On Saturday May 29, 2021, Brazil saw its biggest public mobilisations since the Coronavirus pandemic began. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, organised in 213 cities nationwide, took to the streets against the Bolsonaro-Guedes regime. Amongst the visible messages, anger was directed specifically at its mishandling of the pandemic, with demonstrators demanding vaccines, emergency payments, and indignant at the spiralling cost of living.
But the #29M protests were built around a unifying and unambiguous demand: an end to the Bolsonaro presidency.
“Being on the streets to fight is an extreme act, to say enough is enough, we are all tired of the suffering imposed on the country,” said Workers’ Party president Gleisi Hoffmann, while former PSOL presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos of the MTST homeless workers movement insisted in a speech to São Paulo demonstrators that it is “impossible to wait until 2022” for Bolsonaro’s inevitable fall.
Renan Calheiros, Senator and rapporteur to the inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19, predicted the protests would only grow.
A new conjuncture
Whilst these were not the first public protests against the Bolsonaro regime during the pandemic, the scale of the latest demonstrations have taken some observers by surprise. After a year of panelaços against the president, and staged efforts to bolster Bolsonaro’s dwindling support over recent months, Brazil’s progressive forces reclaimed the streets in a show of strength which corroborated recent opinion polls showing that a majority of Brazilians want the far-right president removed. Revelations from the Senate Inquiry into the Bolsonaro regime’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic have only intensified demands for his removal.
Facing 130 impeachment petitions, and with 57% favouring impeachment, Bolsonaro’s approval is collapsing, and he falling far behind in electoral polls. Journalist Aquiles Lins, remarks that one of the main ingredients for impeachment is no longer missing: the people on the street. ”The political cost of supporting Bolsonaro is going to increase progressively from now on, as new protests happen,” the pressure on congressional president Arthur Lira to accept one or more of these impeachment petitions is growing daily.
In the words of politician Ulysses Guimarães, during the military dictatorship: “The only thing that scares these people is people on the street.”
The protests were led by social movement and trade union groups, popular fronts Frente Brasil Popular and Povo Sem Medo, along with organisations such as Black Rights Coalition, and supported by the main left parties. Many of those who support the removal Bolsonaro were reticent to go out on the streets during the pandemic, but expressed respect for the courage of those who did. Others considered the risks too great. With COVID-19 cases still alarmingly high in Brazil, masks and alcohol spray were provided in some instances, and distancing was encouraged.
Studies on the experience of Black Lives Matter protests in the United States during 2020 found that fears such outdoor masked protests could cause a spike in Covid-19 cases were unfounded, and risk of transmission was actually low.
But the calculus of the Brazilian demonstrators was that a show of strength was necessary, despite risk. A slogan circulating on the streets and social media went: “If people need to protest in the middle of a pandemic it is because the government is more dangerous than the virus.”
Two hundred cities
A total of 213 Brazilian cities held protests, and 17 outside the country, with a conservative estimate of 430,000 participants nationally.
Images of huge demonstrations Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Belem, and Porto Alegre circulated during the day. The biggest was, as usual, in megacity São Paulo, which saw astonishingly high turnout in the circumstances.
That this protest was taking place at the weekend was a key difference. It was a surprise to see this latest protest permitted on a Saturday, with a State Governor now openly opposed to Bolsonaro. Since 2015/16 the battle for legitimacy between pro and anti coup forces was regularly measured by protest attendance. The former always had Sunday afternoons on Avenida Paulista, whereas the anti-coup demonstrations usually took place on midweek evenings, putting them at significant disadvantage, even before we begin to talk about the pro-impeachment demonstration’s active promotion by the media. During that pre-coup period, Military police estimates also notoriously undercounted any protest of the left and amplified those of the right.
São Paulo’s latest protest followed a favoured route, assembling at Museum of Modern Art on Avenida Paulista, building critical mass until it occupied ten blocks of the avenue, until marching 3 kilometres down eight lane Consolação to Praca Roosevelt.
Roosevelt is where protests of the left often terminate in barrage of police bombs and tear gas. This time it didn’t.
Although earlier in the day rumours circulated on social media that police violence had begun in São Paulo, assumedly to discourage attendance, the question is if São Paulo Governor João Doria, one time ally now sworn enemy of Bolsonaro, actually instructed the usually truculent PMSP (Military Police) to leave the protest alone.
