When Brazilians of all stripes took to the streets five years ago, the whole country seemed united in its demand for more from their government. Instead, they wound up with much less.
On June 13, 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), a radical group demanding free public transportation, brought several thousand people into the streets of São Paulo to protest a 20-centavo increase in the bus fare. It was the fourth time that year that the MPL’s young members had protested alongside sympathetic leftists and anarchists, and they were accustomed to facing off with Brazil’s harsh military police. But on that day in June, which I covered as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, the cops cracked down so brutally that the whole country took notice. A young man was arrested for simply carrying the vinegar he’d planned to use as antidote for tear gas, which the police wound up employing very liberally: A young reporter for Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s top newspaper, was hit in the face with a gas canister. As some protesters near me choked on the gas, they began chanting “Turkey is here,” a reference to the ongoing protests in Istanbul.
By June 20, roughly 2 million people were protesting. The mayor of São Paulo, a member of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), had acceded to the bus-fare demands, but demonstrators wanted more: improved public services, better health care and education, less corruption, and more democracy. Eighty-nine percent of Brazilians said they supported the protests in late June. Not even the ruling PT opposed them. In an op-ed in The New York Times, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then-President Dilma Rousseff’s mentor, argued that what the demonstrators really wanted was a deepening of the political project his party had successfully overseen—a plausible interpretation, given that life had improved for most Brazilians since his ascent in 2003. A small left-wing group had roused the country to demand more of its left-leaning leaders. The “Brazilian Spring,” as some called it at the time, seemed destined to force Brazilian politicians to respond.