Social Conflict and Participation

Brazil Table of Contents

Conflict and Nonviolence

While avoiding open conflict, Brazilian society has gone through transitions that in general have moved in the direction of modernization and democracy. Considering the decimation of Indian populations and the maintenance of African slavery long after it had been abolished elsewhere in the Americas, Brazil's colonial and imperial history was characterized by violence. At the same time, however, there is a strong Brazilian tradition of nonviolent resolution of conflicts. There was no war of independence against Portugal, but only local or regional conflicts, such as the Cabanagem (1835) in the Amazon, the War of the Farrapos (1845) in Rio Grande do Sul, and the São Paulo Civil War (1932) (see The Empire, 1822-89; The Republican Era, 1889-1985, ch. 1). Although Brazil participated in the Paraguayan War, also known as the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), most conflicts with neighboring countries were solved peacefully. The transition from empire to republic in 1889 was also relatively smooth. There was no generalized civil war, but there were isolated events, such as the resistance of a millenarian group at Canudos in the Northeast, described in Euclydes da Cunha's classic Os sertões , translated as Rebellion in the Backlands . In contrast to Spanish America, which fought protracted revolutionary wars and split into many separate countries, Portuguese America held together in one huge country. Although there were many violent episodes, Brazilian history, on the whole, has been remarkably peaceful.

Despite its nonbelligerent heritage at the national level, Brazilian life is marked by considerable violence on a day-to-day basis. Indians and slaves, or their descendants, have always been victimized. The rural bandits (cangaceiros ) of the Northeast, of whom Lampião is the most famous, battled rival groups and backlands colonels in the early 1900s. In the post-World War II period, the struggle for land pitted rural workers and their leaders against the landowners and their hired gunmen, resulting in the murder of leaders and even priests, most notably in frontier areas. Chico Mendes, a rubber-tapper leader killed in Acre in 1988, was the most widely known among hundreds of victims. In 1995 and 1996, there were massacres of landless workers in Rondônia and Pará. In urban areas, especially the largest, violence has become commonplace, with frequent thefts, robberies, break-ins, assaults, and kidnappings. The police themselves are sometimes involved in criminal activities. In Rio de Janeiro, the government has little control over the favelas, which are dominated by gangs that control informal gambling (a numbers game called jogo do bicho ) and drug trafficking as well as influence local politics.

For the most part, contemporary violence cannot easily be construed as a class struggle, at least as a struggle that involves collective consciousness and action. It is essentially particularistic and opportunistic at the individual level, although it often reflects perceptions of social injustice. Avoidance of more organized conflict between the privileged and the poor in Brazil can be attributed in part to the corporatist (see Glossary) system set up during the regime of Getúlio Dorneles Vargas (president, 1930-45, 1951-54) in the 1930s and 1940s. This system was designed to preempt direct class confrontation through well-controlled concessions to workers. The system of government-regulated labor unions and clientelism (see Glossary) reached its limits in the 1960s. In 1964 a bloodless military coup prevented it from going farther in the direction of the dispossessed.

The authoritarian military regime, which lasted from 1964 until 1985, used torture and killing to repress opposition, including cases of armed struggle between 1966 and 1975, but was gradually worn down by democratic pressures and sheer fatigue. From 1976 until 1994, political efforts on the right and the left focused on redemocratization, with greater popular participation. Revolution and repression were set aside. Once again, a major transition occurred with relatively little violence, at least as compared with Chile and Argentina, for example.

Growth of Social and Environmental Movements

In contrast to developed countries, Brazil had few organizations--interest groups, associations, leagues, clubs, and NGOs--up until the 1970s. This lack of mediation between government and society was characteristic of a paternalistic and authoritarian social structure with a small but powerful elite and a dispossessed majority. During the 1970s and early 1980s, however, in part because of the growth of the middle class, a wide variety of social movements and local and national organizations appeared and expanded. Many engaged in some kind of political activity. Women's groups also appeared. Increasingly, social and political organizations reached into the lower classes. A significant number were connected directly or indirectly to the Roman Catholic Church, which sponsored CEBs (Ecclesiastical Base Communities) as part of its "option for the poor." Independent labor movements also grew during the 1980s. People took to the streets in 1984 to press for direct elections for president, as they did in 1992 to demand the impeachment of President Collor de Mello.

