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Taking it to the Streets: Notes from Brazil's Political Unrest

People in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, filled the city's main avenue, as part of a national movement to protest major cuts on the education budget. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

People in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, filled the city's main avenue, as part of a national movement to protest major cuts on the education budget. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

May 30, 2019

I decided to come back home to Brazil a few weeks before my field reporting really starts to be able to line up interviews and familiarize myself with the challenges surrounding the demarcation of indigenous land. However, given Brazil’s current political makeup, I now find myself writing my first field note before I even get to the “field” where I will begin my reporting.

Exactly a month ago, on April 30, the Ministry of Education (MEC) announced a major cut on federal funding for education. The announced cuts will reduce by 30 percent, on average, federal funding destined towards federal universities and other federally-funded institutions. Up to today, the government has not provided a plan of action or end goal for the 5.8 billion Reals that were cut.

The people took to the streets in a national protest and I joined them. Despite the fact that, since 2013, there have been multiple protest movements at the national and state levels, this was the first protest I ever attended. Given Brazil’s recent dictatorial history, for many Brazilian families, including mine, protesting is closely tied to violence and conflicts with the police. Now, with a former military man taking over as president of Brazil, my family could not help but be extra worried about police violence. When I texted my mom I was planning on going to the protest I received a shook emoji face as a reply and a long audio message begging me to be careful.

A protester's sign reads “For as long as we save spending on education, we will be rich in ignorance.” Brazil, 2019. Image by Rafael Lima.

A protester's sign reads “For as long as we save spending on education, we will be rich in ignorance.” Brazil, 2019. Image by Rafael Lima.

However, as I got to the protest, I was pleasantly surprised to see no signs of violence whatsoever. I saw students carrying signs, couples carrying their children on their laps and elderly people marching, all shouting and singing in disapproval of the government’s actions. The ability of the masses to peacefully protest is one of the main pillars of democracy and one that I was able to witness today, despite the disheartening conditions that led to the protests in the first place. Brazil still has a long way to go both in regard to their public education system and Indigenous land policies. Yet, in a time when the shadow of dictatorship and repression still loom large in the memory of many, people filling up the country’s most important streets was a hopeful reminder of democracy in Brazil—and I am glad I was there.

June 24, 2019

I have been to Brasília a couple of times before arriving in the city this week to report on the ongoing Indigenous struggle to keep their land. Thus, it is safe to say that I was hardly expecting to see something out of the ordinary involving the city’s landscape. However, as the car drove me down the avenue leaving the airport toward the heart of the city, I could not help but notice the uncommonly high number of green and yellow billboards and signs with overly patriotic and positive messages about Brazil sponsored by the government. For a country that traditionally does not boast its flag or colors excessively, unless the national men’s soccer team is playing in the world cup, the aggressive marketing strategy of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government instantly jumped out as something I have never seen before in Brasília or any other city in Brazil for that matter.

Government billboards at the top of each ministry building are promoting the benefits of approving a new social security system. The left billboard located atop the Education Ministry—where, in May, 2019, the federal education budget cuts were approved—reads "The new social security. More resources to invest in education." Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019. 

Government billboards at the top of each ministry building are promoting the benefits of approving a new social security system. The left billboard located atop the Education Ministry—where, in May, 2019, the federal education budget cuts were approved—reads "The new social security. More resources to invest in education." Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

Given the political dichotomy that has split the country between Bolsonaro supporters and opposition since the 2018 elections, it makes sense to try to rally everyone around symbols of a shared identity, a strategy similar to the one Bolsonaro successfully used during his campaigning days. Yet, as I began walking around Brasília, another similar marketing approach embedded in symbolism was on full display at the Esplanada dos Ministérios, perhaps Brazil’s most famous square where the government’s ministries are located. At the top of each ministry building, was a huge sign listing the possible benefits of reforming Brazil’s social security system, a topic that has led to strikes nationwide in opposition to the government’s new proposed social security bill. In the near 60 years of the Brazil’s capital existence, the ministry buildings were never used as billboard spots by any previous government. Rather than an appeal to a shared national identity, the government’s marketing approach more resembled an attempt to sway the public opinion in favor of Bolsonaro’s political agenda.

Graffiti seen on the walls of bus stops in Brasília as a form of protest against the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and the imprisonment of former President Lula. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019. 

Graffiti seen on the walls of bus stops in Brasília as a form of protest against the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and the imprisonment of former President Lula. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

In changing the landscape from the imponent government buildings to the more common public spaces like bus stops, local parks, and common streets, the message I see has a strikingly different tone than the one coloring our ministries. It is not hard to find graffiti with #NotHim and “Lula Livre” in full display on walls and bus stops across the city, the former reminiscing from the feminist movement in opposition to Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and the latter against the prison of former President Lula, viewed by some as a political prison to prevent him from running against Bolsonaro.

On one side there are unforeseen levels of government propaganda painting a picture of a positive and promising Brazil, and on the other, citizens show their grievances over what Brazil might become. It feels like a different Brasília this time around, perhaps fitting to the political dissonance Brazil finds itself in.