Protesters have taken to the streets and plazas of Brazil to voice their frustrations with the rising cost of living and low quality public services. The demonstrations started on a small scale, but initial apathy from Brazilian politicians and rough treatment by the police caused the number of participants to swell. Now something with no leaders and no party affiliation has started to spread from the population centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to the rest of South America's largest nation through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
In many ways the protests' organizational methods mirror the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprung up in the United States in September 2011. The key lessons for the protestors: in order to move from agitation to action, they must hone their message and target it to their elected officials. And if the officials don't listen, the energy used to gather in the streets must then be used to gather supporters at the ballot box.
The Spark. Protests ignited by a bus fare increase and initially escalated by a heavy-handed police response have continued to mushroom in this land of endless beaches and festivals. "Finally the population of Brazil is understanding that they are the majority and going to the streets to protest is a great start," according to Brazilian political consultant Bernardo Villela.
The Source. "It's not about the 20 cents (the amount by which bus fares increased)", says political consultant Bruno Hoffmann, "Brazilians are not only sick and tired of the poor quality of transportation, but also education, and healthcare. The truth is that there are plenty of reasons for protests, such as inflation, corruption, taxes, reckless spending (to prepare the country for the 2014) World Cup."
The Lack of Focus. Gathering in the streets may be a step forward on the path to solving Brazil's many challenges, but it is not sufficient to bring about a meaningful end. According to Emily Kempf, a recent American transplant (full disclosure: she is my daughter) in Brazil, the protest movement's broad agenda is inclusive, but limiting. "Like Obama's 2008 'Change' slogan, the group's 'Change Brazil' mantra allows for many different factions under one mantle," Kempf says, "They will have a hard time coalescing around a specific agenda."
The Lack of Leadership. The disorganization of the protests "is freaking out politicians, because they are used to negotiating with leaders and deciding whether to give them what they are asking for or not," according to Hoffmann. "Now the Internet is the leader, and it's not negotiating. What's happening in Brazil is subjective; it's a feeling, a desire for change with no specifics."
The Challenge for Protesters. Popular anger is a fire that can burn bright and hot, but without a way to effectively control its flames it is not possible to forge positive change. As the Occupy movement learned the hard way, having specific ideas is essential to maintaining momentum, building support and actualizing desired goals.
The Opportunity for Political Leaders. This moment creates an opportunity for political leaders to establish or burnish their credentials by charting a clear course of action that is responsive to the urges being voiced in the streets and plazas. Leaders seeking to harness the power of the streets could focus on:
• Making a Brazilian Pivot. Just as President Obama is seeking to pivot America's foreign policy focus more towards Asia, Brazilian leaders could pivot the political focus away from investments focused on elevating Brazil's image abroad and towards investment focused on addressing the foundational everyday concerns of the average Brazilian. "Rather than spend three times as much as other countries on a soccer tournament," says Villela, "the government could pursue efforts that affect all citizens."
• Cleaning Up Government. One of the easiest things to change is one's own behavior. According to Kempf, "By acceding to the protesters' demands for more transparent government, elected officials could decrease the anger in the streets and restore some citizens' faith in politics."
• Opening Up Brazil. Brazilian consumers pay a huge price for the crony capitalist policy of import substitution. Witness the huge suitcases Brazilians bring empty to Miami and full on the return trip. The common Brazilian would benefit greatly from exposing Brazil to more open trade and investment.
The Risk. Similar agitations for change have historically resulted in ill-fated movements in recent decades. Fresh in Brazilian minds are not only military dictatorships, but also the presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello, who became the first directly elected chief executive after the military government, but was later impeached for corruption.
This moment is a pivot point for Brazilian democratic development. It is also a time that calls for its citizens to be mature and discerning as to whom they give their allegiance. Past governments, both civilian and military, should serve as reminders of unchecked political passions.
Political leaders need to use this opportunity to show their constituents that times have indeed changed in Brazil and that they are not taking voters for granted. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is playing it right by saying she is "supportive." It's an easy stance to have on a group that has no platform other than "changing" Brazil. It is incumbent upon her to devise a platform that addresses the concerns of the protest movement in concrete terms if she wants to be reelected next year.
There is indeed trouble in paradise, but what is the trouble and what is the best path for the future in Brazil? The source of the trouble is clear. Yet if the Brazil is to return to tranquility and enjoying caipirinhas on the beach, it is essential that protestors and politicians alike define clear solutions to the underlying problems.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).