Once a new constitution was written in 1988 and a president was chosen through direct elections in 1989, opposition or resistance movements were forced to redefine their roles. Many of them made a transition from protest and denunciation to providing more constructive contributions in the areas of health, education, and social services. Others organized pressure on government agencies. A 1994 study showed that some 5,000 NGOs are dedicated to: the environment (40 percent), social change (17 percent), women's causes (15 percent), and racial issues (11 percent), among other causes (17 percent). As a rule, these movements are organized around the interests of neighborhoods or broad concerns that cut across social class lines. Most are small, voluntary organizations that operate at the local level and provide assistance, but there are also large professional NGOs, such as the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (Instituto Brasileiro de Análise Social e Econômica--IBASE) and the Federation of Social and Educational Assistance Agencies (Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social). Some of the large NGOs are connected to international NGOs, and many receive donations from abroad (dues are not customary). Various associations of national and regional NGOs have also developed.

Collaboration between social and environmental movements, in what has been called "socio-environmentalism," reflects a Brazilian belief that concerns with the environment are inseparable from concerns with development, social equity, and justice. In this view, human and environmental degradation have common causes, and their solution requires the same sort of action.

Inclusion and Exclusion

Critical interpretations of Brazil's social situation in the 1980s and 1990s point to what is seen as a deepening of the economic crisis and the growth of misery and hunger. These interpretations are based on a series of observations and evidence that includes loss of value of the real minimum wage as a result of inflation, high unemployment levels, widespread informal economic activity, cutbacks in government spending on social programs, and mapping of indigence carried out by IPEA in 1990. They also take into account the more visible signs of discrimination and deprivation, such as favelas, camps of landless workers, urban violence, street children, and epidemics of diseases such as cholera and dengue.

However, social indicators on such phenomena as infant mortality, school enrollment, piped water, nutritional status, and protein consumption improved significantly in the 1980s and early 1990s. The improvements have resulted in no small measure from government investments in the social area since the 1970s. These have been called "compensatory social policies" because they seem to have been designed to compensate for the economic policies that favor income concentration. Although they were insufficient, the investments had unquestionably positive effects. To some extent, the benefits also can be attributed to fertility decline, which has biological and socioeconomic effects, and to technological development in the areas of health services and food production.

The apparent contradiction between negative and positive socioeconomic trends can be explained in part by the greater visibility of poverty, which has grown most in urban areas, while the above-mentioned benefits are more diffuse and less visible. However, the problems are not only because of perceptions or misreadings. The basic explanation for the contradiction is the coexistence of simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion. Inclusion resulted from extension to the lower middle class, by means of the labor and consumer markets and public services, of some of the benefits of development previously restricted to the upper and upper-middle strata. They have gained from participation in the labor market or markets for their goods and services and from government-provided services, such as education, health, and sanitation. In the simplest terms, the quantity of coverage has increased, although serious problems of quality remain, and the lowest strata continue to be excluded from integral participation in markets and full access to government services.

The perception of crisis is accentuated by the fact that social mobility slowed down considerably in relation to the rapid expansion of the upper middle class in the 1960s and 1970s. According to national surveys of household expenditures, 47 percent of the heads of household questioned in 1973 said that they were better off than their parents. In 1988 the proportion fell to 38 percent, and 60 percent responded that they were the same or worse off than their parents.

In sum, social polarization persists, but it is no longer a duality. Its boundaries are multiple and mobile, depending on the dimension, and remain poorly defined. There is a vast middle ground that defies simple analyses and explanations and includes the upwardly and the downwardly mobile.

Macroeconomic policies aimed at stabilization and competitive insertion of Brazil into global markets contribute to slower economic growth and structural unemployment, which in turn worsen exclusion. At the same time, government authorities have stated their intention to give priority to social equity, the reduction of regional inequalities, and the defense of human and citizen rights. Effective achievement of these goals, to the extent that economic conditions permit, depends on appropriate analysis, political will, and especially the ability of citizens to make their demands clear.

It is unclear whether never-ending economic and political crises, disasters, and scandals will provoke disillusionment with the redemocratization process and with Brazil's future, or whether Brazilian society will continue to change in the direction of greater equilibrium within society and between society and the environment. There are important signs that significant change is underway. The campaign against hunger and misery and for citizens' rights launched by Herbert "Betinho" de Souza, a sociologist, made many Brazilians aware of the poverty that surrounds them and made clear that economic growth or government benefits alone will not solve their problems. The process of decentralization opened up opportunities for participation but raised questions about pork-barreling, accountability, and the ability of local governments and civil society to make and implement informed decisions. The question is to what extent the progressive forces will prevail so that even if inequality persists, it will not be attributed to a failure of Brazilian society to respond.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress