Brazil’s new generation of “caras pintadas,” social media and the new face of democratic protest
In 1992 as an undergrad student at the University of Brasilia, I remembered looking through the window of my host family’s apartment at my colleagues with their faces painted while dancing, singing and chanting to impeach the then President Fernando Collor de Mello. Of course I wanted to participate but part of my scholarship agreement was to mind my business and never to participate in domestic protests. I was not about to risk losing my scholarship in spite of the peer pressure to paint my face and join the streets.
Twenty-three years later, a new generation has taken to the public squares and main streets/avenues throughout the major capitals in Brazil demanding a reduction in bus fares and public transport costs together with a list of other revindications that range from the end of corruption to the high cost of the World Cup to social justice and gay rights. But what makes the protests of this generation so special and so different from the original “Caras Pintadas” of 1992? I posit that there are three factors at play: there’s a new generation that is growing up with privilege in a country that now offers them more hope and a brighter future; Brazilian democracy is maturing; and we are in a new digital age of social media that can ignite social protests at speeds never before witnessed by humanity.
When President Dilma Roussef finally voiced her opinion on the escalating protests throughout her country, what many thought would have worked against her popularity in the year that she faces re-election, ended up being a slam dunk, as she proclaimed “today we woke up to a stronger Brazil. The magnitude of yesterday’s protests is testament to the vigor of our democracy.” (“O Brasil hoje acordou mais forte. A grandeza das manifestações de ontem comprova a energia da nossa democracia.”) With that she pretty much sealed her place in history, herself being the product of a generation that protested during the period of dictatorship. However, as President Lula’s direct successor and protégé we wouldn’t have expected any other reaction. She went on to score more political points by claiming that the protests are a direct result of the social advancement made in Brazil emanating from Lula’s and her government’s ongoing social policies. Neatly put, once the people have tasted social justice and an improved quality of life, they will simply demand more. There’s no argument against this. So this new privileged generation, with greater access to upward social mobility and more hope than their parents and grandparents, is simply demanding more!
Secondly, we are witnessing a country where the democratic process is maturing before our very eyes. I’ve had many a debate with my colleagues at work and school in Brazil about the practicality of their system of compulsory voting. This is not novel but to many in Western liberal democracies, it may seem antithetical to the democratic process itself. However, within the context of Brazilian history and culture is seems to work and the new generation of “caras pintadas” is clearly saying that their compulsory vote means something more and their voices will be heard.
Finally, what makes this generation so different from mine is the fact that social media became the single most important source to mobilize these protests. With one of the highest penetration of digital media technology and smart phones in all of Latin America, small wonder that these protests swept across the length and breadth of Brazil at such alarming rates. Brazil is among the top countries of Facebook users and it is the top site visited. Also Brazil’s top 20 sites include Windows Live, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.
So when these three forces come together, it’s almost an inevitable case of spontaneous combustion. There’s almost a sense that as social policy continues to empower new groups of citizens together with galloping development and new wealth, that rather than being a thing of the past, each generation of Brazil’s “caras pintadas” will continue to demand more and more until full social justice is finally achieved.
Ian Walcott is a contributing writer to The Burton Wire. He is an international relations specialist and project consultant who shuttles between the Caribbean and Brazil.