Opinion by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For almost one hundred years, crying Mayday! thrice has been an international signal of distress — it comes from “m’aider” or “help me” in French. Today, the first day of May, is an international holiday around the world, known as Workers’ Day. Brazil is today a country in distress, and there is no indication of where help may come from.
Two days ago, Brazil had a general strike, which largely paralyzed the city of São Paulo and which saw the return of “black bloc” vandals to Rio’s downtown. Although the Temer administration tried to downplay the strike, it resonated widely across Brazil as a cry for help from desperate people.
A general strike has nothing to do with salaries or working conditions, nor is it a complaint by workers against their employers. Rather, it is a quintessentially political event, where strikers tell the general public that the elected representatives of government are not representing the public interest.
General strikes have long been common in countries such as France and Italy, but Brazil has for the most part rejected them. The last time the entire country came to a halt was back in 1986, as people protested President Sarney’s horrendously ill-conceived and short-lived Plano Cruzado.
Friday’s general strike was triggered by rising negative public reaction to two pieces of legislation — social security and employment law — the Temer administration has promised to enact. Without going into details, the proposals would effectively dismantle a legal safety net superstructure in place for more than seventy years.
In other words, most people alive in Brazil today do not know any other system than that which they were born into, grew up under, lived and worked under, and (sooner, rather than later) retired and grew old under.
Overcoming the natural resistance to a sea change is only possible in a democracy where the people trust their elected government representatives. When that trust disappears, when people no longer believe that their government is acting in good faith to better their lot, no change is feasible.
Brazil today has been shown to be a society governed by crooks and scoundrels. No one in Brazil believes that congress or the administration is serving the public good, the common weal. To the contrary, everyone “knows” that elected officials run for office so as to line their own pockets.
In mid-2013, there were protests against immense government spending on infrastructure for the World Cup and the Olympics, rather than on improving public education, health, sanitation and safety. But then, Dilma and PT were in power, Judge Moro had not begun the Lava-Jato investigations, and many protesters still believed things could get better.
In 2013, some protesters carried placards saying “You don’t represent me” and refused to permit elected politicians from joining their marches or speaking at their rallies. By 2017, no one needs to carry any such sign, because no one believes that any elected politicians represent them.
Hence, the general strike. It’s a cry of “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” from desperate people who are hoping against hope that elected politicians will look at them and hear them before they, the people, are thrown under the bus of “reform” they believe will only make their lives worse.
Most Mayday! signals go unanswered. The Curmudgeon believes this one will be no different.