We are three months away from a planned referendum in Catalonia that will ask voters two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and if yes: “Do you want this state to be independent?” If only things were so straight forward. Catalonia’s self-determination is strongly rejected by Spanish authorities who refuse to recognize the planned referendum and are fully intent on stopping it from happening. That the regional government has risked this confrontation with the Spanish state is due to the mass movement by Catalan civil society that has made any other political calculation impossible. Spanish authorities refuse to acknowledge this immense democratic desire by millions of Catalans to determine their country’s status. In doing so, these authorities are risking an irreparable rupture between Catalan society and the Spanish state if all avenues remain closed to a democratic vote.
This effort to have a referendum on self-determination goes as far back as 2009 when the small municipality of Arenys de Munt hosted its own vote on independence. Later that year, more than a 150 municipalities in Catalonia followed Arenys de Munt’s example. By the latest count, some 697 municipalities adhere to the Association of Municipalities for Independence. This campaign was strengthened in part by the 2010 ruling by the Spanish constitutional court that struck down or altered fourteen articles in Catalonia’s autonomy statute and provided its own interpretation of 27 others; many of these articles are sensitive to Catalan ambitions for self-governance like the power to tax, language use, not to mention ruling against the definition of Catalonia as a nation in the statute’s preamble. The week after the ruling an estimated one million people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest the court’s decision, bringing together a broad section of Catalan society including trade unions, FC Barcelona and most of the parties represented in the regional parliament.
The ruling convinced an increasing amount of Catalans that a glass ceiling on autonomy had been reached within the current post-Franco framework of Spain and that independence had become the only path to the self-governance. This shift in Catalan society was made evident in 2012 when as many as one and a half million people protested in Barcelona in a demonstration explicitly demanding independence from Spain. Opinion surveys show that 46% of residents of Catalonia want independence versus 36% opposed. Significantly, the consensus on deciding this by referendum is broad, with 74% demanding that the Spanish prime minister recognize the November vote.
Enter Spanish Nationalism
Just as aspirations in Catalonia for independence mounted over the past few years, the Spanish nationalist Popular Party came to power in general elections in 2011, riding voter rejection of the Spanish socialist party amid austerity and eye-watering levels of unemployment. The Popular Party, which while in opposition challenged the Catalan autonomy statute in the supreme court, would continue its role as chief antagonist in government. This antagonism to Catalan aspirations and identity was best illustrated in comments by the conservative education minister Wert when he said his goal was to make Catalan students more Spanish. It wasn’t just a provocation in words, the government passed an education reform bill that triggered over a year of protests and two general strikes by teachers, parents, and students. The opposition was extensive in regions like Catalonia with co-official languages, as the law makes it obligatory for regional administrations to offer Spanish as a language of instruction. This represented a second blow to the autonomy statute which affirmed Catalan as the language of instruction in schools.
There is a remarkable level of complacency about this worsening relationship between the Spanish state and Catalonia. The Spanish government holds firm to its rejectionist stance, repeating the indivisibility of the Spanish nation and the illegality of the referendum. It will cynically suggest that advocates of Catalan independence achieve the 3/5ths majority in both houses of the Spanish congress to change the constitution; the Popular Party controls both houses and objects to Catalonia’s current level of autonomy and would in no way cooperate in reforming the constitution to either expand autonomy or create a democratic mechanism for peaceful succession from Spain.
This is the dialogue of imposition. While a vast majority of residents in Catalonia want a referendum this November, Spanish prime minister Marino Rajoy insists he won’t let the referendum take place. It’s a naked attempt to deny voters in Catalonia an opportunity to express themselves on the sovereignty debate while allowing the Spanish government to avoid the political consequences of a likely yes vote for independence. Spanish conservatives are well accustomed to downplaying and dismissing mass protests like the ones for independence in Catalonia. They can write them off as a concentration of radicals out of touch with the silent majority that the Popular Party is so quick to cite. The referendum could shatter this argument and end the deference on Catalonia currently offered to the Spanish government by the European and international community. Spain would risk holding on to Catalonia against the will of a majority of its inhabitants, an unsustainable policy which has tragedy written all over it.
