May 7, 2014

Brazil Mulls ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Bill That Could Ban Protests

By: Emma Elliott Freire

Police Squad Monitors The Popular Protest

The government of Brazil is debating a new law that will curtail a citizen’s rights to protest. The Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2013 was introduced to criminalize violent protests, but its wording is so vague that many non-violent forms of public demonstration may also be banned.

Last summer, Brazil was convulsed with demonstrations. In June 2013, a small extreme-leftist group protested an increase in bus fares in Sao Paulo. They touched a nerve with many Brazilian citizens. Soon millions took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with conditions in the country. There was very little cohesion among the protestors.  Two people could be marching side-by-side for entirely different reasons. Many Brazilians were unhappy with the militarization of Brazil’s police. Others were angry at the billions being spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil is hosting, while hospitals and schools remain in a state of disrepair.

Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, appeared on television to praise the demonstrations as a sign of the strength of Brazil’s democracy. She promised reforms to address the protestor’s concerns. A year later, there have been very few changes, and now the Anti-Terrorism Bill is threatening citizens’ freedom to march in the streets.

Rodrigo Constantino, a Brazilian economist who writes for Veja magazine, says that part of the problem was that many protestors were asking the government to solve the problems that the government had created in the first place. “People were on the streets asking for hospitals and schools and transportation in the same patterns as the sports stadiums we have. It means more money at the end of the day,” he says. “People were not aware that government itself is responsible for all the corruption and the bad decisions about how to spend our money. They were angry because they need two hours to get to work. The roads don’t work. The schools don’t work. They don’t understand that the solution is to get the government out of the way. So they’re asking for more taxes and spending, and thus more of the causes of the problems.”

Anthony Ling, a Brazilian architect, urbanist and author of the blog Rendering Freedom also believes the protests did not yield any positive outcomes in terms of changes to government policy. “The best result of the protests would be the rise of the dissatisfaction with the current federal government,” he says. “Before the protests, the federal government had really high approval ratings, and I think after the protests the rage was spread out about what is happening with the country. People actually woke up to the reality of what is going on. The approval rating of President Dilma Rousseff dropped a lot after the protests, and it has just stayed there.”

Most Brazilians have now concluded that protesting is a waste of time. However, some smaller, extremist groups are continuing to protest using violent techniques. As a result, members of Brazil’s congress decided the country needed better anti-terrorism legislation on the books before the World Cup this summer. The Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2013 was introduced in the spring. Despite the efforts of the sponsors to rush it through, the legislation became delayed.

“The problem is that some articles of the legislation are vague and open a dangerous possibility to criminalize almost every kind of protest against government,” says Bruno Garschagen of the Mises Institute in Brazil.

The Brazilian Congress will conduct further debates on the bill and likely take a vote in the second half of the year. Garschagen is optimistic that the most dangerous wording in the bill will be revised, but the threat to liberty in Brazil remains grave.

The Brazilian media has given inordinate attention to a small group of violent protestors known as Black Bloc, who wear masks in public. In response, the state of Rio de Janeiro has banned the wearing of masks during protests. This includes the Guy Fawkes-style masks which are synonymous with protest in many parts of the world.

“Black Bloc are people that don’t want to show their faces and want to fight against the system, and by that I mean the capitalist system,” says Constantino. “They think they are above the law, and they can just throw things. They want to tear down the system. They are old-fashioned anarchists, not the capitalist anarchists.”

Constantino believes the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2013 is a logical response to the threat posed by Black Bloc. “It’s like the Patriot Act. You have a situation that demands police action. Black Bloc is a danger to our democracy today, and a lot of people, even some libertarians, are “useful idiots” to these anarchists,” he says.

However, Grant Grobbel, an American who has lived in Brazil off and on for 20 years, is skeptical of the true extent of the threat posed by Black Bloc. “They’re used more as a scare tactic by the media. The media focuses on a radical obscure group like that to promote why we need to have more police on the streets protecting us,” Grobbel says. “Gun ownership is very restricted in Brazil. It’s almost impossible for a common person to get a concealed weapon permit or for a home owner to have protection in their house. So everything falls back on the government to protect us. People are defenseless and then they think Black Bloc is going to invade their building and tear it up. So they’re left to have the police protect them.”

The threat of Black Bloc may be serious or it may be exaggerated. Either way, it doesn’t compare to the long-term threat to liberty posed by the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2013. Brazilians should not let a small anarchist group distract them from keeping a vigilant eye on their Congress.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Brazil protest image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.