Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Brazil's civil society has become self-aware. We must make it last

For the first time in my 30 years as a born-and-bred Brazilian, with great satisfaction, I have seen my fellow countrymen and women avidly discuss bill proposals, angrily dispute excesses by money-grabbing politicians and openly challenge the vile military police on the streets without any fear.

The past couple of weeks were quite something to behold, especially for someone like me. I've left Brazil in January 2007 and have no intention of returning for good. I spent the worst years of my young adult life in Rio de Janeiro, battling depression, fear of dying and a sense of hopelessness beyond any of my peers' comprehension.

During my last couple of years in Rio, I worked as a cub reporter at Jornal O Dia. I saw more death, abuse, violence, corruption and disrespect for the people of my city and state than I care to put in writing ever again. It wasn't good for me. And then I left.

When I started working in the UK I realised there was something very important lacking in my home country.

Brazil has a long record of relying on the third sector to bridge the gap between the shortcomings of the state and its poorer, disenfranchised people. Several non-governmental organisations (ONGs in Portuguese) have been set up since the 70s to complement a poor educational system, poor public health system, to make up for societal inequalities and an absent state.

This same gap allowed for extremely politicised criminal factions to take on the role of the state in the 70s, establishing themselves as providers of services and security in poorer communities (remember City of God?). In the past decade or so, it also allowed for the creation of militias - which took on the role of the military police in expelling drug dealers from favelas. They ultimately act as a violent mafia, charging locals absurd fees for services and security, as well as carrying out killing of witnesses in criminal trials involving their bosses and general intimidation in the communities they control.

Even though we have several NGOs doing a fantastic job giving young people the opportunity get to where they want in life and many others operating in similar, charitable ways, we lack groups carrying out fundamental activities for the maintenance of democracy: the scrutiny of politicians, public finances, decision-making, and the holding of Brazilian municipal, state and federal authorities to account.

These protests have created a flurry of information into social media, blogs, tumblrs, and even instagram, designed to stir up the outrage and keep people on the streets. Several titbits of unknown information came to light:  how much our politicians cost us, the fact they are the most expensive politicians in the world, anecdotes of lower house representatives who have been on sick leave for the best part of a year, still raking in more than £300,000 a month in salary and expenses, the ins and outs of our legislative process and its flaws, and many other gobsmacking revelations.

In fact, it's not that all this information wasn't available to the general public in Brazil before. It's that only a handful of people contemplated looking for it and sharing it with others. Until now.

This is what these protests are all about. I don't like the use of catchy slogans to describe what could prove to be a fundamental change in the mindset and behaviour of 200 million people, but we have awaken. We have awaken to the fact that, if we don't protest against these abuses that have been taking place under our very noses for decades now, they will continue to happen.

My suggestion to those with a strong spirit, a focussed mind, and the patience of a saint in Brazil is, start filling this other huge gap in our civil society by creating not for profit organisations designed to monitor and challenge decisions that affect your community, city, state or even the whole country.

Work on research, take advantage of Brazil's new freedom of information laws, scrutinise the work of assembly members, representatives of both houses, senators, the police, public health authorities and as many other authorities as you can. This is the power you have, in a democracy, to make things better. And this is how the people can eventually expose to the rest of the world whether their country is a true democracy or not.

There is a lot of power concentrated in the hands of very few people in Brazil - a handful of people meant to represent, and work for the good of, nearly 200 million other people. But power without responsibility and accountability allows for the monstrous abuses that have been taking place there for a long time, and for too long. It's time to speak truth to power, Brazil.

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