Brazil’s economy, a huge corruption scandal at a state-owned oil company and, more recently, impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have dominated the news about this country recently. But it’s another crisis in the state of São Paulo that has the potential to shape democracy in the country for years to come. That’s because this crisis — a huge protest in response to the state’s plan to close 94 public schools — involves some of the country’s youngest citizens: elementary, middle and high school students.
In October, without discussing the decision with teachers, parents or students, the São Paulo state government announced during a television interview that dozens of schools would be closed next year. The plan is part of a consolidation intended to streamline the use of resources by grouping students into specific schools for each educational level. More than 300,000 students will be affected; many will be sent to overcrowded schools far from their homes.
The response to the announcement was immediate. First, the teachers’ union organized protests, but they were ignored. Then, students protested in their neighborhoods, hoping to raise awareness among community members. They were ignored. Finally, on Nov. 9, a handful of students decided to occupy a school in the metropolitan area of São Paulo. Within a week, nearly 100 schools had been occupied, and, a week later, 200.
Although they enjoy broad support from parents, neighbors, teachers and the wider community, the students have faced tough resistance from the state government. Initially, the state tried to have the police remove the students by force, but that effort was quashed by the judiciary, which suggested that the government sit down with the protesters to negotiate a solution. So far that has not happened. Instead, in an audio recording of a meeting with school administrators that was leaked to the press, the government can be heard devising a “war” strategy to discredit the students.
Unfortunately, this arrogant approach to the demands of civil society is characteristic of a new generation of Brazilian public officials. Earlier politicians — those who came into power when Brazil was in transition from a military dictatorship — emerged from workers’ unions, social movements and pro-democracy coalitions. Their formative years had included salary negotiations, grass-roots assemblies, and alliance building, all of which require compromise and an ability to reconcile divergent views.
Today’s political leaders emerged not from social movements but from established places of power, including professional government posts and professorships at elite universities. They are well educated but out of touch, preferring to rely on technical solutions to problems without regard for how people affected by their decisions think. Twenty-three centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle addressed the tension between technical knowledge and the spirit of democracy with the maxim, the guest will be a better judge of a feast than the cook.
In the terms of that analogy, Brazilians are starving. The students’ protest is the latest in a series of social movements that have spiraled out of control because the government has been unresponsive. In 2013, protesters demanding reductions in public transportation fares were met with silence from public officials. In advance of the 2014 World Cup, protests against evictions intended to clear the way for stadium construction, and demonstrations against police brutality in Rio de Janeiro’s slums, fell upon deaf ears.
Thousands of students are now living in their occupied schools in São Paulo. In the face of the government’s declaration of war, they are organizing classes, workshops and musical performances, cooking for one another with food donated by parents and neighbors, and handling routine maintenance on the buildings they have taken over. Rather than losing strength, they are expanding their demands. They are no longer fighting just to keep their schools open. Now, their protest has become a way to express their dissatisfaction with the school system in general.
Their efforts are bearing fruit. Last week, officials of the state government said they would postpone the school closings for one year. The education secretary has resigned. Still, the government continues to take aggressive action — last week large public demonstrations were met with riot police. Although the protesters now occupy only 100 schools, they show no signs of backing down. In fact, their movement appears to be contagious. Students in another state, Goias, have so far taken over nine buildings to protest a decision turning over management of their schools to private nonprofits.
Recent history gives them all reason for hope. The government’s concessions in São Paulo are reminiscent of another retreat in the face of a public uprising.
After weeks of rigid intransigence from municipal and state governments, the 2013 protests against public transportation fare increases had grown so large that 9 percent of the adult population of Brazil had taken to the streets. Eventually, 70 percent of the country’s urban population saw their fares reduced.
One begins to wonder whether it will always take a major national crisis initiated by street protest for the Brazilian people’s voices to be heard.
Pablo Ortellado is a fellow at the Open Society Foundations and a professor of public policy and management at the University of São Paulo.