Wednesday, October 23, 2013

VOXXI: Brazil: Who is not protesting these days?

Brazil: Who is not protesting these days?
W. Alejandro Sanchez
October 23, 2013
Originally published:

A new wave of protests has erupted, this time by teachers demanding an increase in salaries, oil workers protesting the government’s auction of off-shore oil deposits, and by a group of anarchists called the Black Bloc. Adding fuel to the fire, the Brazilian police has been accused of using excessively repressive force to quell protesters. If President Dilma Rousseff was hoping that the NSA surveillance scandal would rally her citizens to support her, she is gravely mistaken.
A June 19 commentary for VOXXI by this author addressed the demonstrations that had swept Brazil. At the time, thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest an increase in public transportation prices and the indiscriminate expenditure on construction projects in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Protests by teachers and oil workers

Over the past couple of weeks, Brazilian teachers have rallied across the country in demand of better wages and school conditions. Recent protests can be seen as two-pronged. For example, a peaceful march by some 5,000 teachers took place in Rio de Janeiro; ironically the demonstration occurred on October 15, which is Teachers’ Day in Brazil. The protest was followed that same night by a smaller but more violent protest by individuals identifying as members of the loosely-organized anarchist movement called the Black Bloc.
To add mayhem to chaos, another discontented segment of the population is made up of oil workers, who are protesting the auction of an offshore oil field and demanding salary increases. Over the past few days, oil production in this South American nation has been affected by the recent strike, as up to 90% of employees of the state oil company, PETROBRAS, have carried out protests in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.
“Our aim is not to hurt the population, but we will carry on with the strike for an indefinite period, until our demands are met,” said José Antonio de Moraes, president of the Unified Federation of Oil Workers (FUP), according to a BBC report.
Nevertheless, the protests by the oil workers have not been successful in their ultimate objective, as the Libra offshore field (in the Santos Basin) was recently auctioned to a partnership of five oil companies. Those entailed within this transaction are: PETROBRAS (Brazil), Shell (Anglo-Dutch), Total (France) as well as CNPC and CNOCC (both from China). President Rousseff qualified the auction as a success, as the Brazilian government is counting  on the Libra field to pump up to 1.4 million oil barrels a day, which would mean huge revenues for Brazil.

Fuel to the fire: Police brutality and the black hand?

Referring to the protests of the oil workers vis-à-vis the auction of the aforementioned Libra field, Brazil’s Energy Minister Edison Lobao has diplomatically stated “We’re a democratic country, so people have the right to voice their thoughts.” While this is certainly a positive declaration, media coverage over past weeks of the protests has brought to light a number of instances in which unnecessary force was used by Brazilian police officers.
In a textbook example of the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words,” in early October, a Brazilian police officer posted a photograph of himself holding a broken police baton on his Facebook profile, with the title “My bad Teach!” The photo quickly became news headlines and it is assumed that the officer took part in the cracking down of protesters by police officers in Rio de Janeiro.
On the other hand, a third actor that has an increasingly prominent role in support of both the teachers and oil workers is the Black Bloc. The group is an unorganized collective of individuals, who wear black clothing and stage protests.  Due to its lack of infrastructure, the group does not seem to have a universal set of principles or beliefs, but it gained international prominence during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
As for its current role in Brazil, the group has had a mixed record so far regarding its involvement in recent protests. For example, an October 22 article by the Associated Press portrayed the movement in a positive light. The AP report quoted a teacher who participated in a recent protest in Rio, explaining, “The police came in firing tear gas, hitting us with clubs. A young Black Bloc stepped right in between me and the police. If it weren’t for them, the police would have destroyed us.”
On the other hand, other alleged Black Bloc members have been involved in violent acts during the ongoing protests and have been accused of acts of vandalism, such as attacking shops, setting fire to a police car and throwing petrol bombs.
The situation in Brazil is becoming increasingly complex. If anyone in the Brazilian government hoped that the country’s bout of protests had (finally) quieted down after the popular discontent in June, they were sadly mistaken. Nevertheless, the protesters may not emerge victorious, other than gaining international notoriety.
The auction and privatization of the Libra offshore oilfield is an example of President Rousseff exercising resilience to the pressure of the protesters and their demands but perhaps the teachers’ coalition will have more success in pursuing their objectives.

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