Brazil gets to work to avoid fresh protests



Brazil’s politicians have set to work in response to the protests that had brought more than a million people out on to the streets in the previous weeks.

The House and Senate passed bills on votes that were long overdue. The government has lost popularity, and the country is now discussing political reform.

The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called on all the governors and the mayors of the major cities across the federal republic – which comprises 26 states and the Federal District – to sign a five-point to improve public transport, health and education services, controlling inflation, ensuring economic stability and reforming the political system.

The next day, the House of Deputies voted on two legislative bills with unprecedented speed.

Firstly, parliamentarians rejected a bill, known as PEC 37, aimed at limiting the investigative powers of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which had garnered opposition from a significant share of protestors.

Then, they approved the investment of royalties obtained from "Pre-Salt" deep water oil operations into education (75 per cent) and health (25 per cent).

In her speech to the nation, President Rousseff insisted on the proposal to invest 100 per cent of this revenue into education, which the Congress had already rejected on two occasions.


Public healthcare

The Health Ministry also defended its new plan to bring doctors and hospital services to the most underserved parts of the big cities and the most remote areas of the country, such as the Amazon region.

According to the Health Minister Alexandre Padilha, the government is going to open a call for Brazilian doctors to work outside of urban areas.

The Ministry announced that if there are not enough health professionals to cover the needs of the population, it is prepared to bring in foreign doctors – mainly from Portugal, Spain and Cuba – to meet the programme objectives.

The measure has stirred fierce opposition from the Brazilian medical profession, for which Brazil’s public health problem has much more to do with the poor resources, equipment and working conditions for professionals than a shortage of staff.

Brazil has an average of 1.8 doctors per thousand people, whereas the United Kingdom – on whose health system the Brazilian system is based – has 2.7 per thousand and neighbouring Argentina has 3.2 per 1000 people.

"The government has chosen a risky and disgraceful path," said the medical associations. "It exposes the poorest people to professionals whose competence is not proven."

In response, Minister Padilha explained the rules of the programme and called on doctors to stop defending their own interests and to start prioritising the welfare of the Brazilian people as a whole.

"I am also a doctor, but the first thing we have to think about is the people who have no access to medical care," he said. At present, there are over 400 Brazilian cities without permanent health professionals.


Political reform

The issue that went on to dominate the public agenda was political reform.

The government hopes to hold a referendum to push forward plans to change certain aspects of the electoral system, to bring in reforms such as public financing of electoral campaigns, a party list system of voting and allowing independent candidates.

"Dilma Rousseff has listened to the voices from the streets, which were clearly asking for more direct participation in the direction the country takes," said Maria Aparecida de Aquino, history lecturer at the University of São Paulo (USP).

But the opposition is against a plebiscite. It argues that Congress itself should discuss, define and vote on political reform – something for which it has never shown much enthusiasm.

The week that followed the protests also culminated with the release of a poll by the Datafolha Institute, the most influential in the country, indicating a 27 per cent fall in President Rousseff’s popularity, leaving her with the support of just 30 per cent of the Brazilian public.

Prior to the protests, her administration enjoyed 57 per cent backing. According to the same institute, 68 per cent of the population is in favour of the proposed referendum.

President Rousseff spent the week meeting with representatives from social movements, trade unions and mass organisations, including the Free Fare Movement (MPL), which headed the protests, in a bid to reconnect with the people.

"The meetings were no more than a spectacle," said Mayara Vivian, a member of the MPL. "We haven’t seen any concrete measures."

"We will not leave the streets until the president satisfies our demands," warned Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST).

The main trade union centres, which played virtually no part in the mass protests, also met to assess the political situation. The outcome was a call for a nationwide general strike on 11 July.

The President of Brazil’s main national trade union centre CUT, Vagner Freitas, defended the proposal to introduce public financing of electoral campaigns. "This political reform is the mother of all reforms, as it guarantees the transparency of the political process. At the moment, it is money that wins the elections."

Two other International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) affiliates UGT and Força Sindical will also be there to press for the approval of key measures for Brazil’s workers, which President Rousseff has not yet addressed, such as cutting the working week from 44 to 40 hours.