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Mass Protests under ‘Left Neoliberalism’: Brazil, June-July 2013



The mass movements in June and July 2013 were the largest and most significant protests in Brazil for a generation, and they have shaken up the country’s political system. They expressed a wide range of demands about public service provision and governance, and concerns with corruption. Their social base was broad, starting with students and left-wing activists and including, later, many middle-class protesters and specific categories of workers. The deep and contradictory frustrations expressed by those protests were symptomatic of a social malaise associated with neoliberalism, the power of the right-wing media, the limitations of the federal administrations led by the Workers’ Party (PT), the rapid growth of expectations in a dynamic country, and the atrophy of traditional forms of social representation. This article examines the political dilemmas posed by those movements, and suggests constructive alternatives for the left.
Critical Sociology
39(5) 657 –669
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0896920513501906
Mass Protests under ‘Left
Neoliberalism’: Brazil, June-July 2013
Alfredo Saad-Filho
University of London, UK
The mass movements in June and July 2013 were the largest and most significant protests in Brazil
for a generation, and they have shaken up the country’s political system. They expressed a wide
range of demands about public service provision and governance, and concerns with corruption.
Their social base was broad, starting with students and left-wing activists and including, later,
many middle-class protesters and specific categories of workers. The deep and contradictory
frustrations expressed by those protests were symptomatic of a social malaise associated with
neoliberalism, the power of the right-wing media, the limitations of the federal administrations
led by the Workers’ Party (PT), the rapid growth of expectations in a dynamic country, and the
atrophy of traditional forms of social representation. This article examines the political dilemmas
posed by those movements, and suggests constructive alternatives for the left.
Brazil, neoliberalism, protest, social movements
The mass movements starting in June 2013 were the largest and most significant protests in Brazil
for a generation. They can be compared to the mobilizations that triggered the collapse of the mili-
tary dictatorship in early 1984, which spread across the country and culminated in demonstrations
with more than one million people in São Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro. They exceeded, by a con-
siderable margin, the size of the protests leading to the resignation of President Fernando Collor, in
In contrast with those earlier movements, which were narrowly focused around demands for
direct presidential elections (the symbol of the national campaign for democracy) and the ousting
of a president that was widely regarded as being both incompetent and corrupt, the 2013 protests
expressed a wide range of (sometimes conflicting) demands. They included the immediate trigger
of the protests – an increase in public transport fares – to concerns over other public services, espe-
cially health and education and, finally, broader issues of governance, focusing especially on
Corresponding author:
Alfredo Saad Filho, Department of Development Studies. SOAS, University of London, London, WC1H 0XG, UK.
501906CRS39510.1177/0896920513501906Critical SociologySaad Filho
658 Critical Sociology 39(5)
corruption. The recent protests were also distinctive in terms of their social base. They started with
students and young left-wing activists and rapidly broadened to include hundreds of thousands of
(mainly) middle-class protesters, overtly with little in common. In parallel, the movement also
included certain categories of workers with specific (economic) demands, and neighbourhood
mobilizations seeking local service improvements. The protests were also deeply influenced by the
widespread use of internet tools for their organization and the expression of demands.
The June-July movements have shaken up Brazil’s political system. Their explosive growth,
size and extraordinary reach caught everyone – the left, the right, and the government – by surprise.
This article examines these movements in light of the achievements and limitations of the demo-
cratic transition of the mid-1980s, and the experience of the federal administrations led by the
Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, hereafter PT) since 2003. The article has three sub-
stantive sections. The first reviews the events of June-July 2013 and their social and political con-
text. The second examines, from a political economy perspective, six key lessons from the protests.
The third summarizes the main points of the argument and draws the relevant conclusions.
The Events of June-July
On 6 June, the radical left Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre, MPL), an autonomist
non-party organization founded in the early 2000s,1 led a demonstration of around 2000 people
demanding the reversal of a recent increase from R$3 to R$3.20 in public transport fares in the city
of São Paulo. A parallel increase had taken place simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro. In previous
years, the MPL had led similar movements in other cities, some of which achieved partial victories,
including the reversal of fare increases and the introduction of free (or half-price) public transport
for students in some municipalities.
The MPL demonstration in Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, where the largest
enterprises, banks and business associations are based, was criticized by the press for disrupting
the flow of traffic, for vandalism, and for making unrealistic demands.2 The demonstration was
attacked by the police, and many arrests followed. The MPL returned in larger numbers in the days
following, and the police responded with increasing brutality, beating up demonstrators and pass-
ers-by indiscriminately.3 Several journalists were wounded, and some were shot with rubber bul-
lets.4 Savage police repression and the plight of the journalists helped to bring the protests to the
attention of the country. After those events the municipal, state and federal governments were
thrown into confusion and the fallout from those street clashes threatened to engulf President
Dilma Rousseff, who was already on the defensive because of the country’s escalating macroeco-
nomic problems (see below).5
In mid-June, the (right-wing) mainstream press and TV networks, having just covered the dem-
onstrations against the Erdoğan government in Turkey, aggrieved at the attacks suffered by their
reporters, and sensing an opportunity to embarrass the federal government, abruptly changed
sides.6 They suddenly stopped criticizing the movement, and started supporting it.7 The protesters
were now portrayed as expressing the energy of youth and popular rejection of the country’s dys-
functional political system. Having switched sides, the mainstream press immediately engaged in
a full-scale attempt to lead the mobilizations, offering blanket coverage, even at the expense of
some beloved telenovelas (soap operas).8
Under the appearance of ‘coverage’, the TV and the main newspapers effectively called people
to the streets, and – very importantly – sponsored the multiplication and de-radicalization of their
demands. For example, in a popular morning show on TV Globo, one of Brazil’s best-known pre-
senters taught mothers how to help their children manufacture tasteful placards for their next
Saad Filho 659
demonstration.9 The press also claimed that the movement was non-partisan, but it was at risk of
being captured by the radical left parties. Press coverage pushed the rapidly growing mobilizations
towards a cacophony loosely centred on civic issues and, especially, state inefficiency and corrup-
tion, in order both to drown out the left and to delegitimize the federal government.
In rapid succession, the demonstrations exploded in size and spread across the country. By late
June they had already attracted well over one million people in hundreds of cities. Movements
continued to take place almost every day in July, including a large nationwide mobilization and
strikes led by the left on 11 July (to be followed by another mobilization on 30 August). However,
under the gaze of the press the protests lost focus and came to encompass a great variety of issues,
often taking on those that had been highlighted by the media in the previous days. The demands
ranged widely, The demands ranged widely, from city transport to public services more generally
(for); FIFA, the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup (against)10; gay rights and the
legalization of drugs (mainly for, but most churches are against); compulsory voting (mostly
against); abortion and religious issues (all over the place); inflation (against); public spending,
privatizations and the state monopolies (unclear); PEC 37, a proposed Constitutional amendment,
later rejected, limiting the right of the police to lead criminal investigations, at the expense of the
office of public prosecutions (against); President Dilma Rousseff and the PT (divided, with a strong
constituency against and, sometimes, asking for Dilma’s impeachment); the return of military rule
(a pipe-dream of the far right); and, especially, corruption (against which everyone can happily
march together).11
It was not uncommon to see meaningless slogans in the demonstrations (‘The Giant Has
Awoken’), vacuous demands (‘Brazil Must Change Now!’), needless requests (‘Pray for Brazil’),
empty threats (‘End Corruption or We Will Stop the Country’), and bizarre fashion statements (‘I
Want a Louis Vuitton Bag’).12 Anyone could come up with their own demand, and if they were
individualist, anti-political and humorous this would increase their chances of appearing on TV. It
was a veritable Facebookization of protest, in which anyone could come up with a personal state-
ment about the state of the nation and offer potential ‘followers’ their own (self-centred) remedy.
Paradoxically, many in the middle class took the opportunity to express their bitter indignation
about public services they do not currently use, and which they have no intention of using any time
In common with recent movements elsewhere, most famously in Iran, Spain, Egypt and Turkey,
the Brazilian demonstrations were largely organized through social media and TV.14 They included
mainly young workers, students and the middle class, they pulled in localized movements of poor
communities demanding improvements to their neighbourhoods, and they attracted categories of
workers with demands that might be more or less specific to their circumstances (bus drivers, truck
drivers, health sector workers, and so on). Some of the demonstrations immediately following the
explosive growth of the protest movement, in early to mid-June, tended to be disproportionately
white and middle-class in composition.15 More unusually, many demonstrations had no clear lead-
ers, and there were no speeches. Frequently, groups of loosely connected people organized them-
selves ‘spontanously’ on Facebook and Twitter, met somewhere, and then marched in unclear
directions, depending on decisions made by unknown persons more or less on the spot.16
The police came under heavy scrutiny, and they failed miserably most of the time. Brutal repres-
sion was sometimes accompanied by riots; at other times the police pulled back, perhaps tactically
(for good or bad reasons), and sometimes out of concern with their own image. In some cases, the
police attacked the demonstrators while leaving the rioters alone.17 At least once, repression led to
a massacre as Rio de Janeiro police confronted a gang which had, allegedly, used an ongoing dem-
onstration to facilitate a spree of robberies. Ten people lost their lives at Favela da Maré as a direct
660 Critical Sociology 39(5)
result of this operation.18 Infiltration by the police and the far-right was both evident and wide-
spread in most demonstrations.19 At the fringes of vast marches, unidentified gangs trashed banks,
shops, offices and public buildings, sometimes under the gaze of an inert police force, while the left
was blamed for the destruction.
Since ‘all politicians are corrupt’ (a message endlessly, if subliminally, repeated by the media
for several years), some marches were, somehow, proclaimed to be ‘party-free’, and left-wing mili-
tants and trade unionists were harassed and beaten up by thugs, at times wrapped in the national
flag and screaming ‘my party is my country’. There was growing speculation of a plot to create an
atmosphere of chaos which might justify a military coup.20 This is far-fetched: the democratic
consensus remains very strong in Brazil, the military have not overtly intervened in politics during
the last decade, and any attempt to do so now would face significant difficulties. More prosaically,
the military are unlikely to believe that they can easily resolve the problems of public service pro-
vision which have triggered these demonstrations. Nevertheless, those rumours and events support
the view that the mobilizations were in danger of being kidnapped by a media-sponsored upper
middle-class political agenda that included an aggressive push to exclude the left from the streets
under the cover of ‘patriotism’.
The mobilizations continued to grow until late June. As they did so, they became both more
radicalized and more fragmented, and the movement lost any semblance of having a unifying plat-
form. It became, instead, the expression of widespread indignation with the insufficiencies of the
public sector, the state and the political institutions, with corruption providing a symbol of every-
thing that is wrong in the country.
On 19 June the federal government eventually pushed São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to reverse
the transport fare increases, with the offer of tax breaks and the threat of leaving them alone to sort
out the mess otherwise. This surrender was immediately followed by reversals of planned toll price
increases, in the state of São Paulo, and of electricity price increases in the state of Paraná. They
have also stalled, for the foreseeable future, further transport fare increases elsewhere in Brazil.
