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Making sense of news from Brazil

June  24, 2013

Dr. Mariano Magalhães

Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Brazilian streets last week. From a continent away, it can be hard to make sense of this kind of news, so that’s why we asked Augustana’s Dr. Mariano Magalhães, professor of political science, a few questions about the country where he grew up and visits often.

When were you last in Brazil? Where did you visit? Were things peaceful during your trip?

I visited Brazil last summer (2012) to mentor research by two Augustana political science students on domestic violence for their senior inquiry projects. We spent three weeks in Brasilia, the nation’s capital and often the center of political protests, and everything was fine. Protests and demonstrations are not uncommon in Brazil, or elsewhere in Latin America, and they happen for good reasons.

In simple terms, what's causing the protests and riots?

Let me say two things about the rioting, and then I will concentrate on the protests. First, the people involved in the rioting in Brazil are a tiny fraction of the total number of people who have participated in the protests. In other words, when we read, see or hear what’s happening in Brazil, consumers of the news should know that the vast majority of people are not involved in this violent activity.

Second, rioting is often a sad event associated with protests anywhere, including in the United States. When protests erupted in Los Angeles during the Rodney King case, there was rioting as well. So, please don’t think this is something that only happens outside our borders.

Why did over one million Brazilians take to the streets in over 100 cities on one day alone (June 20, 2013)  to demonstrate? Very simply, it’s because Brazilians are absolutely fed up.

What started out as a small protest in São Paulo because a rise in the fares for public transportation has extended way beyond this. Young Brazilians, who are the majority of protesters, are demanding that the government fulfill its basic responsibilities.

Brazilians want decent public transportation, public education and a public health system. Brazilians are sick and tired of overpaid politicians, who work only two days a week and fail miserably to represent the interests of the public. Brazilians are fed up with the rampant corruption of their representatives, who openly siphon money from public coffers to line their own pockets and always get away with it.

When you lived in Brazil, did you see these kinds of events?

I lived in Brazil during the 1980s, when the country was making a move from a military regime to democracy. Mass protesting was a common occurrence at this time, and I participated in numerous marches, including our demand for direct elections for president in 1984.

How can you see these events shaping the future?

It's hard to say. The last time Brazilians rose up in this way was 1992, when they took to the streets to demand the immediate resignation of then-president Fernando Collor, who stole millions from the government. The demand was very specific at that time. The protests worked. Collor resigned.

The demands of the public are much broader this time. My fear is that the politicians will say the right words and proclaim their support for the public’s demand for better government services and a crackdown on corruption, but once people go home nothing really will be done. I am optimistic politicians will have their feet held to the fire even after the protests die down, and the povão (the Brazilian people) will go back to the streets and continue to make demands.

What can Americans learn from this and/or how should they expect to be impacted by it?

Young Americans should learn, as they should have learned from the revolts that shook the Middle East and North Africa two years ago, they have the power to take matters into their own hands and demand more from our government. We don’t have to sit by passively while our leaders in Washington — on both sides of the aisle — fail repeatedly to compromise and tackle the myriad problems that the country currently faces.

Dr. Magalhaes encourages those who’d like to learn more about Brazil to attend a presentation on Tuesday, June 25, at 5 p.m. at St. Ambrose University Rogalski Center, 518 W. Locust Street, Davenport, Iowa.

Sam Schlouch
Senior Communication Director
(309) 794-7833