Knowing this, the central government hasn’t limited itself to just endlessly repeating the illegality of the referendum, it is actively using scare tactics and veiled threats to weaken the independence vote. Government ministers and leading Popular Party lawmakers paint dire scenarios of an independent Catalonia outside the alleged safety of the euro zone, the European Union, and Nato while economically crippled from the loss of trade with Spain. These aren’t warnings, but threats, for these scenarios would only happen if the Spanish government acted out in vengeance against an independent Catalonia by severing trade and blocking attempts by the new state, if it so desires, to remain part of those international and European treaties and unions.
The opportunity to persuade Catalan voters to avoid independence might have been missed this June when tens of thousands took to the streets in a tide of republican tricolor flags at news of the king’s abdication and prince Felipe’s ascension to the throne. The protests extended across the territory of the Spanish state, including Barcelona, where Spanish and Catalan republicans demonstrated in the thousands for the end of the monarchy. Many of those protesters had hopes of a constituent process as a second transition to democracy and a federalized state.
These demands from the street for a referendum on the form of government were ignored much like demands in Catalonia for a referendum on independence. The political system that emerged following Franco’s death has shown itself unbending to a society that has been pulsing with popular, mass demonstrations and a hunger for a deeper democratic process. It is no surprise then that this system is in danger of breaking, standing to lose 17% of its population from Catalan independence and possibly more should the Basque Country choose to secede as well.
The political ruptures aren’t just geographic, however. The liberal Catalan nationalists CiU who’ve governed the region for most of its post-Franco history have hitched themselves to the campaign for independence but they’ve failed to win back political ground lost after implementing unpopular austerity measures over the last several years. Now adding to their problems, Jordi Pujol, former CiU leader who governed the region for 23 years, has admitted to having stashed away a fortune of 600 million euros in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the forces on the left cooperating with CiU on the referendum are the ones reaping the political rewards; The Republic Left of Catalonia came in first place among Catalan voters during May’s European elections.
What an independent Catalonia would look like is still to be decided and those supporting independence as a simple administrative rearrangement may end up disappointed. Catalan politics has no shortage of political initiatives and social movements seeking to alter the governance of the country, come independence or not. The left-wing CUP (Popular Unity Candidates) has been campaigning for independence with the slogan “yes, to change everything”, insisting there isn’t independence without popular, democratic sovereignty over economic life. In Barcelona, there’s been a summer of neighborhood assemblies as part of Guanyem Barcelona (win back Barcelona), a citizen initiative that seeks the highest form of democracy and self governance for the city while both restoring and expanding of social rights.
The Coming Crisis
This summer and fall should have been a time of vibrant debate in Catalonia on the questions voters would answer in the November referendum. In the absence of this debate, there’s the growing impression that Catalonia and Spain are sleepwalking into a crisis in which the key actors have irreconcilable differences. There is no common ground between supporters of the referendum seeking a democratic outcome and the opponents who seek their total capitulation.
The political bloc behind the referendum is showing fractures under this pressure. The governing center-right CiU is divided and the splits are becoming more public in expectation of the Spanish constitutional court ruling against the regional government’s law facilitating the November referendum. The Democratic Union of Catalonia within CiU is opposed to hosting the referendum should the constitutional court stand against it. Pro-independence organisations, parties on the left and other voices within CiU insist on hosting the vote regardless of the high court’s decision. Whether this pro-referendum bloc can hold together until November will determine whether the sovereignty crisis comes to a head this fall or delayed into 2015.
The next few weeks and months will be of the highest importance for Catalonia’s future. On September 11th, the Catalan national holiday, hundreds of thousands are expected to demonstrate in Barcelona, forming a giant V to symbolize the right to vote and a victorious result for the pro-independence bloc. The following week, the Catalan regional parliament will put forth its law of consultations, paving the way for the November referendum. The scenarios from there range from civil disobedience, should Madrid try to prevent a vote, to snap regional elections as a substitute for the referendum. These events aren’t a curiosity of Spanish politics, but moments of historic consequence for Catalonia, Spain and the European continent.
