Curtain Raiser

Students Jolt Brazil Politics, Colltalers

When Brazil’s elected President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office, last August, by what’s all but confirmed it was a legislative coup, many segments of society expressed outrage, both inside the country and abroad. But one important demographics was not quite heard.
Until Wednesday, when 16-year old Ana Júlia Ribeiro gave her Paraná state’s Assembly a lesson in citizenry and political engagement, and reintroduced the voice of millions of Brazilian students into the national debate. Her arresting 10-minute speech has since gone Web viral.
Her appearance came as part of the student occupation of over a thousand schools in Brazil, in protest to a government decree that freezes education spending for 20 years, changes the national curriculum, and imposes other questionable restrictions on access to education.
Despite incidents of violence, Brazilian politicians have been slow to support the occupations. Congress has already approved the so called reforms, and as the Temer administration takes steps to dismantle a legacy of social programs left by the Workers’ Party, the revived student movement has been the most, if not the only, consistent political opposition current at pace in Brazil. Now it also has a public face.
Projections for the results of Sunday’s second-round municipal elections show that traditional conservatives forces are back at the helm of Brazilian politics. Take the election of a Trump-like businessman as mayor of its biggest city, São Paulo, for instance, or of an Evangelical bishop in Rio. PT, as the former ruling party

is known, was thoroughly defeated, and with it, its seemingly socialist platform.
That doesn’t bode well to a possible come back in the 2018 presidential election. Specially if a crucial piece from this back-to-the-past puzzle is finally in place: the political burial of its biggest star – more like a fuzzy nebula these days -, ex president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
After been relentlessly battered by the new leadership in Brasilia, and several months of pounding, Lula and supporters start to show signs of fatigue. Even though he still leads, by comfortable margins, every single poll that’s been taken about 2018. That may finally change, though.
He’s currently embroiled in a widespread corruption probe, as a head of the PT and also individually, being indicted and accused of taking kickbacks from private companies, in exchange for contracts and special favors, plus a laundry list of offenses put together by a government task force. Most stem from a two-year investigation of state-run and former oil giant Petrobras, which also doomed Rousseff.
To ‘petistas,’ the Petrobras probe is the opening salvo of a two-pronged strategy to change Brazil’s regime. It was followed by ending the company’s exclusive exploitation rights of huge pre-salt oil reserves in Campos Bay, near Rio, and opening its fields to foreign companies. The move reverses a decades-long policy that could’ve finally put Brazil on track to self sufficiency as one the world’s top oil producers.
Now as the PT agonizes, and its once dominant leadership wanes, no other segment of Brazil’s society but that of students has stepped up opposition to the current government. Too bad that the middle class crowds that rallied against corruption – and now show no concerns about serious allegations and lawsuits against Temer and members of his cabinet – don’t seem inclined to join the fight over the reforms either.
That’s why Ana Júlia’s eruption into national prominence is so meaningful. First, coming to age during the Lula years, she experienced Brazil’s at its best times, when an estimated 30 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty, even as the economy was at its strongest.
Also, she and her generation represent the best hope yet for new faces in Brazilian politics, who, with a bit of nurturing and lots of luck, will replace the current notoriously mediocre crop of leaders, progressive or otherwise. The way she conducted herself at her first major public exposure shows that she has the chops, is fearless confronting those in power, and is in command of the issues affecting those she represents. She’s in excellent company too. After all, some historians see Brazilian students as first responders to the 1964 military coup that interrupted democracy in Brazil. It was also a teen student, Edson Luis de Lima Souto, who became arguably the insurrection’s first national martyr.
The comparisons stop there, but one can’t help but tracing at least some parallels to the quagmire Brazil faced in the emblematic year of 1968, when Edson was shot and killed in the streets of São Paulo, to what may lie ahead, if Brazilians fail again to answer the call to action.
As boots crushed young skulls in Brazil, students barricaded sidewalks of Paris, and the U.S. Civil Rights and Antiwar movements were at their peak. Sadly, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, and so were Jeffrey Miller and others, at the 1970 Kent State University shootings.
We’ve been selective here, picking elements that best illustrate our (limited) perspective. But hopefully, we’re focusing on the right narrative, even if not on an entirely linear way: for it’s all about the power of engaged students as a transformative element for improving society.
For many of us, in these nervous final days before the U.S. presidential election – and the heartbreaking prospect of sending to the White House someone with the moral compass of a gambler – to have hope is not a luxury, but a sense of duty, worked on day after day.
Critical education, the learning curve necessary to mutate from pupil to an influencer, is a tool of hope maintenance. We desperately need that kind of fearlessness Ana Júlia expressed, even without being completely aware of how important she’s become for Brazil’s future.
Or maybe she is, and it’s us who can’t see it coming. She may not have a degree yet, but has already displayed a masterful talent for directing our attention to the real issues at stake. In Brazil, nothing comes close to access to first-class education to all. Happy Halloween. WC

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