The Brazilian Spring That Never Arrived

How the hopeful protests of June 2013 were co-opted by forces intent on bringing down the left.

A protester holding a Brazilian flag
People attend a rally in Brasília in support of a truckers' strike and against President Michel Temer's government, in May. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)

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.

Today, it’s exceedingly clear that this is not what happened. The protests weakened Rousseff, paving the way for her impending impeachment—technically for breaking budgetary rules, but in reality launched as a retaliatory attack—and replacement by her former ally Michel Temer, whose deeply unpopular government has slashed public services, flouting the wishes of a majority of Brazilians. Many saw Rousseff’s ouster as a parliamentary “coup,” backed by a largely corrupt Congress seeking a safe establishment ally in the presidency that might help save them from corruption allegations. All that fed the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the hard-right throwback to the days of Brazil’s dictatorship, the kind of man the original protesters considered a mortal enemy. He now leads the polls for this year’s presidential election.

“June 2013 is a month that never ended,” Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, told me. Indeed, soon after the protests began, Rousseff’s popularity dropped, and Congress took measures that would allow for Lava Jato, the corruption investigation into the state-backed oil company Petrobras, to pick up steam. But there were deeper changes, too, Santoro said. “It was the beginning of a legitimacy crisis that remains unresolved.”

For many Brazilians, the shift from June 2013 to today is jarring, even painful to recall. Time seemed to slow down during those heady days, which for progressives might have led to a brighter future in one of the world’s most unequal countries. Instead, they opened a path for right-wing groups to reinforce, rather than challenge, establishment politicians, leaving the left in ruins.

After June 13, Brazilians from a range of backgrounds, from struggling maids to wealthy white families, traded WhatsApp messages and discussed plans to join upcoming protests on Facebook. On June 17, I covered the first demonstration where non-activists began showing up. As the march approached São Paulo’s famous Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, an argument broke out in front of me. On one side were four or five politically articulate, skinny young punks wearing red and black; on the other, a group of new arrivals waving the Brazilian flag. The punks told the newcomers that the flag was nothing more than an empty nationalist symbol, and that if they failed to make any specific demands of the government, their posture could easily slide into fascism. While their presumptuousness only annoyed the novices, the demonstrators of June 13 believed they had no real message—merely waving the flag was akin to not protesting at all, or perhaps even worse, the punks felt. They believed it was their place to lecture the flag wavers, apparently in the spirit of solidarity; the newcomers, in response, told the punks to shut up. (I caught this scene by chance, but other participants reported witnessing similar tensions breaking out around the city.)

By June 21, this confrontational approach had overtaken the demonstrations. On Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, I saw burly protesters violently expelling the young leftists who had made up a huge part of the original marches. As they forced them out, the large men chanted “sem partido,” or “no parties.” They insisted their demands were neither left-wing or right-wing—they were simply Brazilian.

As these new protesters joined the fray, coverage of the events by Brazil’s major media outlets—none of which is left-wing—changed. Before the 13th, papers like O Estado de S. Paulo described the events as “a carnival of vandalism.” On social media, some of the original demonstrators debated over whether the movement had been co-opted by the mass media and drained of its radical intent, or if broadening the message was the best way to bring normal people—left, right, and center—out into the streets.

Today, the splits between the leftists of June 13 and the more conservative, antipolitical crowds that came after, are painfully familiar to all Brazilians. After Rousseff began her second term in 2015, new groups calling for her impeachment stepped into the space created in the public consciousness by the MPL-led demonstrations. The most famous of those groups is the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL). Founded in 2014 after the June 2013 protests had died down, it espoused free-market ideology and supported rolling back the state. Unlike the organizers of the original demonstrations, who refused to adopt any goals beyond winning free public transportation, the MBL emerged as a slick organization with a clear conservative agenda and an apparent obsession with destroying the PT. Because it flooded the streets and used online organizing, it seemed spontaneous and antiestablishment. Meanwhile, it shared goals with powerful business groups and its leaders posed for photos with famously corrupt politicians like Eduardo Cunha.

Groups like the MBL essentially used the same tactics of mass street protest and online organization as the original protests, but for an entirely different purpose: to bring down the PT. For many of the original protestors, this was horrifying. “There’s no such thing as a political vacuum. Someone always steps in to take over, and that’s what happened after the MPL declined to direct the protests in any way,” the journalist Piero Locatelli, the person who was arrested in 2013 for carrying vinegar, told me. “The media wanted leaders, someone who could ‘speak for the protesters,’ and the MBL youth provided them with just that.”