These outcomes show that a movement with apparently ‘unreasonable’ demands can achieve sig-
nificant victories if it is large and sustained enough. The success of the MPL has put public transport
firmly on the political agenda, and it has opened the space for more aggressive demands concerning
public service provision. However, the demonstrations were largely out of control, and they had
acquired a strong middle-class and anti-left edge proving difficult to contain.
In response, the left made a coordinated effort to regain leadership of the movement, including
a declaration by the MPL that it would no longer call street demonstrations,21 and that it would
work closely together with the radical left parties to regain the streets.22 At the same time, the
President attempted to take the initiative from above with a call for political reform and proposals
to increase spending on public services and to improve health provision.23 The demonstrations
subsequently became increasingly scattered and dwindled in size, except for the large nationwide
strike on 11 July.
Sobering Lessons
The protest movements in June-July 2013 have transformed the Brazilian political scene. They
have also highlighted both the vulnerabilities of the PT and its left-wing allies, and the fragilities
of the federal administration. Dilma Rousseff’s lead in the opinion polls, which looked unassail-
able only a few weeks ago, has largely disappeared.24 Examination of the recent demonstrations
suggests six trigger factors and key socio-political and economic determinants, which might help
to shape their long-term implications.
Saad Filho 661
(1) The changing character of the state
Since Lula’s first administration, starting in 2003, many hundreds of left-wing political, trade
union and NGO cadres have been appointed to the federal administration. While this has, effec-
tively, ‘nationalized’ most social movements through the close alignment of the material interests
of their leaders with the government’s policy agenda, it has also changed the social composition of
the Brazilian state. For the first time, poor citizens could recognize themselves in the bureaucracy
and relate to friends and comrades who had become ‘important’ in Brasília.
These personnel changes, and the progressive policy shifts in Lula’s second administration,
enormously increased the legitimacy of the Brazilian state.25 They also provided a strong platform
supporting the claim of the poor for better public service provision, and for a larger share of the
products of their labour. This does not necessarily amount to collective action and, in some cases,
it is inimical to it; but the affirmations of citizenship, and the closely related change in social atti-
tudes, are centrally important for Brazilian democracy. These changes have been called a ‘demo-
cratic revolution’ by some analysts (Wu, 2010): this is an exaggeration, but it illustrates the
significance of the new relationship between citizens and the state. However, these developments
have, simultaneously, increased Lula’s and Dilma’s distance from large swathes of the middle
classes, the traditional bourgeoisie and financial market interests, which used to have almost exclu-
sive access to the state administration.
(2) The social and political isolation of the government
The June-July movements have confirmed the unremitting rejection of former President Lula,
President Dilma Rousseff and the PT by large segments of the upper and middle classes, and the
mainstream media. Although these social groups are relatively small, internally divided and politi-
cally unstable, they are highly influential because of their economic power, privileged access to the
media and the social movements, and ideological influence over the working class.
The revulsion of large segments of the upper strata of the population, which was displayed
prominently in the recent marches and in the press, is not due to narrow economic concerns. Lula
has plausibly insisted that the Brazilian elite never made so much money as they did during his
administration,26 and this may still hold true under Dilma. Nevertheless, wealthy and influential
fractions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes resent their loss of privilege because of the
expansion of citizenship due to the democratization of the country under the federal administra-
tions led by the PT. To their chagrin, the Brazilian elites have realized that they alone can no longer
drive Brazilian politics.27
The redistribution of income and the expansion of social programmes in the last 10 years have
benefitted tens of millions of people (see Coutinho, 2013; Mattei, 2012; Souza, 2012), and the wider
availability of consumer credit has allowed many relatively poor people to visit shopping centres,
fly across the country, and buy a small car (see, for example, Mendonça and Sachsida, 2013; Paula,
2011). Some of these aspirations may be criticized because they are socially undesirable, macroeco-
nomically destabilizing or environmentally unsustainable, or because some of these policy priorities
were promoted by the government in order to support large capital (see, for example, Boito, 2010).
Moreover, rapidly rising incomes at the bottom of the pyramid (see Morais and Saad-Filho, 2011)
and rising auto sales28 have not been accompanied by improvements in infrastructure, leading to an
overall deterioration in the quality of urban life. Despite these difficulties, those consumption aspi-
rations are currently shared by tens of millions of people. The result is that Brazilian roads and air-
ports are full,29 and their previous (elite) users complain bitterly about the lack of space to
accommodate all those poor people moving about. The lower classes now have a sense of
662 Critical Sociology 39(5)
entitlement, and possibly even worse, they also fail to demonstrate the deference to which their
taller, whiter, thinner and better dressed social superiors had become accustomed.30
While large capital did well economically over the last decade or more, the middle class did not
share in this prosperity. So-called ‘good jobs’ in the private and public sectors are relatively scarce,
higher education no longer guarantees ‘good’ income, and the young find it hard to do better eco-
nomically than their parents.31 Middle-class groups desperately want economic growth, but they
remain ideologically attached both to a neoliberal-globalist project which slows growth,32 and to
clientelistic politics, landowner interests and a neoliberal ideology. They are also frightened by the
supposed ‘radicalism’ of the government, despite the PT’s extraordinary moderation, and terrified
of Brazil becoming another Venezuela.33
Isolation from these key social groups has cost the PT dearly – twice. First, during the mensalão
scandal, when the elites and the media attempted to replicate the demonstrations leading to the
impeachment for corruption of President Fernando Collor, in 1992 (see Valença, 2002), and tried
to bring the masses into the street in order to topple or, at least, imobilize Lula with another cam-
paign against corruption. Second, while their attempt failed in 2005, the challenge looked easier in
2013 since the masses were already on the street; all that was needed was a shift in motivation and
a suitable set of slogans generously provided and heavily promoted by the mainstream media.