Recife’s demonstrators were not so fortunate. At its demonstration, some hours before São Paulo’s began, Military Police attacked the peaceful assembly with tear gas and rubber bullets. One man who was even not part of the demonstration was shot in the eye and subsequently lost it. Workers Party city councillor, Liana Cirne, confronted a police car to urge them to stop targeting the demonstrators. She was pepper sprayed and left lying on the road.
The PCdoB vice governor of Pernambuco State Luciana Santos posted an urgent message to say that the police actions were not authorised by their government. This was a worrying sign that the Military Police might be acting autonomously or being guided by another authority. Governor Paulo Câmara of the PSB has since announced that he is firing police who attacked protesters, as well as his state’s Military Police Commander.
Folha de S. Paulo was the only major paper to feature the protests prominently on its Sunday cover. Whereas the anti-Dilma demonstrations of 2015 and 2016 were front covers, Estadão meanwhile had only a small item about protests causing agglomeration and COVID risk, and O Globo also omitted the massive protests from its cover.
Globo gave some coverage to the protests on its 24 hour news channel throughout the day, but did not cover them live as was the case with the Anti-Dilma protests of 2015 and 2016. Following criticism of minimisation on flagship news show Jornal Nacional, and pressure on social networks, Globo’s Fantastico carried analysis of the protests the following evening.
El País journalist Eliane Blum wrote: “Today’s Globo and Estadão covers are much more than a historic shame. Big newspapers, with public responsibility, betraying the facts. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians occupy the streets of Brazil shouting “Fora, Bolsonaro” and Globo headlines “GDP rises” and Estadão talks about “tourism”. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians shouting in the streets “I hold you responsible, Bolsonaro” and Globo and Estadão think they can simply minimize – and they are so sure they can, that they minimize. Fact, what fact? News, where?”
It should surprise nobody that these media organisations would omit mass protests against a political project they explicitly supported. While it is evident that whilst Anti-Bolsonaro sentiment may exist within them, it is also now clear their owners are not yet desperate for him to be removed, despite the pandemic catastrophe which has already left almost 500 thousand dead. The re-emergence of Lula da Silva since his absolution from the charges that kept him out in 2018, with a viable centre-right competitor yet to emerge, has seemingly put the fear of god up them. The idea that Lula will be the “establishment candidate” against Bolsonaro is apparently far fetched.
Ghosts of June 2013
Some lingering distrust of mass street mobilizations dates back to June 2013, the eventual repercussions of which resulted in the ouster of a then popular centre-left government, and its replacement with a military dominated far-right one; something its original protagonists never envisaged.
One of the features of June 2013 was the substitution of its original progressive messages with those of anti-corruption and outright reaction. This shift was not spontaneous as many suggested; it was stimulated by both hegemonic media, such as Globo, and even by internationally funded NGOs. For example, opposition to PEC37, legislation which was depicted as an impunity law, appeared on the demonstrations—protesters could even download ready made placards to print—and the bill was defeated in congress under perceived pressure from the streets. This in part enabled the excesses of what would become Operation Lava Jato, which was already in gestation.
These ghosts of June 2013 still haunt Brazil. In an echo of this, TV Record, owned by Bolsonaro allied founder of the Neopentecostal Universal Church, Bishop Edir Macedo, reported the #29M protests as being simply a demand for extension of pandemic welfare payments, which had given the president a short lived popularity boost during 2020.
Thus there is an underlying paranoia that Bolsonaro, and the broader right coalition which initially supported him, could somehow manipulate and benefit from these new demonstrations. Suggestions that subsequent actions to adopt the yellow and green of the right wing protests which underpinned the coups of 1964 and 2016 have caused some alarm. The parallel in 2013 was a demand to abandon organisation flags and banners, for the protests to be “without parties,” to use only the national flag, which enabled inchoate proto-golpista messages to be projected onto them.
There was widespread coverage of the protests in the international press. Spain’s El País, and France’s Libération both highlighted the left protagonism of the protests, the latter calling them a show of strength. Germany’s Der Spiegel called Bolsonaro “more unpopular than ever.” Whilst US Network CNN reported on the demonstrations, the New York Times did not. The BBC featured the protests on its website.