Before June 2013, 65 percent of Brazilians said that Rousseff, a former left-wing guerrilla, was doing a “great” job (27 percent said her performance was “regular” and only 7 percent called her “bad”). But by the end of the month, her “great” rating had plummeted by 35 points. Perhaps the most significant thing the government did in response to the demonstrations was sign a law that allowed for the expanded use of plea bargains. Under this law, federal authorities began offering deals to witnesses in exchange for testimony implicating more serious offenders, eventually helping the Lava Jato investigators bring down much of the country’s political and economic elite. Rousseff’s numbers rebounded enough by the end of 2014 for her to win reelection, but Lava Jato would eventually eviscerate her government.

As Rousseff’s government slowly fell apart in 2016, the left, donning red, protested her impending impeachment—an impeachment technically launched for breaking budgetary laws, but in reality pursued as a retaliatory political attack by a political rival. Yet the anti-impeachment protestors were in the uncomfortable position of defending a government that, at the very least, they knew to be part of a corrupt political system, and that had dragged the country from boom to mild recession. Those in the protests organized by the MBL calling for impeachment, by contrast, often told me that they wanted to throw out the entire corrupt political establishment, left, right, and center, starting with Rousseff.

On April 17, 2016, the yellow-and-green–clad protesters had gathered outside Brasília’s grand modernist congressional complex for the first vote on Rousseff’s impeachment. “First we get out Dilma, then we get the rest,” many of them told me. Yet, just after the vote, I watched as MBL leaders rushed in front of the television cameras for a public celebration—bringing down the rest suddenly didn’t seem so important. Rousseff, in the end, was brought down not by people power, but by legislators—most of whom were accused of doing far worse than she. When Temer took the country sharply to the right, installing an all-male, all-white cabinet (in a white-minority country) and vowing to impose austerity regardless of whether Brazilians wanted it or not, the big protests stopped. The key leaders entered electoral politics, and are now aligned with right-wing parties.

To many, especially on the old left, it appeared Brazil had learned the same bitter lesson as many countries that staged an “Arab Spring”—that is, if you destroy an imperfect regime, there’s no guarantee that something better will take its place.

Of course, the consequences of June 2013 weren’t the only things that did Rousseff in. The corruption uncovered by Lava Jato was very real, even if it never implicated her personally. And before 2013, she had already made grave economic errors, whose consequences would be felt sooner or later, explained Laura Carvalho, an economist at the University of São Paulo. “When Dilma’s opponents and economic elites took advantage of the street protests to destabilize her government, that ended up exacerbating her drop in popularity,” Carvalho said. “In 2013, a lot of movements were strengthened, including feminism, movements representing black Brazilians and poor neighborhoods, and those calling for political reform. There was a widespread recognition of the abyss between society and the political-economic system. The problem is that part of this disillusion ended up being channeled into false solutions: impeachment itself, which empowered a political class that is totally unresponsive to society, and now, demands for military intervention.”

Today, amid Temer’s failure to fix the economy or generate any goodwill, many have lost faith in democratic politics entirely. During a recent, crippling truckers’ strike, many protesters called for the generals to take over, a measure believed to be supported by up to 40 percent of the population. Some left-leaning Brazilians attending this year’s World Cup, disgusted by the state of affairs in their country, have even boycotted its green and yellow, trading the traditional colors in for red jerseys.

As this year’s election approaches, it has occurred to many that an imperfect, even slightly corrupt, popular democratic government is better than blowing up the system altogether. This may explain why polls indicate that Lula would likely win this October—if he weren’t in jail. Others believe that June 2013 correctly set Brazil on a more conservative path, but didn’t go far enough: Temer and his ilk have failed because they’re part of the same broken system, their argument goes. The solution is a military coup—or, at least, a victory for Bolsonaro, the antiestablishment apologist for dictatorship, torture, racism, and homophobia. (He’s particularly popular among voters under 25.)

And then there are those who believe that the protesters of June 2013 had the best of intentions, and that the country needs to move on from the PT era to fully realize them. Right now, that doesn’t seem easy. “These days, the protests that take place are not an articulation of a vision for a better society. They’re just a cry for help. We’re taking a beating every day,” says Carolinne Luck, a native of Rio de Janeiro who participated in the original protests. “To be honest, I have no idea if what we did that year ultimately helped or hurt the country.”