Last month, Juliano Torres heard a knock on the door of his home in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. When he opened, there was an official delivering a summons to appear at the local police station within 2 days.
Juliano is the executive director of Students for Liberty in Brazil and active in many libertarian causes. He figured the summons was connected to his work collecting signatures for a new political party called Novo. “There’s always problems with the signatures. So I didn’t think any more about it,” he said. When he arrived at the police station, however, he was directed not to to the election division but to World Cup security.
The police officers asked him about his participation in the demonstrations that rocked Brazil in June 2013. People took to the streets to express a wide range of grievances. Some were angry at the billions being spent on stadiums for the World Cup. Others denounced poitical corruption. Others demanded fully subsidized public transport.
Juliano had seized the opportunity to present libertarian ideas, marching holding signs with slogans like “There is no such thing as a free lunch” or “Privatize the World Cup.”
The police officers asked him about his activites during the demonstrations, and he answered them honestly. Then they asked Juliano if he had participated in any other protests. He told them no. At that point, they produced a photo of him at an event similiar to a protest 5 years ago. At that time, the city of Belo Horizonte had banned demonstrations in one of the main squares. In response, Juliano had organized activities like sports matches in the square that could serve as protests without technically being protests. The city subsequently rescinded the ban.
Juliano continued to answer police questions, and after two hours he was released. There has been no further action. He believes they were trying to discourange him from protesting again. They need not have bothered. He had already decided he would not participate in future demonstrations. He has concluded they are pointless. Also, he does not think he was targeted for being a libertarain. Many other protestors from different ideogical backgrounds have received similiar summons.
Last summer, immediately after the demonstrations ended, the Brazilian government made a few steps to address protestor’s concerns. Since then, however, officials have been cracking down on civil liberties to ensure there are no demonstrations during the World Cup this summer. For instance, a judge recently signed a search warrant for an entire neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. Government officials speak in public assemblies about how they will stop anyone from demonstrating.
To address these and other issues in Brazil, Juliano is working on establishing the Instituto Pelo Justiça (Institute for Justice). It would act as a sort of a judicial watch and also sue the government for illegal activity. A case like Juliano’s summons would definitely fall within its purview. “The police are operating in a grey area of the law here. It’s neither legal not illegal,” he says. Once the institute is established, it could try to force police to provide transparency about how protestors are being questioned. “We have a lot of lawyers in Brazil, and a lot of lawyers in the libertarian movement,” he says.
Juliano also hopes the institute can stand up against a new law called Marco Civil da Internet that has been approved in the lower house of Brazil’s government and is likely to soon be approved by the upper house. The bill opens the door for official censorship of websites and hands internet user’s browsing data over to the government.
He is working on collecting signatures of individuals who are against Marco Civl da Internet. He will pass these to journalists so that they can write about the level of opposition to the new law.
With all these threats to liberty, Juliano has his hands full. The day I met with him, he was preparing to fly to the south of Brazil for a Students for Liberty regional conference. There are 130 registered attendees. “We get more registations than we have places,” he says. Students for Liberty in Brazil now has 5,000 members, and last year won the Atlas Network’s Smith Student Outreach Prize for Liberty for the best student group.
In May, he is helping organize a TEDX event at a business school in Belo Horizonte. The theme will be “creative destruction” and the speakers include Tom G. Palmer of the Cato Institute. Juliano is also helping bring the liberty movement to Mozambique, like Brazil a Portuguese-speaking country. He and his colleagues have identified 50 local coordinators who are now receiving training in the ideas of liberty and how to promote them.
His most arduous task this past year, however, was helping to collect signatures for Novo. “It was the most difficult thing I ever did in my entire life. I was working from 6am to 8pm collecting signatures for 6 months,” he says. His efforts were successful, and Novo is now acknowledged as an official party. They still need to clear more bureaucratic hurdles before they can field candidates, but the signatures mean Novo is entitled to 30-second advertisements on Brazilian television each week during election season.
In general, the liberty movement has been making great progress in Brazil. “When I look back on the past year, I would say this is the year things started getting more professional,” Juliano says. As examples, he cites two new websites, Mercado Popular and Liberzone, which are producing content specifically for the Brazilian content and responding to breaking news. Previously, Brazilian libertarians had been translating English texts.
The biggest challenge Juliano faces is finding people to help with his work. He says funding and donations are fairly easy to obtain, but he has trouble recruiting staff to execute projects. Many students volunteer their time, but they are not interested in becoming professionals in the advancement of liberty. “Young people don’t see this as a career. I tell them about things like Atlas training and they’re interested, but they don’t follow up,” he says. “Sometimes English is a problem or they don’t have time to travel.”
In particular, he would like to hand over the reins at Students for Liberty. “I need to go,” he says. “We need a younger person. But right now, there isn’t anyone.”
Thus, the libertarian movement in Brazil still faces significant challenges. But its growth in recent years has been exceptional. Given the threats to liberty in Brazil, voices like Juliano’s are more important than ever before.
Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Image of police monitoring protest against forced removal of families near World Cup courtesy of Big Stock Photo.