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Class, Moral Economy, and Protest: Brazil and Venezuela

John Peeler: Even though Brazil has made progress in reducing inequality, it is clear that most people, even in the middle class, struggle daily to make ends meet.

The massive recent protests across Brazil apparently came as a great surprise to the Workers Party (PT) government of President Dilma Rousseff. She is a former fighter against the military dictatorship who suffered jail, torture and exile. It must be strange, indeed, for her and her colleagues to be the focus of popular protest, rather than its protagonists. But that happens when your party has been in power for over a decade.

brazilian protests

Brazil was for decades among the most unequal societies in the world, with a yawning gap between a majority living on a dollar or two a day, and a tiny minority living like the super-rich anywhere in the world. Under the PT governments of her and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, there has been a significant reduction in that inequality, and a significant growth of a middle class. Brazil seemed to be on course for sustained growth and development, on course to finally realize its ambition for a place in world affairs commensurate with its vast size.

Brazil has been a leader of a bloc of Latin American leftist governments that have adopted a strategy of moderate redistribution while cooperating with national and international business. This is very much in contrast to Venezuela, which under Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, has aggressively pitted the poor majority against the business establishment. Not surprisingly, protests in Venezuela tend to reflect this sharp class divide: the Venezuelan opposition, when it hits the streets, is visibly middle class and upper class, visibly whiter, than the supporters of the government.

The Venezuelan opposition is also a fairly coherent force, tempered in the fires of successive defeats at the hands of Chávez. What we see so far in Brazil is neither coherent, nor as yet a real opposition. My initial impression from the pictures is that most of these people are not poor slum dwellers from the favelas, but rather, are of the expanding middle class. This is a sector that, in Venezuela, is divided but leans against Chávez and Maduro. But in Brazil the middle class has been largely supportive of the PT, even as the base of the PT has been urban workers and rural poor.

Public opinion polling throughout Latin America has been consistent for years in documenting popular support for democracy; that is certainly evident in both Brazil and Venezuela. But it is also clear that most Latin Americans are disappointed with the results of democracy. There is a clear expectation that democracy ought to lead to more economic opportunity and equality.

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Even though Brazil has made progress in reducing inequality, it is clear that most people, even in the middle class, struggle daily to make ends meet. In this light, the Brazilian protests may be seen as a demand for attention to the needs of the majority. It is not enough to have a procedural democracy: Brazilians seem to be demanding a substantive democracy as well.

dc]I[/dc]n Venezuela, the consistent support of the poor for Chávez and Maduro reflects precisely this substantive view of democracy. People put less weight on the somewhat deficient procedural democracy under chavismo, than on the very real improvement in their standards of living.

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Brazil must now work toward a more substantive democracy to match its exemplary procedural democracy.

John Peeler

Sunday, 23 June 2013