The National Front’s election triumph is the long shadow cast by the broken aspirations left by the Socialist Party’s victory in 2012. The French Socialists had Hollande in the Elysee palace, control of the legislature and a continental mandate to break the austerity regime that Merkel and Sarkozy had enforced. Two years later and Hollande’s second prime minister has just passed another 50 billion euro austerity package. It’s a story of governing having consequences and Marie Le Pen’s right-wing nationalism offering itself as the political reckoning.
The French socialists are not isolated in their fate. It doesn’t take long to see the wreckage of the former political giants of social democracy strewn across the continent. PASOK, which in 2009 took 43% of the vote in general elections, won just 8% support from Greek voters this weekend, condemning the party to the role of New Democracy’s sidekick in the coalition government. In Spain, Alfredo Rubalcaba of the Spanish Socialist Party has conceded to a change in party leadership after the party’s dismal performance Sunday. In Portugal, the Socialist Party faces its own leadership questions after beating the center-right coalition by a disappointing margin of less than 4%. Even after nearly three years in opposition to deeply unpopular center-right austerity governments, Spanish and Portuguese socialists still can’t convince voters to reward them with power, let alone a majority.
While the socialist parties of Europe collectively suffer from a shared crisis of reconciling their commitment to the European project with the social democratic convictions of their base, the advance of the far-right on the continent doesn’t offer such a unified reading. In places like Austria, the 20% share won by the Freedom Party returns the party to strength it previously had. In Greece, Golden Dawn’s won 9.4%, after only winning half a percent in 2009, carving out a new space in Greek politics for a party that has verified its fascism with a violent, murderous campaign against leftists and migrants.
We don’t have to paint all these far-right, right-wing nationalist forces with the same brush in order to fully despise their politics, nor should we scapegoat them for the continent’s xenophobia. After all, it was Spanish police who earlier this year fired rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants swimming to shore. Over a dozen migrants drowned and the actions of the police were defended by the conservative interior minister who threatened those criticizing the police with legal action rather than launch an investigation into their conduct. Golden Dawn would surely envy the opportunity to commit such an atrocity with impunity.
Europe’s center is hardly suited to defend democracy from existential threats like Golden Dawn. Who could forget the technocratic governments installed in Greece and Italy? Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos were made prime ministers without so much as a single vote being cast for them in either a constituency or for a party list that carried their names. But those who would today offer themselves as defenders of democracy shrugged this off as a typical government reshuffle between elections or “national salvation”. When there weren’t technocratic governments, there were memorandums by the Troika (European Central Bank, IMF & European Commission) imposing policy measures in Ireland and across Southern Europe.
By no means am I arguing that the success of far-right parties has no consequences. The National Front would use the discontent over austerity to break apart Europe along nationalist lines. The existing divisions between debtor and creditor states already fan nationalist grievances, a dangerous political device that the far-right aren’t alone in tapping. Narratives portraying the nation as a victim leave little room for minorities or forces which prefer social conflict among classes. It’s easy to unleash nationalism, far more difficult to restrain its passions.
At the end of a right-wing nationalist break-up of the European project, would those who suffered from the effects of EU imposed austerity be better off? I fully Doubt it. It’s here where the social movements from 2011 have made a difference. The success of Syriza in Greece and several left-wing parties in Spain can’t possibly represent the political content of those protests, but they are a consequence of those demonstrations. Crucially, they’ve created political space for those who despise the far-right and don’t wish to close ranks around the centrist parties who are responsible for so much of the misery across the continent. Nationalism or austerity is a false choice, but it must be defied by building another Europe that has no place for razor-wire fences, Troika memorandums, or Marine Le Pen.