(3) Expectations rose faster than incomes
The achievements of the PT administrations have raised expectations even faster than incomes.
The emerging poor want to consume more, larger masses of people want social inclusion, and both
want better public services. The middle classes oscillate between indifference and hostility to the
poor, but they would also like to benefit from good public services in the future.34 They are, how-
ever, firmly opposed to paying higher taxes in order to have them.35 They claim that they pay too
much already, that corruption spirits away a large chunk of the government’s revenues, and that
‘their’ taxes have been supporting a parasitic mass of undeserving poor through federal transfer
programmes. At the same time the media, and society more widely, completely ignore the fact that
nearly half the federal budget is absorbed in the service of the domestic public debt – effectively a
welfare programme for the rich – and that these transfers dwarf the cost of social spending and the
federal transfer programmes.36
(4) The limited power of ‘left neoliberalism’
Under favourable economic circumstances, the ‘left neoliberal’ policies implemented by the PT,
and the greater legitimacy of the state which has accompanied Lula’s election, can disarm the
political right and disconnect the radical left from the masses of the population. Lula ended his
second administration, in 2010, with approval rates touching on 90 percent,37 and Dilma Rousseff
had nearly 80 percent approval rates until March 2013,38 which had never happened to any Brazilian
president in their third year in office.
Those high approval rates sucked dry the base of support which might have been available to
their potential rivals. No party has ever prospered to the left of the PT and, until recently, the right-
wing opposition was hopelessly disorganized. For a brief period, the PT achieved something close
to political hegemony in Brazil. Yet, its prominence was not built on solid foundations. Dilma
Rousseff was elected by Lula’s social base, mainly the poor, with the support of large capital (see
Morais and Saad-Filho, 2011, 2012). But Dilma had a limitation: she had always been a technocrat,
had never been elected to public office, and did not have her own political base. Even worse, the
Saad Filho 663
economy was bound to decelerate during her administration following the boom years in the mid-
2000s, and Brazil’s extraordinarily successful bounce back after the 2008 global crisis.
(5)The economic drag
The space to manage the contradictions and limitations outlined above has shrunk in the recent
past. Although inflation rates have remained stable, around 0.5 percent per month (6% annually)
since early 2007, and despite the fact that expected inflation has also remained stable around these
values,39 in early 2013 there was a media-sponsored panic in the country because of the allegedly
‘imminent’ prospect of runaway inflation.40 More significantly, the current account deficit has
increased rapidly, from around 2 percent of GDP between mid-2010 and mid-2012, to almost 4
percent of GDP in the first half of 2013.41 The rapid deterioration in the country’s external accounts
is due to the declining trend in global commodity prices, poor exports to (stagnant) advanced econ-
omy markets, growth slowdown in China, and capital outflows because of the unwinding of quanti-
tative easing in the USA, the UK and the Eurozone. These factors have triggered a rapid slide of the
real, from R$1.56 per US dollar, in July 2011, to R$2.27 per US dollar in mid-July 2013.42
The ensuing inflationary pressures have led the Central Bank of Brazil to raise interest rates, the
state-owned banks to restrict new loans, and the federal government and the state-owned enter-
prises to hold back spending and public investment.43 Economic growth has almost stalled, making
it difficult to maintain the PT policy of reducing inequality gradually without directly hurting
established privileges. These tribulations have been magnified by a relentless press campaign sug-
gesting that the government is out of touch, that corruption is more prevalent than usual, and that
the economy is spiralling out of control. In the wake of these economic problems, and the demon-
strations in June-July, Dilma Rousseff’s approval rates tumbled by more than 40 percentage points
in less than three months, down to 30 percent in mid-July.44 The PT and the country have found
themselves locked in political confusion.
The economic slowdown, coming soon after the country’s good performance in the wake of the
global crisis, would inevitably create social and political tensions because of existing dissatisfac-
tions, conflicting aspirations, and the shrinking ability of the state to reconcile them. These diffi-
culties are compounded by the government’s political limitations in Congress, where the entire
(broadly conceived) left controls less than one-third of the seats. This makes it impossible for the
PT to govern without alliances with undisciplined right-wing parties and unsavoury individuals, all
managed under the gaze of a hostile press and the scrutiny of a right-wing judicial system.
(6) A confluence of dissatisfactions
The recent protests in Brazil express a confluence of competing dissatisfactions:
a) protests against the expansion of citizenship, which has helped to squeeze the middle class,
b) demands on the part of the workers and the poor for the further widening of citizenship,
better public services and improved living conditions.
Yet these groups also protest together because of their perception of dysfunctionality and corrup-
tion in state institutions, which the mainstream press has highlighted with gusto as if they had been
created by the PT.45
664 Critical Sociology 39(5)
The outcome is that while the middle class is confused, angry and disorganized, the workers are
unhappy for different reasons, marginalized, and also disorganized. Finally, young people are frus-
trated and confused in equal measure. These contradictory demands could probably be managed if
the Brazilian economy was growing, but its slowdown makes every grievance more urgent, and
every constraint tighter. This is a recipe for political volatility, and it poses difficult problems for
the country’s political left.
