities, ranging from yoga classes to collective geopolitical analysis. They have received support from many parts of society. There were teachers, families, communitarian leaderships, and even some music stars and chefs from a reality cooking show visiting the occupations and offering their solidarity. All of them supported the kids’ effort to transform their schools, sleeping in them, protecting them, and even fixing their practical problems. It is a sweeping change in the structure of the public schools.

There is a long history of precariousness in Brazilian public education, which takes us back to the military dictatorship (1964–85). In 1967, the education ministry signed a joint program of reform with USAID, which shifted the state’s focus from public schools to private education. Soon, private schools were not just founded by religious entities as before, but as business enterprises. By the late 1980s, the private sector was already dominant in Brazilian education while public schools and universities experienced a dreadful long-term lack of investment.

The current occupations are precisely against this long-standing lack of spending.

They began last year out of the fear that, amid Brazil’s economic crisis in 2015, that education would be cut back. This year, they were catalyzed by the Temer government’s announcement that spending would be frozen through PEC 241. In the last few weeks they’ve occupied over 1,200 schools, including over 800 in the southern state of Paraná, and more than a hundred universities across the country. One of the most surprising occupations happened on November 3 at the law school of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, the place where ex-dictator and president of Brazil Getúlio Vargas himself became a lawyer (and, in more recent times, where two of Brazil’s Supreme Court judges studied).

The motivations for the occupations are diverse, but they tend to focus on three main issues: the struggle against PEC 241, the struggle against the high-school reforms, and the struggle against a right-wing agenda called “Escola sem Partido” (something similar to “Schools without parties”). The last one is the most unusual, of course, but dangerous nevertheless. Created by far-right groups, Escola sem Partido evolved from an agenda to a movement in the last year or so, developing ties with right-wing congressional representatives all over Brazil.

Their project is very simple: to denounce teachers who commit “ideological harassment” against students, which could be something as simple as teaching evolution without teaching creationism. Obviously their main targets are leftist discourses in the classroom, creating juridical mechanisms for students and parents to denounce teachers and professors. However, the fact that many students are now confronting Escola sem Partido alongside the austerity agenda indicates that there are connections between both. As matter of fact, in late July the education minister tried to nominate a supporter of the right-wing group, Adolfo Sachsida, to analyze the impact of public spending on the Brazilian education system. But fearing potential blowback, the Temer government backed down and cancelled the nomination twenty-four hours later.

At the same time that occupations have proliferated in schools and universities across the country, right-wing groups have started to mobilize themselves against students. These fascistic groups, inspired by the MBL’s young leaders, organized small militias and went to occupied schools, provoking students, trying to pick fights, and calling the police to intervene against the movement. In some universities, they even organized groups of students against the occupation.

The police themselves have acted brutally against young people — in the state of Tocantins, a northern state, the police corps arrested dozens of students who were occupying a school, putting them in handcuffs and taking them to the police station. In the capital city Brasília, a judge authorized the use of “sonic weapons” by police, interrupting the sleep of occupying students. In the same document, he gave orders for police officers to stop parents and the community from bringing food to the kids. Talk about a medieval siege.

Local and national government has refused to negotiate with student occupiers. Temer, ignoring the advice of the head of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, has pushed forward with reforms like the “Provisory Measure” that will have the effect of extinguishing disciplines like sociology and philosophy in public schools. The education minister, Mendonça Filho, tried to pit students against each other by postponing a set of important exams and blaming the occupations for the delay.

In the last few weeks, the same minister tried to convince students, teachers, and principals to hand over the names of students occupying schools. There is talk about criminalizing the parents of occupiers, since it is legally difficult to criminalize the students. Last week, the Brazilian public ministry threatened the dean of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Roberto Leher, because the university was organizing an event about “democracy.” On the same day, a school of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) was invaded by police officers who, without a warrant, fired warning shots in the sky and laughed about it. At one school, a student’s chemistry question concerned why it doesn’t work to wash your eyes with water when they are hit by pepper spray.

There is a sense that repression, though illegal in most cases, is both habitual and ideological. It fits into the two political slogans of the Temer government: “Ordem e progresso” (“Order and progress,” the positivist motto inscribed on the Brazilian flag) and “Não pense em crise, trabalhe” (“Don’t think about crisis, work”).

What Now?

It is a dire landscape for those who are struggling. On November 29, there will be the first vote on PEC 241 in the Senate (now renamed PEC 55). Then, after a week, it will go to a second vote. The student occupation movement keeps growing, but until November 29, a lot can happen. Right now, it’s very difficult to evaluate politics in Brazil, but one thing is for sure: left parties are facing their greatest political crisis.

In the recent municipal elections, left-wing parties were largely defeated. Not only the PT, but the whole left (broadly Trotskyist, Leninist, communist, and labor parties) was defeated, losing most of the mayoral races around the country. In Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, Marcelo Freixo of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) lost his chance to reach city hall. He was defeated by the Brazilian Republican Party’s (PRB) Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical minister and senator for Rio de Janeiro state.

In Rio, as in almost every single capital city, a large abstention rate and spoiling of the ballot were key to these defeats — despite the fact that voting is mandatory in Brazil. Therefore, abstention rates indicate that many Brazilians are deeply unhappy with the political system. But at the end of the day, it was the Left that was dealt the worst blows.

It may seem contradictory that an occupation movement is growing at the same time as the left parties are being defeated by abstentionism and the growth of the right wing. This contradiction originates in the failure of the left parties during the 2013 June Days to understand the protests and propose a political program to advance the struggle. In the absence of the Left, right-wing parties were able to paint 2013 as an uprising against “corruption,” though it exclusively focused on the corruption of the PT. That narrative prepared the way for the PT’s right-wing “allies” to take over the state in 2015.

This is related to a crisis of “Lulismo,” the PT’s guiding political orientation as exemplified by its former leader, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. This orientation was characterized by class conciliation and steps towards austerity; and as Lulismo fell, it took down a whole range of left-wing parties with it.

While students are occupying schools, it’s imperative that left parties try to understand these struggles and not just romanticize them. Students saw what happened in 2013 and they will not forgive the Left if they abandon them in these critical times.

In 2013, these young people watched protests demanding a “FIFA standard” education. In 2014, Rousseff promised an “educator nation” while in 2015, she took the first steps towards an austerity agenda. Now, after impeachment has been accomplished, there are fewer obstacles to the large-scale reform program which will launch Brazil into a sort of neoliberal dystopia with public spending similar to countries like Bangladesh.

We wanted 10 percent of the GDP for education: we received PEC 55. We wanted “FIFA standard” schools: we received a program which will destroy public education. Small wonder that Brazilian kids aren’t alright. Their new struggle shows workers and leftist parties the tools they need to fight against oppression and the neoliberal agenda. Nowadays, it has became a catchphrase to say “We are learning so much from these students.” Let’s hope that we will also be able to understand the lessons they are giving us.

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