UK newspaper the Guardian got in early on #29M with what appeared to be a pre-prepared report which underestimated attendance as to to be in the tens of thousands. It spoke too soon. The São Paulo demonstration alone exceeded this number, with an estimated national total closer to 450 thousand, symbolically close to the number of lives lost to Covid-19. After seeing its Latin America coverage pilloried, in particular its support for right wing coups, including Brazil’s, the Guardian now tries to rebuild trust on the left by getting on the anti-Bolsonaro bandwagon, whilst Brazil will accept any help it can get.
It is important to appraise how the world’s media interpreted these new protests in context of the recent past.
Coverage of protests is historically uneven, both nationally and internationally. Those which rocked Brazil in June 2013 got blanket coverage around the world, as did those 2015/16 calling for recently re-elected Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. Both of these interpreted as threat to a sitting centre left government. There was however a virtual blackout on coverage of massive anti-coup demonstrations that were often equal or greater in attendance than those of the right. Brasil Wire covered this issue extensively at the time, for example: ‘Brazil’s prescribed revolt: A tale of two protests in São Paulo‘ (March 2015), ‘Repression of pro-democracy protests‘ (August 2016), ‘#15M The Big Hush‘ (March 2017).
As we documented at the time, much like conservative Brazilian media the Anglosphere was only interested in protests against Dilma Rousseff which fit the Lava Jato narrative. It ignored similarly sized mobilisations against the coup, and provided no analysis of the lawfare process which brought Bolsonaro to power by jailing Lula, nor coverage of constant demonstrations against his imprisonment. Following his election, the Guardian framed an early demonstration of resistance in these terms: “Thousands of Brazilian protesters have marched through the heart of São Paulo to tell their newly elected far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, they recognize his democratic election…”
This bizarre spin fit a pattern in anglo media, of emphasising the legitimacy of Bolsonaro’s mandate, the “freeness and fairness” of the election, whilst omitting what was already known; that his main opponent had been jailed to keep him off the ballot, with the cooperation of the Military and the US Department of Justice.
Thus the Anglo media response to the latest Brazilian demonstrations suggests that, editorially at least, something has changed. Former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim recently remarked that he expects the United States to accept a Lula presidency, and that Bolsonaro is simply too much trouble for the Biden administration.
The beginning of the end
These latest protests should have at the very least killed off the the final remnants of Bolsonaro’s image as “Business Friendly” “Arch-Conservative” with broad popular support, which had been the depiction in some quarters since the 2018 election campaign.
Until relatively recently, some sectors of international press were even depicting Jair Bolsonaro as “more popular than ever.” From his US business backers at Americas Quarterly, through to their curious allies the Guardian again, whose October 2020 article ”He became a hero: Bolsonaro sees popularity surge as Covid-19 spreads” was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Whilst these were based on misreading of short term polling data, Bolsonaro has been more resilient in office than many expected. From isolation in congress, to rumours he had been sidelined to a ceremonial role by the Military, there have been a succession of hopeful predictions of his imminent demise. Unfortunately for Brazil he is still standing.
The recent revelation of a $3bn real bribery scheme to keep him in the presidency may explain why none of the 130 impeachment petitions against him have been put to the vote by two successive congressional presidents. But current president of congress Arthur Lira now says that he will consider them, as a result of the Senate covid inquiry, and even before the #29M protests.
Outside his core, estimated to still be around 15% of the electorate, few people expect Bolsonaro to win in 2022, barring some new lawfare attack on former president Lula, who is currently on course to win in the first round. The question is whether Bolsonaro will be a candidate at all, or will have fallen before it comes to that.
But there remains a chunk of the electorate, and foreign business and banking, whose support was for Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes, not Bolsonaro himself, and they will hope that his ruinous ultraliberal economic programme can continue in a post-Bolsonaro scenario.
Time will tell if a new wave of protest does hasten Bolsonaro’s removal. #29M may indeed have been a sea change, but progressives should be warier than ever of its appropriation by the very forces responsible for Brazil’s current plight, at home and abroad.
Featured image: A man walking on stilts holds a sign reading ”Bolsonaro generates genocide,” at a protest venue in Rio de Janeiro, on May 29, 2021. Photo: Bruna Prado/AP