Since global capitalism plunged into existential crisis in 2008, workers, students, pensioners, and other vulnerable segments of society have mounted mass protests in the face of a grinding neoliberal policy offensive that has hiked tuition, privatized services, dismantled labor rights, and slashed wages and benefits. The millions who protested from Lisbon to Athens, London to Wisconsin, and countless other places were for the most part ignored. The defeat of these protests has real consequences, however, and it has taken a rising toll with each passing day. Tens of thousands in Spain are still being evicted from their homes each year, record unemployment in Southern Europe has left behind a permanent, swelling underclass, and a generation struggles with choosing between dependence on their parents well into their late 20s or early 30s, or exile to another country in search of work that may or may not sustain them.
With the mass street protests largely exhausted, global stock markets euphorically rallying to record highs, and profits and income gains being registered by the most privileged sectors of society, politicians who’ve governed since the crash are desperately trying to cash in politically on this unbalanced recovery. The risk is if this triumphalism ruptures the bitter resignation of much of the public who saw little alternative but to trust the narrative that the measures are temporary, and that contesting them would only heighten the state of emergency. This narrative is already being walked back by Portuguese prime minister Passos Coelho, who has acknowledge that levels of pay and benefits won’t return to pre-crisis levels, and instead, effort will be put to making pay cuts permanent.
We have found ourselves in an age when social-democracy has no policies or political aspiration. Europe’s socialist parties can do no better than promise to carry out austerity with less enthusiasm than their center-right rivals. The state of Europe’s center left is so bad they look on with envy across the Atlantic at Obama’s policies like healthcare reform. What a sad state of affairs when the most half-hearted, business friendly attempt at reforming the U.S. healthcare system makes the U.S. Democratic Party the standard-bearer of social democracy across the globe.
Contesting the ideological bankruptcy of the dominant political parties is left to those same social movements that suffered repeated failures in their goals of altering the crisis policies of center-left and center-right governments. Failure isn’t the same thing as being wrong, though. The critique of the movements that occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid or Syntagma Square in Athens still have a better analysis of current state of affairs than any parliamentary force. The system may not have failed and come crashing down as authorities warned but it still failed the poor and working class, leaving older generations with reduced wages or pensions, and condemning the young to precarious work, exile or both.
In Spain, there are positive indications that the collectives, platforms, and social movements that rallied huge protests in 2011 and 2012 are reemerging with new, contentious politics; contentious politics that not only object to the political ambitions of the two dominant political parties, but to offer their own political ambitious to rectify the injustices in Spain. For the past week, Marches of Dignity have set off from each end of the Spanish state, marching dozens, even hundreds of kilometers to reach Madrid by Saturday. The Marches of Dignity brought together some 300 collectives, from anti-foreclosure groups, to the most left-wing unions, as well as platforms by indignados that previously carried out separate mobilizations.
What stands out about this mobilization is that it managed to bring these platforms, unions, and collectives behind a shared set of demands: bread, housing, dignified employment, and a basic income. It’s a set of aspirations that is essential to breaking widespread resignation and giving protesters an objective to tirelessly strive for. It’s insufficient and undesirable to return to the state of affairs before austerity. Society was broken and unjust before austerity and that can’t be forgotten. Instead, these aspirations not only reverse the misery brought by austerity but pursues an egalitarian society to replace the current one.
Of course, coalescing around a set of political objectives is just one of the corrections demanded of the movement. The other correction is one of tactics and this is less clearly a matter of consensus. This past January a popular revolt in a working class neighborhood of Burgos, Spain challenged excessive ideological attachments to pacifism. The neighborhood of Gamonal had for months petitioned and marched against plans by the mayor for a boulevard and parking lot in their neighborhood, spending millions of euros on the project while thousands there are without jobs and while social services are shuttered. Their protests ignored, in January residents took the direct action of blocking work on the boulevard which escalated into days of pitched battles between riot police and protesters.
The revolt in Gamonal was marked by widespread community solidarity. Arrests each night provoked hundreds to descend on police stations to demand their release. During skirmishes with police, protesters were sheltered by residents, ending in police storming into buildings to make snatch arrests. In the end, the boulevard plan was suspended, but the protests continued, demanding the unconditional release of all those arrested. The idea of the Gamonal Effect was born out of this revolt; that defiant, popular revolt had won and could be replicated.