Summing up
The June-July protest movements in Brazil express deep frustrations across several layers of soci-
ety. Their explosive character and the amorphous set of demands put forward by the protesters are,
first, symptoms of a social malaise associated with the contradictions of left-wing policy-making
under neoliberalism. Second, they illuminate the limitations arising from the achievements of these
administrations, including higher expectations of economic performance and public service provi-
sion. Third, they reveal the atrophy of traditional forms of social representation (the media, trade
unions, NGOs, political parties, and so on), which have become unable to channel discontent and
resolve disputes between social groups, either because they are tightly controlled by the elite, or
because they have been disempowered by neoliberal reforms (see Morais and Saad-Filho, 2011;
Singer, 2009).
Furthermore, the Brazilian protests show that, without organization, dissatisfaction – however
legitimate, wide and deeply felt it may be – tends to be fruitless, and that spontaneous mass move-
ments with a mixed class base and fuelled by unfocused anger can be destabilizing without being
The Brazilian left reacted with maturity to the complex challenges posed by the protests
and the attempted kidnap of the movement by the mainstream media and the far right. After a
brief period of astonishment, left political parties, trade unions, social movements and NGOs
have worked towards the convergence of their sectional programmes and aspirations, espe-
cially through common activities and a national co-ordination of movements, organizations
and parties.46 They have proposed specific goals for the movement around political reform, the
limitation of working hours, state investment in health, transport and education, the decom-
modification of public services, the democratization of the media, and reform of the police.47
In other words, they have attempted to identify platforms which can bring together the work-
ers and the poor, marginalize and fragment the middle class and the right, and put pressure on
the federal government, all the while allowing a radical working class movement to work
together with some state institutions in order to raise, from below, its influence over policy
formulation and implementation.48
The left ought to stick to this approach instead of falling into an infantile (and, fortunately, mar-
ginal) ultra-radicalism, targeting the federal government and, inevitably – because of their insuf-
ficient weight – joining, in a subordinate position, the ongoing destabilization campaign led by the
political right, the middle class, and the right-wing media. There is no doubt that left-wing admin-
istrations tend to implement more progressive policies and be more accommodating of mass move-
ments than right-wing ones. If the current government lost coherence and became paralysed
because of contradictory pressures coming from the right and the left, or because of the loss of its
social base, it would be unlikely to accelerate a socialist revolution in Brazil because there is no
ideological, organizational, social, material or international basis for it to happen. It would, instead,
directly contribute to a right-wing victory in the 2014 presidential elections, and to the ensuing
demoralization and disorganization of the Brazilian left.
Saad Filho 665
The response of the federal government to the movements, after considerable hesitation, was
precisely to seek left support, and propose a programme of political reforms and expansion of
public service provision which could bring concrete gains to the workers and the poor.49 The left
should engage in a dialogue with the government, while insisting that a predominantly parliamen-
tary strategy to effect those Constitutional reforms is bound to fail. The government should, instead,
align itself with the workers’ organizations and the left in order to push through democratic reforms
that include state funding for the political parties, the break-up of media monopolies, and improved
education, health and public transport services.
It is disappointing, but also sobering, to conclude that Brazil is not going through a revolution-
ary crisis, and that the current political mobilizations are unlikely to trigger one. Nevertheless, the
mobilizations of June-July 2013 were, unquestionably, the most important social movement in
Brazil in the last thirty years. The left should continue to fight on the streets, in workplaces and in
schools, to broaden and radicalize the movement, bring out the working class with its specific
demands, and seek to defeat the right and disorganize and attract part of the middle classes in order
to win the coming plebiscite for progressive Constitutional and policy changes. If this can be
achieved, it would shift the political balance in the country, and it could lead to concrete long-term
gains for workers and the left in Brazil.
This article was completed in late July 2013. It builds upon a note available on
bullet/851.php. I am grateful to numerous friends and colleagues for their generous comments, especially
Gilbert Achcar, Ricardo Antunes, Armando Boito, Maria de Lourdes Mollo, Lecio Morais, Anthony Pereira,
Plínio de Arruda Sampaio Jr, Rubens Sawaya, Antonio Carlos Macedo e Silva and Harry West. The usual
disclaimers apply.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
1. For a brief history of the movement, see
2. See, for example, Note also the changing tone of the cov-
erage in the following days.
3. The Brazilian police are organized, at state level, along two parallel tracks, the civilian police (which inves-
tigates crimes) and the military police (which patrols the streets and maintains public order). The federal
police investigates specific federal crimes and operates as the border force. Smaller police forces operate
in the railways, the armed forces, and so on. This structure was introduced under the military dictatorship.
Brazil’s democratic transition did not include significant reforms of the police or the armed forces.
4. See, for example,
5. The municipal government of São Paulo is led by the Workers’ Party (PT). The state government is led
by its main rival, the right-wing Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and the federal government is led
by a broad centre-left coalition headed by the PT. The municipal and state governments agreed the fare
increase (the city runs the buses, and the state runs the metro system). Their refusal to take the protests
seriously, and the heavy hand of the state police, backfired badly.
6. The Brazilian press is dominated by four virtually indistinguishable national newspapers, two pub-
lished in São Paulo (Folha de S. Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo) and two in Rio de Janeiro (O Globo
and Jornal do Brasil). TV ownership is also heavily concentrated, with the Globo network (the parent
666 Critical Sociology 39(5)
company of the newspaper with the same name) commanding 32 percent of the audience (half of the
entire audience of open TV channels). Other networks include Record (controlled by an evangelical
church), SBT and Band. Although their audience has been diluted by the new cable and satellite chan-
nels, the main networks retain a virtual monopoly of the national news programmes, which are substan-
tively indistinguishable.
