Return to democracy

Thirty years ago, Brazilians took to the streets demanding direct

Published in 01/04/2014 - 14:30 By Bruno Bocchini and Danilo Macedo report from Agência Brasil - Brasília


Democracy restored

Following 20 of years of military rule, widespread popular discontent came to a head. Gradually the streets were taken by protests demanding direct presidential elections and calling for an end to dictatorship.

A campaign called Diretas Já emerged based on a constitutional amendment bill brought forward by Deputy Dante de Oliveira, which was designed to revoke a voting system – introduced by the military – whereby the president was chosen by an electoral college consisting of parliament members. Advocates argued that this system allowed the population to indirectly elect their president by having the congress members vote on their behalf as representatives.

Opposition sectors of Congress itself began a campaign in support for the amendment. Two names stood out in this process – Ulysses Guimarães, who had led the campaign for the Amnesty Act in 1978, and a former metalworkers' union leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then in his early political career as the founder of the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, known as “PT”). Along with other leaders such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Leonel Brizola, and Tancredo Neves, Lula took on the task of garnering support from other politicians, as well as artists and intellectuals.















And closer into the date the amendment for direct elections was to be voted on April 25, 1984, the movement grew ever stronger. Supported by such historically active institutions as the Bar Association of Brazil (OAB), the National Student Union (UNE), the Brazilian Press Association (ABI), the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), and the Central Workers' Union (CUT). Nearly all sectors of society, of varying social backgrounds, became involved. Yellow was chosen as the symbol color of the campaign and could be seen on clothes, windows, and balconies, or even as armbands worn by players at Corinthians, one of the country's most popular soccer teams.

“In order to understand this process, you have to consider the widespread popular discontent over a worn-out dictatorship that had lasted for nearly 20 years. The scenario was worsened further by an economic downturn in the early 1980s whose effects were felt on inflation and people's lives. Add to it the support of opposition governments [to the amendment bill on direct voting], and you find that the mood for a change was really widespread,” explained Marcelo Ridenti, a Sociology Professor at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP).

Protesto de metalurgicos no ABC

ProtestArchive image/Agência Brasil

Indeed, the fast-growing economy of 1967 was now in crisis. The military government had extremely restrictive policies on wages, and discontent created by this position, coupled with restraints on civil rights, eventually led to large social movements in the late 1970s, started by metalworkers in São Bernardo do Campo, which spread to other cities in the outskirts of São Paulo.

“We have no rights we could rely on. Within our workplace, the atmosphere was that of the military dictatorship. At Mercedes Benz, we were as free as in army barracks. Even the contact designated by Mercedes Benz as a liaison with our union board was an army general, General Queiroz,” said Djalma Bom, former metalworkers' union director in São Bernardo and Diadema, and former Mercedes Benz employee.

As Bom points out, more than protesting against the wage squeeze, strikes were defying the military government itself.

“The metalworkers' strikes had economic grounds. They were standing up for better wages and working conditions. But the situation at the time, with various sectors of Brazilian society calling for redemocratization, eventually led the strikers to join the student movement, the intellectuals, the church activists, and other dissatisfied groups,” the unionist recalled.

In this scenario, the pressure on Congress to pass the amendment bill for direct elections swept across the country. And the campaign found its way somewhat paved by the union movement.

The first Diretas Já rally took place in March 1983. In June, a nonpartisan front brought together Rio's Governor Leonel Brizola, São Paulo's Franco Montoro, and the national PT chairman Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It didn't take long before other governors joined.

Jornalista Ricardo Kotscho

Journalist Ricardo Kotscho, who covered the Diretas Já campaignAgência Brasil

Journalist Ricardo Kotscho, author of Diário da Campanha das Diretas (“The Diaries of the Diretas Já Campaign”), agrees with writer Laurentino Gomes (author of a book titled 1889): “The Republic was proclaimed in 1889, but it was only truly established in 1984, when people took to the streets. In the official proclamation, the turnout wasn't something of a handful, because the people were scared of what was going on. But in 1984, the authorities were scared, while the people were regaining hold of their own destinies.”

In the final moments of the campaign, massive rallies brought together one million people in Rio de Janeiro on April 10, and 1.5 million in São Paulo on April 16, 1984.

As Kotscho, who has witnessed all rallies, noted, “You must keep in mind there were no cell phones, no Internet, no Facebook, none of that stuff back then. At first, the big media had sabotaged the Diretas Já campaign, by trying to hide it and overlooking its magnitude – except for [newspaper] Folha de São Paulo, which I was fortunate enough to work for,” he said.

Historian and São Paulo University (“USP”) researcher, Janaína Teles, was 16 at the time and was actively engaged in the student movement. She recalls how the students supported the movement. “Every evening I'd go to Praça da Sé [Cathedral square in São Paulo] to set up a large ballot box, one and a half meter tall. We relied on a small platform and a microphone, and would lend it to everyone,” she said.

“Drunkards, students, politicians – everyone had the right to speak, to share their views on the Diretas, on the government, and contribute their ideas. And we would give out pamphlets, hand out ballots for people to vote for or against the direct elections. We would simulate a direct voting,” she recalled.

Despite popular pressure, the bill on direct elections was rejected in the early morning of April 26, 1984, short of 22 votes.