The lesson to be taken out of this isn’t even that mounting barricades or lobbing stones at riot police is the most effective method. The lesson is that government and political systems that we consider unrepresentative can’t be lobbied or have their behavior altered by massively attended protest marches. Instead, they must be confronted and defied with a diversity of tactics where no single tactic is romanticized. In terms of Saturday’s March for Dignity in Madrid, for me it’s not about persuading the government to accept their demands but of inspiring the masses out of their resignation. The 1,700 riot police being deployed in Madrid to contain the protest suggest authorities are afraid that their recovery hasn’t won social peace, but reignited the conflict.
That time of year has returned to Portugal, when inspectors from the IMF & European Union arrive in the capital, negotiate behind closed doors with the country’s leaders, then disappear so the finance minister and deputy prime minister can brief the Portuguese public a few days later about the new sacrifices that are meant to prevent the next round of sacrifices, the same dishonest narrative presented the last several years. For the 2014 budget the government seeks further privatizations, salary cuts between 3.5% & 12% for hundreds of thousands civil servants, 10% cut to public sector pensions, and an increase in the retirement age. These deep public sector cuts for 2014 combine with this year’s “enormous” tax increase that will continue in effect for the foreseeable future.
The outrage to the measures was swift. On Saturday, tens of thousands marched in Lisbon and Porto in demonstrations organized by the main trade union federation, CGTP. Next Saturday, Que Se Lixe a Troika (screw the Troika in English) will hold demos across the country in an effort to repeat the success of mass demonstrations it organized in the spring and last fall. CGTP has called for a demonstration at parliament on the 1st of November to demand the rejection of the austerity budget, and sectors across the economy are organizing rolling strike action, from the dockworkers to the postal service and later the entire public sector with a general strike on the 8th of November. It’s easy to fear that the opposition on the streets will once again fall short, contained by low ambitions of political parties and union leadership, as has happened in previous protests, allowing the government to ignore them and press on with its budget cuts and tax increases.
While the protests and the outrage on the streets can be ignored or dismissed, there has been one voice against the austerity that the government and the Troika live in complete fear of: the constitutional court. A number of Troika imposed austerity measures have met a swift death in the constitutional court. The court has twice ruled against measures taking away the Christmas & vacation benefits of civil servants and pensioners, it has struct down cuts to unemployment benefits & sick pay, and this past September it ruled against the government’s “mobility scheme”, a cynically named measure to ease layoffs in the public sector. Having successfully blackmailed several European democracies into complying with austerity programs over the past several years, the frustration of the Troika continues to mount as expectations are high that some of the more controversial austerity measures in the 2014 budget will face their demise before the court.
The Troika is already making its next move in Portugal. For the past few weeks, there’s been a steady application of political pressure on the judges of the constitutional court. European officials warned against “political activism” by the court. The president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso warned of the need of all Portuguese institutions to have “responsibility” to ensure Portugal’s return the markets. In private, European officials are more frank, with one Portuguese newspaper quoting an official describing the political pressure as “live ammunition” that will continue until the judges get the message: approve the measures even if they’re unconstitutional. It’s not hard to see where this is all leading Portugal. Having “rescued” Portugal from defaulting on its national debt, the Troika is preparing to rescue the country from the constitution crafted in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution that brought to an end decades of fascist rule.
The constitutional court isn’t the only threat to the Troika’s program. This latest austerity package follows the near collapse of the coalition government over the summer. Paulo Portas, the leader of CDS, the junior party in the coalition, had delivered an “irreversible” resignation over the government unshaken commitment to austerity despite its well documented failures. After two weeks of political turmoil and failed talks for a government of national salvation with the opposition socialist party, the “irreversible” resignation became reversible, Paulo Portas winning a promotion to deputy prime minister. The commitment to the austerity program, however, remained unaltered.
