- 2013 Protests in Brazil:The Kite and the Byte in New Forms of Popular Mobilization
Iactively participated in street protests of Rio and Brasília. But that was in the late 1980s, and our collective experience was significantly different from the recent 2013 events, as well as from former 1960s mobilizations, all hallmarks in the modern history of popular movements in Brazil. 2013 was unique in organizational expression and ideological orientation, but even stranger was the socioeconomic timing of the protests, during a period of relative prosperity in the nation. The confusion is evident in the multitude of recent analyses. While agreeing with the general claim that 2013 expresses a “crisis of representation” between society and state, this analysis goes beyond, to argue that this crisis expresses a reemerging type of revolutionary subjectivity which, in turn, is being fueled by the dissemination of digital flexibilities propelling a new media imaginary. While partly singular, the Brazilian case also resonates with the current wave of global popular protests, providing elements that suggest new forms of popular mobilization in the making.
The following ethnographic recollection works like a film negative of 2013. Back in the late 1980s, we were middle-class college students involved in modest yet soon-to-boom street demonstrations orchestrated by the National Union of Students (UNE), the nation’s strongest youth organization run by militants affiliated with left-wing parties. In the context [End Page 935] of the gradual redemocratization of Brazilian politics taking place at that time, our goal was specific and clear: to secure rights to free and universal public education against the ongoing specter of privatization. Just as timely, the National Congress was drafting a new Constitution, and its chapter on education was suffering a severe push and pull from various interest groups. An old-school member of the Communist Party, the Rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Horácio Macedo facilitated a caravan of 20 buses to shuttle students and public servants to Brasília, where we joined a myriad of other young activists from across the country. Our role was to publicly express our stance on education and, whenever possible, infiltrate and lobby Congress during the 1988 constitutional proceedings.
It felt like a historic moment, but we didn’t want to rock the boat too much. Following two decades of repressive military rule, political analysts warned us in elegant fashion that “the possibility of repression is determined by the speed of decompression.” As in a chess game, our actions were calculated, seeking optimal alignment across grassroots mobilization, public opinion, and media visibility, mutually influencing backstage politics. Meanwhile, we wondered whether those photographers parading alongside us on the streets were actual journalists or secret agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNI), the data-gathering arm of the still lingering surveillance apparatus. Those demonstrations eventually escalated into the “caras pintadas” (painted faces) of 1992, a massive youth-led movement that joyously pressured Congress to impeach President Collor de Mello, whose demise was brought on by his own reckless dismantling of large swaths of state bureaucracy.
Our collective experience was, in turn, quite different from that of our teachers’ as students during the 1960s and 1970s. They had incisively pushed for radical structural changes (“reformas de base”), embodied in impressive mass mobilizations vertically organized by the left-leaning People’s Mobilization Front (FMP) and main labor unions. However, amidst Cold War tensions, the progressive push horribly backfired when a full-blown reactionary military coup abruptly took power in March 1964. President Goulart was ousted; the Congress pacified, and then shut. Resistance fled the country, was silenced, or squashed during desperate guerilla attempts ending in arrest, torture, or death. In this light, the “caras pintadas” of the early 1990s gratefully recognized the much more favorable conditions to reinstate democracy in the country. [End Page 936]
It is along this historical arc of sociopolitical developments following a class logic that the nation’s intelligentsia instinctively sought to understand the 2013 protests at first. However, as it quickly became clear, in contrast to the class conscious, ideologically oriented, and strategically organized protests of the 1960s and 1980s, what we recently witnessed neither followed master...