Ten years ago, protests demanding a reduction in transportation fares sparked one of the largest waves of popular mobilization in Brazil’s history. Millions of people took to the streets in June 2013, completely changing the country’s political landscape.
Since then, this momentous event has been revered by some and scorned by others. It has been praised and glorified, yet also dismissed and outraged. It was both credited for achievements and blamed for disasters.
Simplistic analysis tend to favor the sweetness or bitterness of this historical moment according to personal preference. In doing so, they fail to grasp the complexity and contradictions of a process in which opposing political and social forces engaged in fierce contention.
The outcome should not be confused with the beginning of a process, as the destination is not always predetermined at the start of the journey. June 2013 opened up a field of possibilities. The class struggle, erupting, intensified abruptly from that point onwards. The result was not predetermined. It had to be determined through the live confrontation of forces. And so it was.
The protests led by the Free Fare Movement (MPL) and other mobilizations in the cities marked the initial phase of the process. They were undeniably progressive. The central focus was the fight against transportation fare hikes, which exposed the issue of urban mobility in metropolises. The protests had a large social base, composed primarily of young workers in precarious conditions. The involvement of the right-wing in the demonstrations, up until that point, was either non-existent or marginal in most cities. It should be noted that the movement in Brazil was part of the global dynamics of protests, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Indignados in Spain.
It is important to mention the particularities of the movement in each region of the country. There were capitals where the movement started before June, such as in Porto Alegre, and it was led by left-wing sectors. On the other hand, in other cities, the protests began only after the nationalization of the process and already had a significant presence of right-wing sectors from the outset.
The brutal repression by the military police during the protest in São Paulo on June 13th, which injured dozens and arrested hundreds of demonstrators, shocked the country. The immense outrage sparked by scenes of police brutality prompted hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets nationwide a few days later, on June 17th. The movement then acquired another political dimension and social scale. Alckmin and Haddad were finally forced to announce a fare reduction. Politicians throughout the country announced measures to address the demands of the protesters.
In light of the new circumstances, the mainstream media, which had previously opposed the protests and advocated for strong repression, underwent a radical shift in its position. The right-wing began to vigorously contest the process from within, claiming it to change its political direction. Reactionary forces worked to put the corruption issue at the center of the agenda. Right-wing and far-right groups, disguised as ordinary citizens, fanned the prevailing anti-party sentiment in the protests to corner left-wing organizations on the streets. Politically conservative middle-class sectors joined the demonstrations, endorsing the agenda promoted by the corporate media.
In this second phase, when millions of people took action, the mass movement, without a defined direction, was marked by social and political intermingling. Groups and sectors from different classes, programs, and ideologies shared the same space for demonstration. But not in a harmonious way. Instead, they engaged in fierce political struggle for the direction of the process. While the bourgeoisie led the middle class, waving the flag of the fight against corruption, a significant portion of the working-class and student youth, connected to left-wing demands, raised banners demanding free public transportation and quality education and healthcare.
The relative decline in street protests in the following months did not signify, during that year, the end of the broader cycle of struggles that June had ignited. Between 2012 and 2014, Brazil witnessed the peak of the number of workers’ strikes since the 1980s. The emergence of the feminist and LGBTI movements, which had been growing prior to June, was also felt, as well as the growth of Black collectives. The housing movements, notably the MTST, rapidly expanded with the proliferation of urban occupations during this period. Dozens of municipal chambers were occupied by popular movements in the second half of 2013. In short, social struggles advanced.
But the adversaries were not idle; quite the opposite. Reactionary forces remained active in the subsequent periods after the major protests. Large portions of the middle class were won over to the right-wing opposition against the Dilma government. The start of Operation Car Wash in 2014 accelerated this reactionary shift. Right-wing and far-right groups and leaders, who had experienced and learned from the street contestation in June, advanced in their organization and political articulation, mimicking the aesthetics of the streets. Movements like MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre) and Revoltados OnLine were formed in this context, for example.
Much would transpire before the parliamentary coup against Dilma in 2016 and the rise of Bolsonarism in 2018, events that completely and negatively transformed the balance of power in the country. The multitude of young proletarians who demanded the expansion of social rights in the streets in 2013 cannot be blamed for the political disasters that occurred years later. The defeat of the impetus of left-wing struggles during that period opened the doors to the advance of reactionary forces. It is necessary to understand why we lost.
Lesson from June
Social struggles exploded in 2013 because broad sectors of the masses wanted more. Unemployment had decreased significantly; however, wages were low. Extreme poverty had receded due to impactful social policies like Bolsa Família, but public healthcare and education suffered from precarious structural conditions.
Workers were consuming more products, but they struggled with increasingly expensive housing rents. Peripheral and Black youth began accessing higher education in greater numbers for the first time, but the cost of transportation within cities was prohibitively high.
The PT governments succeeded in promoting economic growth with poverty reduction. However, social inequalities remained enormous. There were many injustices. And these problems could not be solved through the conservative governance pact with the ruling classes that prevailed in the country.
It was necessary to go beyond low-intensity reformism. To do so, confrontation with the economic elites and political right was indispensable in delivering substantial changes to the people. This was simply because the Brazilian bourgeoisie did not tolerate a change in the obscene pattern of Brazilian inequalities, which are rooted in the superexploitation of labor, structural racism, sexism, LGBTphobia, urban exploitation, environmental destruction, concentration of land in the hands of a few, an inverted tax system that takes from the poor and gives to the rich, among other factors.
Without confronting and defeating the ruling class, there will be no structural changes in Brazil. This reactionary bourgeoisie does not hesitate, when convenient, to support coups, sponsor the far-right, and advance in the destruction of the rights and achievements of the working people. The recent history of the country, from 2016 to 2022, confirms the above statement.
The progressive direction of the 2013 struggles was undeniably defeated in the following years. The main political lesson is that in the class struggle, when there is a failure to advance against the enemy at the opportune moment, it is the enemy who will advance mercilessly against the working class and the oppressed.