Brazil: We don’t know what is going on!

The mass protests were already taking over the streets in Brazil, just as I was delivering the presentation “The Web and the Songlines of the Global Village”, on the 19th of June,  for a series of events run by an Academic group on Digital Economy.

While preparing the work , my general mood was one of optimism and pride. After all, in the past 10 years  Brazil changed from a “developing country” to an “emerging economy”. In 2012, the place which is most famous for its carnival, football, beautiful scenery and a dramatic contrast between wealth and poverty, overtook United Kingdom by becoming the 6th largest economy in the World, with a GDP of $2.5 trillions. Together with China and India, it has been expected that Brazil would add around one trillion dollars to the world economy in nominal terms.  Price Water Cooper on its Global Economy Watch report from January 2013,  states that this is the equivalent to the entire annual economic output of Switzerland. (www.pwc.co.uk/economic-services/global-economy-watch/january-2013-summary.jhtml) .  I felt proud that all this has been achieved through a democratically elected  government and a huge amount of hard work from ordinary citizens. But of course, this was not a blind rose tinted exaggerated pride. I was just happy that my friends and family were enjoying better times and there was hope that things could continue to improve.

Although we all knew that there was still lots to be done to tackle the inequalities in such a gigantic country, the general mood until the mid of this month of June was one of optimism.  I could see that while I had been one of the first people in my family to attend University, this was something that the children of my cousins were taking for granted. They all seemed to be enrolled on a degree or aiming at doing so, as if this was just the natural course of things. There were welfare programs taking millions out poverty and there were also practical and compassionate policies tackling problems such as drug addiction in the big capitals.  People from all over the world began to immigrate to Brazil, attracted by all the new possibilities that the country could offer. But there were those who were against these changes and their discourse was no different from the typical British Daily Mail reader.

As I was delivering my presentation to a small, but very keen group of colleagues, the worries about the latest developments in Brazil kept nagging in my head. I made last-minute changes, which were considered while the audience was busy watching youtube clips that had been chosen to illustrate aspects of the Brazilian music on the web.  I hoped that none of them would ask me about what was going on in Brazil because I did not know. I could not understand and I still don’t.  A number of friends and relatives, who in the past few days, diligently kept me informed in real-time through lucid and descriptive reports, admitted that they could not understand either – and they still don’t.

In view of how things were quickly getting out of hand, I also pondered if I should ever write anything about the protests in Brazil in Berimbaudrum. Furthermore, considering  that I couln’t just carry on with a new feature that would ignore everything that has been happening, I also wondered if I should write anything at all in this blog, at least while all this violence was going on in Brazil. Humpty Dumpty played in my head like an annoying  ear-worm: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall/ All the king’s horses and all the king’s man/ Could not make Humpty Dumpty together again/ “. But Humpty Dumpty I am not. Something really sinister started to happen in my country. I became worried about my family, my friends and all the dreams we share. To sit on the wall is something I could not afford.

In summary, the start of the protests appeared to have been legitimated. On the 10th of June, around 5.000 people marched against the bus fare increases in São Paulo. The Police used  violence to deal with the protesters and this violence triggered a new protest on the 13th of June. Until then, the agenda was very clear. The protesters wanted a u-turn on the bus fare increase, which they considered to be already expensive.  Around 20.000 people attended the second protest, according to the members of the MPL (Movimento pelo Passe Livre – Movement for the free fare). They were met with further retaliation from the Police, who arrested 70 of them for carrying vinegar bottles,  often used to counteract the effects of tear gas.  This is when things seemed to have taken a strange turn. While it is perfectly reasonable to ask for improvements in Health, Education and Transport,  inflammatory posts started to appear in Social Media. They contained empty slogans with big emphasis on “Youth” and  phrases such the “Giant has woken up”. In their exaggerated displays of patriotism, those posts were also against political parties and trade unions, just as the militaryship was while mismanaging the country from 1964 to 1984.  It did not take very long for new posts calling for the Impeachment of the President to spread. At first, I dismissed those posts as absurd and coming from people who had no idea of what they were talking about.  These same posts were followed by misogynistic humour – crude and rude Photoshop collages demoralizing the country’s leader. There were also fake collages of international publications saying that well-known politicians from the Workers Party had been prosecuted for corruption, when this was not true. There was also the sharing of a clip in which a young woman who appeared to never have used public transport in Brazil, who appeared to have attended private schools and used private hospitals, asking in good American Californian English for all the tourists to boycott the World Cup. While her arguments about the importance of Health and Education cannot be criticized, it puzzles me on how calling for a World Cup boycott would help.

The situation became surreal at every second.   Strange posts denounced the current government as a fake democracy and at the same time demanded the President to act as a dictator, by revoking acts and establishing new ones without going through all the process that is required in a democracy.

My alarm bells started ringing very loudly.  I shared my concerns with friends in Brazil who confirmed my suspicions. There was no agenda and no leaders. Violence escalated. Public buildings, including buildings with historical and architectural importance were attacked. Buses were set alight. New protests emerged throughout the country even though the increase on the bus fares had been revoked. Soon the MPL disconnected from the new wave of protests and reported the infiltration of right wing groups with very different agendas. Naïve groups and a number of “not so naïve groups” carrying on calling for more protests. The fights were not just happening on the streets. The fights were also happening on Social Media and symbols of freedom and change had been high jacked in sinister ways.

