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  • Protest Before the Protests:The Unheard Politics of a Welfare Panic in Brazil
  • Gregory Duff Morton

In June 2013, the world woke up to the surprising voices of an unprophesied movement. Thousands of people had swarmed the main avenues of urban Brazil, in city after city, to protest a 20-cent bus fare increase and all that it came to represent: the World Cup, the Olympics, the bursting hospitals, the clogged streets, the facelessness of a developmentalist model. The most visible protagonists of this moment were students and young people linked by Facebook. They built a movement that was immediately and universally recognized as a political gesture.

Two weeks prior, the streets had been full of another group: 900,000 people who also felt anxious and were expressing their fears and desires, thus questioning the direction of the nation. Many of these people did not have Facebook accounts and were not young; they came from the poorest segment of Brazil’s population. They were driven to the streets by a rumor that Bolsa Família had died.

Bolsa Família is the largest conditional cash transfer in the world. It is also one of the most influential curios on display in the global development showcase, having inspired imitations in at least 41 countries (Ballard 2013). 13 million Brazilian families rely on it.1 Bolsa Família is a cash welfare program, and it came into existence in 2003, when the Workers Party first assumed the presidency. Through electronic debit cards, the program delivers modest monthly payouts to families living near or below the World Bank poverty level. The payments come directly from the federal [End Page 925] government and go preferentially to a mother in the household. This is welfare with a payback, or, as policymakers would say, an investment in human capital: for the family to get the money, the mother must comply with “conditionalities,” ensuring that her children attend school and receive vaccinations.

Some regard Bolsa Família—not without reason—as the late-arriving upside to Brazil’s tumultuous process of democratization in the 1980s. The program was a key policy proposal espoused by Brazil’s center-left, a center-left that rose from clandestinity to power through two decades of careful base-building in the new democratic context. Bolsa Família, indeed, bears the marks of its left origins. Compared to similar cashtransfer programs in Latin America, it is unusually generous in its payment amounts. It covers an unusually broad spectrum of the population, including—at least in principle—indigent single adults. And it features a “selfdeclaration” signup process, in which poor families can begin receiving the money without having to provide immediate proof of poverty. (Their poverty status gets checked later.) Perhaps because of this, the program has proven extraordinarily popular among its recipients and crucially effective at relieving hunger, school dropout, and child mortality (De Brauw et al. 2010, Rasella et al. 2013).

Those 900,000 people took to the streets in May 2013 because they had heard—erroneously—that the Bolsa Família program was ending. They went to withdraw their monthly money as quickly as possible. Their collective act was received as mere tumult, not as a political gesture. But these 900,000, no less than the protesters who followed them into the same streets two weeks later, were speaking about the limits of the current historical moment; they were saying something.

When I try to listen to what they were saying, I remember my conversation with Jaira: “It’s not something…” Jaira spoke this sentence to me and stopped. For a moment, in the dry air of the Bahian backlands, silence took hold. Finally, she found the right word: “…reliable.”

“It’s not something reliable.” It was 2012, and Jaira was trying to explain the realities of Bolsa Família. When I started fieldwork in the village where Jaira lived, many women attempted to teach me the same lesson. They were identifying, before the fact, who would be the true guilty party behind the May 2013 rumor about Bolsa Família’s demise—not a politician or a bank manager, but the structure of a social program that, every day, with...


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