Fafá de Belém, one of the most active artists in the Diretas rallies, recalls the sentiment that swept the country at the defeat. “There was no brawling, no rioting. Instead, we were all mourning,” she recalls.

But in spite of the defeat, Fafá de Belém thinks the Diretas movement was a victorious one. “Popular vote was already flowing in our veins, and echoing in our voices. The country was all bubbling, making sense of itself, turning all yellow and green, reviving the national anthem, and regaining hold of the patriotic symbols that had been usurped by the dictatorship.”

Upon the rejection of the bill, the 1985 presidential election was again left for the electoral college. But by this time, the Diretas Já movement had already secured its own opposition candidate. Tancredo Neves, a Senator from Minas Gerais, was elected president less than nine months after the defeat of the amendment bill.

Still, a final blow was in store for Brazilian democracy. Tancredo Neves became seriously ill, and was hospitalized shortly before his inauguration with an intestinal infection. Over the following 38 days and after seven operations, the president-elect died without taking office. The vice-president, José Sarney, who had taken over as an interim president, was confirmed as the first civilian president since 1964.

Although he epitomized the old Northeast elites who had supported the military rule, Sarney had jumped a sinking ship to form the alliances that won the electoral college's preference over the government's choice candidate. Bound by that commitment, he maintained the agenda set up by Tancredo Neves and called a National Constituent Assembly. In 1988, a new Constitution would be promulgated, which remains in force through the present day.
















Dissatisfied Brazilians call for “more democracy”

Although such democratic values as freedom and respect for individual opinions are regarded as indisputable, various studies suggest that a considerable part of the population does not fully realize the economic and social benefits of democracy.

In 2013, nearly 30 years after the redemocratization of the country, the streets were again taken by millions of Brazilians demanding what experts understand to be the advancement of Brazil's democracy. They say Brazilians are discontented with the way democracy operates in the country – in other words, people “want more democracy.”

Political scientist José Álvaro Moisés, coordinator of the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of São Paulo (USP) and author of A Desconfiança Política e seus Impactos na Qualidade da Democracia (“Political Distrust and Its Impact on the Quality of Democracy”), says the main institutions that embody Brazilian democracy are seriously distrusted.

“Take political parties – my research shows that they are distrusted by no less than 82% of the population, and the Congress, by 79%,” he pointed out. Although the legal system is a little less discredited, there is a general feeling of injustice. “Some 90% of respondents from all social backgrounds, regions, classes, genders, ethnicities, religious beliefs, believe citizens are not treated equality by the legal system, and nearly 80% regard access to justice unequal in Brazil in terms of opportunities.

Moisés believes that the same issues raised by the studies have also emerged in the demonstrations that broke out in June and July 2013, taking about two million people to the streets in protest. “Many protesters were trying to raise awareness of the meaninglessness of political parties, and, in the case of the Parliament, it's no wonder they have tried to break into city councils and legislative assemblies in some states – and even into the National Congress.”

Experts go on to argue that Brazilian democracy is ailing with a political elite that fails to anticipate the needs of the communities, and on the other hand, the citizens, the voters, fail to bring their concerns to the political class.

A Sociology Professor at the University of Brasília (UnB), Eurico Cursino argues that some historical factors have led Brazilians to fail to recognize their responsibility as citizens in the governance of the country, maintaining a passive distance most of the time.

“The foundations of society operate from top to bottom. Our society lacks the community bases that should have served as foundations on which to build political institutions. These institutions always come top down, while community life remains disconnected from political institutions,” Cursino explained. The citizens who do become aware of their rights, he goes on, are “sociologically isolated” in this model.

Membership levels in trade unions, political parties, health councils, and participatory budgeting, residents' associations, and parent-teacher associations stands around 2%. In Cursino's opinion, such associations represent bottom-up democracy, and as they become stronger, they are able to influence the political rules of democracy. “Our society is badly in need of this,” he said.

According to History Professor Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), it would take converging efforts, changing the attitudes of political leaders, and a more engaged population to create this new democratic model. “If more voters punished politicians who misbehave by not voting for them, politicians would be forced to be more conscious of their actions as representatives. But it doesn't mean that politicians have to wait for this to happen before they start doing it right. They might as well take responsibility in holding their fellow congressmen accountable for misuse of public funds, for example.”

Despite all criticism, the recent outburst of demonstrations, while mostly staged by young people who have not personally experienced the pains of the authoritarian regime in Brazil, undoubtedly acknowledges the importance of democracy – in fact, they are calling for “more democracy”.

Brasília - Alunos de escolas públicas participam de preparação especial para competições internacionais

Pupils at a public school prepare for international academic competitionElza Fiuza/Agência Brasil

According to José Alvaro Moisés, although the desired standards have yet to be achieved, social indicators have improved greatly since the dictatorship collapsed. He pointed out that democracy is about much more than voting, although elections are an important part of it. And he believes that this year's general elections will be dictated by street demonstrations. “My opinion is, this year's electoral campaigns will inevitably raise these issues for public debate. Candidates will be forced to talk about them. Pressure on them will be the stronger, the more the media, critical journalism, communicators use social networks as pressure tools to make candidates tell people what they are going to do, and how they are going to do it.”

Translated by Mayra Borges

Fonte: Return to democracy

Edition: Olga Bardawil / Nira Foster

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