All the suddenly “Anonymous” had lost their cool appeal by posting inflammatory videos and messages that were empty of political awareness, at the same time that Warner continued to profit from the sale of Guy Fawkes masks (The company, that owns the trade mark of the mask, is reported to have made a profit of $28 billions in 2011). These clips on Youtube seemed to have come from someone who watches too many films, rather than someone with a clear political agenda. Another surreal turn was the broadcasting of a Fiat advert with the song “Vem pra Rua” (Come to the Streets), which started in mid May.  The advert that was apparently intended to capitalize on the celebrations of the Confederation games (while also selling Fiat cars), quickly became an anthem during the protests.

Fiat Original “Vem pra Rua” advert: Selling cars or buying minds?

Although this might  sound like a conspiracy theory, I am not alone in my reading.  Any Media Studies geek is aware about the techniques of manipulation used by the Media. It is interesting to note that the song of the advert starts with the sound of strong marching drums, which is known to be used in the army for its psychological effect of frightening the opponent and inducing collective identity. There are some studies from ethnomusicologists, such as those from the Australian Joseph Jordania, that suggest that the drumming cadence used in the military has the aim of inducing an altered state of consciousness and battle trance. The lyrics of the song say “Come to the streets, because the party is also yours. Brazil is a giant, as big as never seen before”. The next part says something which I am not sure if it is  “Get out from home (Sai de casa)” or “Get out in a car (Sai de carro)”,  as all I can hear clearly for either “Home” or “Car” is “Ca..”with a weak “s” at the end that suggests the word  “casa”. However the second time that this word is repeated, the word “carro”(car) is very clear, which makes more sense coming from a car advert. It appears that I wasn’t the only person who found the same. Looking through a series of sites on song lyrics, I found both interpretations. Some heard or assumed the word “casa (home)” while others assumed or heard the word “carro (car)”.  The advert is full of  images of beautiful people dancing and celebrating happily, intercalated with displays of the flag, people dressed in white and a quick flash of a person wearing a mask.

The song was recorded by  “S de Samba”, a company that produces songs and jingles for the advertisement industry since 1998. According to the composer, Henrique Ruiz Nicolou, “Vem pra Rua” was produced in 3 hours for the Fiat campaign, following the brief from the advertisement agency “Leo Burnett Tailor Made”. The same agency also asked for chorus “vem pra rua (come to the streets)” and “a maior arquibancada do Brasil (The biggest bench of Brazil)”.

It did not take long until the same song was used on clips reporting the protests, featuring dramatic images that included injured people and scenes of clashes with the police, intercalated with images that just look good.

The protests got bigger and spread all over Brazil .  They would all start peacefully and then descend into violence as they progressed. On the 20th of June, Dilma Rousself, the elected President of Brazil made an announcement on National Television. She supported the peaceful protests, showed that she was open to discussion and would welcome the legitimate leaders of the movement. She also promised that all the profits from the Oil Industry would be invested in Education. However, her speech did not placate the new wave of protests. It culminated with the biggest of all in the city of Belo Horizonte, on the 22nd of June, with more than 70.000 people, resulting in 32 arrests, 13 injured including 5 police officers. Days before this protest, I was talking about the rich and eclectic cultural music scene of region and its laid back spirit. The musician Makely Ka provided the following report about the demo in Belo Horizonte:

“… In addition to the Police’s brutality, which I strongly object to, what I saw today during the demonstration, and that it was cogitated since Thursday, when the mainstream media absorbed the cause, was a big mass with no political awareness and very diffused: raising generic flags against the evil (corruption, bad use of public resources, et…) and demands for happiness (better Health, Education, Security, et.) Things that we all have rights to, but I also saw hostility and very angry attitudes against activists of the left, against social movements (such as the Black Movement and Landless Movement) and homophobic speech, speeches in favour of lowering the age of criminal responsibility, speeches against abortion and speeches in favour of the death penalty. I saw hundreds of naïve people singing the National anthem with the Brazilian flag wrapped around their bodies, demanding the President’s impeachment and the end of the political parties.

There were people who did not know the difference between the legislative and executive powers and were there in the streets demanding a political reform with the same hysteria of football hooligans. The giant woke up with no ability for discernment (http://migre.me/f8Oja). (…) Honestly, I don’t have any idea of what is going to happen in the next few days. Any suggestions?”

Brazil is the country with the biggest growth on sites such as Facebook, the 4th in Linkedin and one of the countries in which people spent the most time on the Internet. The extend of the protests are blamed or/and credited to the power of Social Media. Are we living  through a type of Web Dystopia? Reflective discussions carry on in social media and dominate all conversations, while we try to make sense of what is going on. There are strong attempts to educate the giant, with posts that resembled the History, Philosophy and Law lessons that the giant missed out. But how to educate a giant who had TV as a nanny and MTV songs as lullabies,  a giant who was fed coca-cola instead of milk ,  a giant that turned into an ugly overweight spoilt ogre with a very short attention span, prone to tantrums and that is easily led by short polarized and irrational slogans? How do we teach this giant to think?

Work in progress…

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