With that commitment, the country remains condemned to a vicious cycle of political crisis and the Troika reimposing austerity through blackmail and threats. The country slides into a neoliberal dystopia where the young either emigrate or are unemployed, and where the shrinking pensions of their grandparents must somehow provide for three generations. If asked to choose which is the impossible path to pursue, to defy the Troika and cease the self-inflicted wounds of successive austerity measures or to continue on indefinitely slashing the welfare state to divert more of Portugal’s wealth to paying a national debt that can’t be paid, I would argue the second option is the impossible path and there’s no alternative but to expel the Troika before every last conquest of the Carnation Revolution is lost.
It’s as if Europe has passed the summer with its eyes shut and ears plugged, trying to wish away its profound social and economic crisis. It may seem like ages ago but it was just within the past year we’ve witnessed the bank runs in Cyprus, the pan-European strike that brought pitched street battles to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona & several Italian cities, and the determined effort by Catalans to achieve independence from Spain, threatening the dismantlement of one of Europe’s largest nation states. This was all meant to be forgotten; Europe’s crisis has come to end, we were told by policymakers. Greek & Portuguese prime ministers have spoken of recovery & German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has assured us that Europe is being fixed. However, on Tuesday night, the fascist paramilitaries of Greek Golden Dawn reminded us that Europe is not just far from fixed, it is deeply broken.
On Tuesday night, those fascist paramilitaries attacked and pursued anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas into an ambush where he would be fatally stabbed, living just long enough to identify his killer. Something is very broken here; broken so badly that Golden Dawn has been able to fatally assault migrants, carry out a homophobic siege on a performance of Corpus Christi, & just last week hospitalizing 9 communist party supporters with an assortment of crude weapons. Despite all of this, securing the dismissal of thousands of civil servants is still Europe’s most pressing concern when it comes to Greece, not dismantling this murderous neo-Nazi militia and its support network within the Greek police force.
Amid this fascist violence, record unemployment, decimated public services, and mass emigration from crisis hit countries, they still argue to us that Europe is being fixed. While they haven’t fixed Europe, they have manage to normalize a level of misery that would’ve been politically untenable just years ago. The mass mobilizations by indignant Europeans of the past three summer have largely melted away in 2013. Maybe Europe’s indignados have been broken by the many defeats of their movements to a European austerity policy that has gone unchanged despite the policy’s failure to reduce public debt & its rejection by the streets & ballot boxes. But this complacency isn’t sustainable. While the panic of Euro Zone collapse may have passed, the fascism and deprivation remain, and it won’t be leaving like the last dark clouds of an exhausted storm.
The political parties of the center-left and center-right will have nothing to offer voters for the foreseeable future. These parties only compete to prove that they will apply austerity at a slower rate than their rivals. The relevance of democratic elections is increasingly lost for more and more voters. It is in this political waste land where abominations like Golden Dawn and the National Front lurk. Europe can’t hunker down and attempt to wait out either the violent fascism on the streets or the endless austerity imposed by the Troika. Europe can’t avoid the inevitable task and responsibility of expelling these political actors from its political life. Waiting only leaves more victims behind, whether those victims are Spaniards who commit suicide at news of their home’s foreclosure, or migrants & leftists on the streets of Athens hunted down by fascist assassins. This is the broken Europe given to Europeans. Are they willing to keep it?
Political stability has become the national project of Portugal. While once Portugal had explorers seeking out regions of the world unknown to European civilization, today, Portugal has new explorers to romanticize, its president Cavaco Silva and prime minister Passos Coelho. Indeed, the promise of power, riches and a revitalized Portuguese nation isn’t across the vast Atlantic but within the depths of country’s political class. The current situation of hunger, misery, unconstitutional budgets, and unemployment will all vanish if only the country devoted itself to find this much sought political stability.
If you had witnessed the dedication placed by Portugal’s political class to finding political stability this past week, you too would resort to sarcasm to lash out at them. In a country with unemployment of 17.6%, mass emigration of jobless youths, & unending economic crisis, political stability somehow became the national priority. Prime minister Coelho, president Cavaco Silva apparently think the political crisis caused all these problems to exist, rather than believe that the existence of these problems are the source of the political crisis.