7. The most remarkable turnaround was by TV Globo. Their shift was so startling that it was the subject of satire
in neighbouring Argentina; see and http://gilberguessantos.; for a critical analysis of this episode, see http://
8. See
tos,ffc24201aea5f310VgnVCM5000009ccceb0aRCRD.html; and
9. See This
is the same presenter who, in April 2013, mocked the government’s alleged loss of control of inflation by wear-
ing a necklace made of tomatoes in her programme (tomatoes were particularly expensive at that point in time
and, for the press, they symbolized runaway inflation). She declared that it was like she was ‘wearing gold’;
10. The cost of hosting the World Cup has been estimated at US$13b. The World Cup will follow the FIFA
Confederations Cup (held in June 2013), and will be followed, in turn, by the 2016 Olympic Games.
The government expected that hosting these events would help to consolidate a new image of Brazil
on the world stage. This goal has been compromised, especially since Confederations Cup matches
were eclipsed by riots in several cities; see, for example,
11. It is significant that the Commander of the Military Police of São Paulo, allegedly speaking ‘in his
personal capacity’, suggested to MPL representatives that their demonstrations should target political
corruption; see
12. For a sample, see
13. Most middle-class Brazilians would never consider taking the bus to work; they would also not normally
use public hospitals or send their children to state schools. This social group regularly complains that,
although they pay high taxes, public services remain very poor.
14. It has been estimated that up to 91 percent of demonstrators heard about the marches they eventually
joined on the internet; see
15. For an anecdotal account of key demonstrations, see
golpista-no-xadrez. An opinion poll in eight state capitals on 20 June (a day of large demonstrations)
suggested that 63 percent of the demonstrators were aged 14–29, 92 percent had completed at least
secondary school and 52 percent were students, 76 percent were in paid employment, and only 45 per-
cent earned less than 5 minimum wages. In other words, they had attended school for much longer and
had much higher incomes than the population average; see
veja-integra-da-pesquisa-do-ibope-sobre-os-manifestantes.html and http://thesmokefilledroomblog.
16. ‘There were several demonstrations in the evening of Friday, June 21st and Saturday, June 22nd. At
Paulista Avenue, on Friday evening, three demonstrations took place with different demands and, in
the absence of any points of contact, they did not engage with one another: the doctors, the “gay cure”
[a bill in Congress, supported by the evangelical churches, allowing psychologists to treat homosexu-
als seeking a cure for their supposed ‘illness’; the bill was strongly opposed by the left and most social
Saad Filho 667
movements, and it was withdrawn on 1 July], and another from We Are The Eastern Zone [of São Paulo]’
See The author
of this article also witnessed three small unconnected demonstrations taking place simultaneously, at
Paulista Avenue, on Monday, 1 July: one led by a street theatre group, another by Bolivian workers, and
the third by a loose crowd without any clear demands, but obviously very intent on taking photographs
of one another. On the following evening Paulista Avenue was paralysed by a large demonstration of bus
drivers and, on the evening after that, 20,000 health sector workers demonstrated there.
17. See, for example,
18. See
19. For a shocking example, the following video shows a uniformed policeman deliberately breaking the
window of a police vehicle, presumably in order to blame the ‘vandals’:
watch?v=kxPNQDFcR0U&oref=http percent3A percent2F percent2Fwatch
percent3Fv percent3DkxPNQDFcR0U&has_verified=1
20. A worrying precedent was the unfounded rumour, spread on social networks during the weekend of 18–
19 May, that the federal government would suspend the Bolsa Família social welfare programme. This
programme currently benefits 13m poor families, and it symbolizes the income distribution achieve-
ments of the Lula and Dilma administrations. This baseless story triggered scenes of chaos in several
cities, as the benefit recipients attempted to withdraw funds as rapidly as possible, fearing their immi-
nent confiscation (see, for example,!/20130520-43679-nac-1-pri-
a1-not). These rumours, and the ensuing chaos, were widely relayed, and fed a separate (also entirely
artificial) panic being stoked by the right-wing media and the neoliberal critics of the federal government
concerning ‘spiralling’ inflation and the ‘collapse’ of the exchange rate. The police later concluded that
the Bolsa Família rumour was ‘spontaneous’ and no-one was to blame (see
21. See
22. See
23. In the first page of its 26 June edition, after the President’s televised statement proposing significant
Constitutional and policy changes, the largest Brazilian newspaper found it essential to inform the
nation about the cost of Dilma Rousseff’s makeup and hair-styling; see
24. As recently as in late March 2013, the opinion polls suggested that Dilma Rousseff could win 76 percent
of the ballots in the next presidential elections, in October 2014. (Brazilian presidents are elected for a
term of four years, and they can be re-elected once. They may run for office again after a break of at least
one term. This has not yet happened, but there are recurrent rumours that former President Lula may run
in the future.)
25. For a more extended analysis of these processes, see Morais and Saad-Filho (2011).
26. See; see also, pp.1-2.
27. These limitations became evident in the wake of the infamous mensalão corruption scandal, which
erupted in 2005. The press and the right-wing opposition pushed hard to break the Lula administration,
but Lula reacted strongly and his mass support base re-elected him on a landslide in the following year.
Despite the resistance of most of the elite, Lula’s support base also comfortably elected Dilma Rousseff
as his successor (see below, and Morais and Saad-Filho, 2011). The alleged perpetrators of the mensalão
668 Critical Sociology 39(5)
have been subjected to a highly politicized prosecution through the courts, and were pronounced guilty
by the President of the Supreme Court in a legally questionable and politically divisive judgement.
