Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Curmudgeon begs leave of readers under the age of forty (there must be a few of you) to report that history may be repeating itself. We refer to the wave of public street protests now sweeping through Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
Well, that’s historical, you will admit, but you may ask “what’s repetitious about it?” because in the Arab world, mass spontaneous street demonstrations against autocratic regimes have been almost non-existent in the past 1,000 years.
Lest we forget, from 1964 to 1985 Brazil was run by an autocratic military regime. During that generation, the military preserved the institutions traditionally associated with democracy—Presidency, Congress and Judiciary.
The president was always elected indirectly, though, by a Congress controlled by two official parties, one of which openly supported the military while the other offered no real opposition. The Judiciary was told to keep quiet and did so. The trappings of democracy were in place, but not the substance.
In the early 1980’s, however, the populace began losing its faith in the rightness of the cause, and scattered protests began to arise. Several congressmen, having more gumption than most had even been willing to credit them, even called for a return to direct elections of the President—“direct” meaning ballots cast by the people in polling stations, rather than by hand-picked members of Congress.
The “Diretas Já!” movement began with a street protest in early 1983 in Abreu e Lima, a newly emancipated município in Pernambuco, aptly named after “General” Abreu e Lima, a Brazilian adventurer commissioned by Simon Bolivar while liberating Venezuela from the Spanish.
Parades and demonstrations happened in 1983, but only in 1984 did things get serious. On April 10th, over a million protesters in Rio marched the entire length of Av. Rio Branco, with people shouting for Diretas Já!
Think about that! A Million Man March before modern communications, because in 1983/84 Brazil, there were no cell phones, no internet, almost no computers (and certainly no Skype, no Facebook, no tweets, no sms)—and still over a million people showed up on Rio’s main drag downtown, carrying signs and banners and shouting slogans—just like in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen these days.
In late April 1984, a subservient Congress did not pass the Constitutional Amendment which would have permitted direct elections. But the movement planted the seed, which bore fruit in 1985 when the military stepped down after the (indirect) election of Tancredo Neves.
It grew and culminated in the 1988 Constitution. In 1989, Fernando Collor de Melo was elected by the people, by direct vote—the first time in almost 30 years that had happened in Brazil.
Will the Diretas Já! campaign in Arab lands be successful? Not immediately, because these things always take time, even in countries like Brazil with a prior history of democratically elected governments. But with global communications now instantly accessible to all, the democratic process could be speeded up exponentially.
If it is, we might just see, sooner rather than later, a truly new political situation in Arabic countries. In this “repeat” situation, many autocrats (all of them “friends” of the USA) who ruled for over thirty years, will no longer be in power—just as happened in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile some twenty years ago.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)