But let’s not deny Portugal’s political class the chance to be new national heroes. They devoted too much effort praising their own sense of political responsibility in repeatedly cutting pensions of retired nurses and teachers to be denied this moment when they rescue Portugal from their own incompetence, abuse, and negligence. Indeed, in Portugal’s darkest hour last week, when Paulo Portas, leader of the crucial coalition party CDS-PP, offered his irrevocable resignation from the government, he did the impossible, undoing the irreversible resignation! What courage! What self sacrifice! Portugal was staring down the barrel of the national calamity that is earlier elections *gasp* and prime minister Passos Coelho and CDS-PP leader Paulo Portas averted the tragedy of voters penalizing their mismanagement at the ballot box.
However, the coalition government apparently didn’t sufficiently save the country. Another hero emerged in president Cavaco Silva, who on Wednesday, with a tremendous sense of personal responsibility, informed the country it simply couldn’t be trusted with incredibly dangerous sharp objects like early elections. Instead of elections, he purposed something incredibly brave, something that hadn’t already failed with horrible results in Italy and Greece, a government of national salvation! He called on the three parties that have governed Portugal since the transition to democracy to come together, inevitably behind closed doors, and reach an agreement to complete all the wildly unpopular austerity measures before the Portuguese people have a say on it all through parliamentary elections.
Generations will come to envy that today we live in this golden age of Portuguese politicians who advance their profession to unimaginable heights of manipulation, insincerity, and theft. Although once again, Portuguese may find themselves enviously looking across the border to Spain where the ruling political party is accused of operating a slush fund, a fund from which prime minister Rajoy is alleged to have pocketed tens of thousands of dollars annually. Like on the football pitch, Portugal will have to dig even deeper to triumph over its Iberian rival.
A day after the massive protests in Brazil, it’s still difficult to wrap my mind around what has happened. It was a day in which crowds in the capital, Brasilia, outmaneuvered the police force and climbed onto the roof of the country’s legislature, occupying it for several hours. Soon after news broke of this occupation of the national congress, further news emerged of the violent clash and attempted storming of the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro:
The video above from Rio is the most complete video of the clash. Most videos show the clashes after the police had already retreated inside. Also, you can see how the legislature is protected by two rings of barricades manned by fully geared riot police. This contrasts with last week when the protesters were able to assemble & rally right on the steps. You can see that here.
While the dramatic scenes from Rio and other locations in Brazil certainly demand attention, the fact that hundreds of thousands took to streets remains the most significant fact. This came after months of anti-fare hike protests in Porto Alegre, Natal, and Sao Paulo that would normally attract a few thousands. It demonstrates the precarious situation for authorities. They sought to break a rather isolated movement with brute force last week and in doing so angered the wider Brazilian public out of inaction. The visuals from Monday were of authorities on the back foot, literally and figuratively.
Brazilian authorities now contend with a force they don’t understood nor know the tactics with which to approach it. When provoked, social media is a powerful force, and it’s certainly an element of this. I’m used to reading Portuguese language hashtags almost exclusively about Brazilian music starts or celebrities. Suddenly on Monday, protest locations & rallying cries were dominating the twitter discussion for Brazilians. It’s like a light switch from indifference to revolt. And the impact of social media isn’t just the awareness it can spread. Now, when protesters go to the streets, they not only know what’s happening at their location, they know what happens at other protests and can react to those developments. Police violence in one city doesn’t provoke just the crowd in front of the police, it provoked the crowds across the country within moments.
Like many people in Turkey, the imaginations of Brazilians are captured by these events. The protests will certainly continue & with each protest Brazilian authorities risk further miscalculations. The police from last week who fired countless “nonlethal” rounds at protesters chanting “no violence” are the villains in this. Do the authorities have the sense to pull them back and sink the plot of this burgeoning movement? We’ll see in the days ahead.