Minister Joaquim Barbosa is an erratic and conservative judge, who is now touted as a potential candi-
date in the 2014 presidential elections. He has been offered the candidacy by the tiny Brazilian Military
Party (sic) (see, but other parties are also considering the possibility
of supporting him.
28. Brazil has risen from 9th place in the world in new automobile registrations, with 1.6 million in 2005, to
4th place, with 3.6 million in 2012; see
29. The number of automobiles in circulation in Brazil rose from 42 million in 2005 to 76 million in 2012
(, and the number of passengers in the country’s 63 largest airports
rose from 96 million in 2005 to 193 million in 2012 (
30. For a detailed analysis of social disparities and tensions in Brazil under Lula, see Singer (2009).
31. For a detailed study of employment patterns in Brazil, see Pochmann (2013).
32. The Brazilian economy has performed poorly since the transition to neoliberalism, in the early 1990s.
The average real per capita GDP growth rate between 1995 and 2002, during the presidency of Fernando
Henrique Cardoso, was only 0.75 percent per annum. In the first Lula administration, between 2003 and
2006, these rates reached 2.4 percent. They improved further in his second administration, between 2007
and 2010, to 3.5 percent, despite the adverse impact of the global crisis in 2009. Those income growth
rates subsequently declined to 3.2 percent in 2011 and zero in 2012, and income growth in 2013 is also
expected to be near zero.
33. The mainstream media criticizes Venezuela’s policies relentlessly; for a sample of the bile, it is enough
to browse the archives of Brazil’s largest weekly magazine, Veja:
34. See, for example, this opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Planning: http://www.plane-
Curiously, the poll shows that the satisfaction rate of non-users of public education, health and social
security is 10-12 percentage points lower than the satisfaction rate of the actual users of these services
35. For a sample of the vast (damning) critiques against taxation, see
economia/tributacao-no-brasil-e-maior-que-em-17-paises-da-ocde and
br/noticias/impresso,brasil-e-o-brics-que--cobra-mais-impostos-,894482,0.htm. A private insti-
tute has produced research showing that Brazil ranks last among 30 ‘high tax’ countries in terms
of perceptions of efficiency and value for money in taxation, most recently in April 2013 (iden-
tical results were obtained in the previous three years); see
36. For a detailed analysis of the domestic public debt and the federal budget, see http://www.auditoriaci-
37. See
38. See
39. See
40. See, for example,
e-acende-alerta-no-banco-central.shtml, and
41. See
42. Data from and
43. See
Saad Filho 669
44. See
45. The right-wing populist Janio Quadros was elected president in 1960 promising to confront entrenched
corruption in the country, and another right-wing populist, Fernando Collor, also promised to address it
as a priority, in 1989. Neither president had strong party support, and neither completed their mandate:
Janio resigned after only seven months, allegedly as part of a failed gamble to be granted extensive pow-
ers by Congress, and Collor was forced to resign under the threat of impeachment, after only two years
in power.
46. It was sobering to observe that, when the far-right attempted to exclude the left from the street demon-
strations, they did not distinguish between shades of radicalism across the left-wing ‘critics’ and ‘sup-
porters’ of the federal government, and did not aim primarily at the ‘true’ revolutionary party of the
working class, whatever it may be. Everyone wearing a red T-shirt, identified as a trade-union member
or waving a red flag was targeted in exactly the same way.
47. See, for example, the Open Letter of the Social Movements to President Dilma Rousseff, issued on 19
48. See
49. See
poe-plebiscito-para-reforma-política, and
cias/2013/ 06/24-06-2013-dilma-anuncia-mais-r-50-bilhoes-para-obras-de-mobilidade-urbana.
Boito A Jr (2012) ‘Governos Lula: a Nova Burguesia Nacional no Poder’, in A. Boito Jr. and A. Galvão
(eds.), Política e Classes Sociais no Brasil dos Anos 2000. São Paulo: Alameda, pp. 67–104.
Coutinho DR (2013) Decentralization and coordination in social law and policy: the Bolsa Família program.
In Trubek DM et al. (eds) Law and the New Developmental State. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 303–344.
Mattei L (2012) Políticas públicas de combate à pobreza no Brasil: o caso do programa Bolsa Família. Revista
da Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Política 33: 147–176.
Mendonça MJ and Sachsida A (2013) Identificando a demanda e oferta de crédito bancário no Brasil, Texto
para Discussão 1837, IPEA. Available (consulted 8 August 2013) at:
Morais L and Saad-Filho A (2011) Brazil beyond Lula: forging ahead or pausing for breath? Latin American
Perspectives 38(2): 31–44.
Morais L and Saad-Filho A (2012) Neo-developmentalism and the challenges of economic policy-making
under Dilma Rousseff. Critical Sociology 38(6): 789–798.
Paula LF (2011) Financial Liberalization and Economic Performance: Brazil at the Crossroads. London:
Pochmann M (2013) Classes do trabalho em mutação. São Paulo: Revan Editora.
Singer A (2009) Raízes sociais e ideológicas do Lulismo. Novos Estudos 85: 83–102.
Souza PHGF (2012) Poverty, Inequality and Social Policies in Brazil, 1995–2009. UNDP International
Poverty Centre Working Paper 87. Available at:
(accessed 12 August 2013).
Valença MM (2002) The politics of giving in Brazil: the rise and demise of Collor (1990–1992). Latin Ameri-
can Perspectives 29(1): 115–152.
Wu V (2010) Por que a grande mídia e a oposição resolveram jogar sujo. Carta Maior 21 September 2010.
Available (consulted 8 August 2013) at:
... In Brazil, democracy is facing a difficult time, where a political crisis is in course. It all started in 2013 when Brazil faced the largest and most significant mass protests in a generation [71]. One year after the protests, a new general election took place, when Dilma Rousseff was re-elected president of Brazil in midst of corruption scandals that involved not only the executive power but much politicians are dedicating their communications to a specific topic [20,22,31,36,51,67,77]. ...
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... Tras el 2008, los gobiernos progresistas entran en crisis políticas. Confrontados a un bajo crecimiento económico, alto desempleo y a la implementación de paquetes de austeridad fiscal, surgen nuevas formas de conflictividad social y de oposiciones a los matices neoliberales de los gobiernos progresistas (Saad-Filho, 2013). Las alianzas de los movimientos-partidos se tensan y la presión económica internacional quiebra la hegemonía de los gobiernos de izquierda en la región, abriendo la puerta para la entrada de nuevas derechas y una fase de radicalización neoliberal. ...
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The June Days protests (Jornadas de Junho) constituted the most significant protest cycle in contemporary Brazilian history. Between June and July 2013, millions of people mobilized across more than 400 cities in the country, numbers only comparable in breadth and scope to the mobilizations against the military regime in 1984 and the protests demanding the impeachment of President Collor de Melo in 1994. While the protests were initially triggered in response to a relatively small rise in public transportation fares in the city of São Paulo, local states' repression soon led to a national escalation of conflict. The scope of grievances expanded rapidly, spanning the state's long‐standing mismanagement of public services – education, health, housing, environmental issues – the defense of sexual and racial minorities' rights, the denunciation of political corruption, and demands for fiscal reform. This manifold set of grievances was accompanied by increasing hostility against political parties and deepened political polarization, making political elites' responses fall short of protesters' expectations.
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This article reviews the emergence of neo-developmentalist economic policies in Brazil, in the early 2000s, as a heterodox alternative to neoliberalism. These policies were implemented in the second Lula administration (2006–10), and continued under Dilma Rousseff. However, neo-developmentalism has not simply replaced neoliberalism; rather, these prima facie incompatible policy frameworks have been combined, and the ensuing policies have achieved significant successes despite the intrinsic fragilities and limitations of this hybrid structure. The article examines the achievements and limitations of these policies, and the (limited) scope for their continuation in Dilma’s Rousseff’s administration.
Bolsa Família and the Roles of Law in (New) Developmental Policies Neri et al. propose that the first decade of the twenty-first century could be called the “decade of income inequality reduction or equalization of outcomes,” whereas the 1990s could be called the “conquest of economic stability” and the 1980s, the “decade of democratization.” Indeed, since 2001 improvements in both the rate of poverty and income inequality have been unprecedented in Brazil. Between 2001 and 2008, incomes of the wealthy grew at a moderate pace, while income gains for the poor increased dramatically, probably for the first time in Brazilian history. Studies highlight the fact that a significant portion of Brazil’s non-neglectable distributive gains achieved in the past decade are the result of a combination of economic and institutional reforms. They include the benefits from inflation control, changes in labor markets that comprise unemployment reduction and increases in the minimum wage, pensions and social security improvements, and a new generation of social assistance policies, with a remarkable example of these being the Bolsa Família Program (BFP), created in 2003.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, Brazil has followed a pattern of economic development inspired by Washington Consensus. This framework includes a set of liberalising and market friendly policies such as privatisation, trade liberalization, stimulus to foreign direct investment, tax reform, and social security reforms.
Fernando Collor de Mello was the first Brazilian president to be freely elected in 29 years. He earned twice as many votes as the total number of voters in the previous presidential election, in 1960. His term was expected to become a landmark in Brazilian history, and it did, although not in the way desired. This paper discusses the politics of Collor's election, his administration, and the movement that resulted in his demise. The core argument is that Collor's modernity, contrary to its meaning at the rhetorical level, involved a great deal of political expediency in the form of clientelistic maneuverings perhaps never before seen in Brazilian history. In addition to the more traditional sources of information (e.g., government documentation, journalistic material, specialized reports, etc.), I use interviews I conducted with members of Congress and the administration in March-April 1992 and the first half of 1995. Some of the more descriptive passages serve to build a supporting framework for the analysis, presenting in a systematic way the events and players that gave the period its shape. I begin with a discussion of the 1989 presidential election and go on to describe how, once empowered, the Collor administration found it difficult to deal with a rather conservative Congress and with the democratic procedures established in the 1988 Constitution. After an analysis of its strategies against the background of its lack of legislative support, I examine the movement resulting in Collor's fall from power. Finally, recalling Marx's view of individuals as "bearers of particular class-relations and interests" ([1867] 1990: 92), I suggest where the analysis of Collor's rise and demise should find its theoretical milieu.
this opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Planning
  • See
See, for example, this opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Planning:
Governos Lula: a Nova Burguesia Nacional no Poder
  • References Boito
References Boito A Jr (2012) 'Governos Lula: a Nova Burguesia Nacional no Poder', in A. Boito Jr. and A. Galvão (eds.), Política e Classes Sociais no Brasil dos Anos 2000. São Paulo: Alameda, pp. 67-104.
Políticas públicas de combate à pobreza no Brasil: o caso do programa Bolsa Família
  • L Mattei
Mattei L (2012) Políticas públicas de combate à pobreza no Brasil: o caso do programa Bolsa Família. Revista da Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Política 33: 147-176.