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Brazil protesters struggle to define next steps

Updated at: 06/20/2013 6:05 PM
By BRADLEY BROOKS

(AP) SAO PAULO - After a week of mass protests, Brazilians won the world’s attention and a pull-back on the subway and bus fare hikes that had first ignited their rage. But many say the real work is just beginning.

Middle-class protesters marching for the first time say the challenge for Brazilians is to keep alive the political spirit that was awakened in the last week, after decades of apathy. They say they hope leaders emerge at the forefront of an eclectic mass movement and present concrete demands to national and state governments.

In short, protesters say it’s time to organize around their flurry of grievances, ranging from ending government corruption to improving public education, health care and public safety.

"I think leaders will emerge but in smaller groups," said secretary Juliane Furno, while standing under a banner in Sao Paulo Thursday reading "Only struggle changes life."

"We’re all taking the experiences of the past week back to our universities, communities and workplaces. I think things will calm down now but we have politicized Brazil and there’s no turning back from that. We won’t return to the Brazil of last week."

Despite such enthusiasm, Brazil’s protesters face a dilemma that has bedeviled modern social movements in Latin America and beyond. If protests focus too narrowly on single issues such as bus fares, they risk losing steam when the issue is addressed. And if they embrace too many issues, they risk spreading themselves too thin to achieve any of their goals.

The U.S.-based Occupy movement, for example, failed to turn outrage over Wall Street corruption last year into a focused political force. Demonstrators in Egypt did manage to oust leader Hosni Mubarak but have since struggled to stay unified.

On top of that, having emerged from dictatorship only three decades ago, Brazil has no strong national civic groups that could naturally assume leadership of the protests.

"Based on the experiences we had in Chile, it will be key to foment organization," said Gabriel Boric, a former student leader who helped lead protests that forced Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to boost spending on education and social programs.

"In these type of massive movements there is often a rejection toward any sort of representation," Boric said. "But spokesmen will be needed to mediate with authorities and obtain planned goals. The work has to be permanent _ they have to create representation and dispute the power of traditional politicians."

The protests in Brazil are fresh and still running on adrenaline. Some of the biggest actions are planned for Thursday night in dozens of cities across the country.

Only one organized group has shown any control of the mobilizations so far, the Free Fare Movement that has fought since 2006 to make public transportation free across Brazil. The group’s first protest in Sao Paulo last Thursday drew such a harsh police crackdown that hundreds of thousands of Brazilians were incited to take to the streets with every lament under the sun.

The Free Fare Movement has stuck to its one issue, and won its demands by putting forth leaders who could negotiate with governments.

The rest of the protesters have coalesced only around a general dissatisfaction with the sorry state of public services versus the high taxes citizens pay, as well as the billions of dollar spent on stadiums for the coming World Cup and Olympics.

But when pressed on how to turn frustration and disparate demands into concrete results, few on the streets could describe a way forward. In Salvador on Thursday, about 5,000 protesters couldn’t even agree on a single march route, instead splitting up into two groups.

Ricardo Hammem, a 37-year-old lawyer attending a Sao Paulo rally in a black suit and tie this week, said that despite the amorphous nature of the protests and the lack of central leadership nationwide, the most important step had already been taken.

"It’s been a long time coming. Everyone here is unsatisfied, but no one ever complains," he said. "Everyone waits for others to start."

Leonardo Avritzer, a political science professor at the University of Belo Horizonte, said time was short to harness the protests’ momentum.

"This movement is like an onion," Avritzer said. "At the heart, there are these well-organized and politicized groups around which there are many external layers. Those external layers are going to disperse very rapidly _ especially if the movement doesn’t find a way to turn their demands into a concrete, actionable agenda and particularly if they keep up this rhythm of daily protests."

Clive Bloom, professor emeritus at the U.K.’s Middlesex University and the author of several books on protest movements, said he sees common challenges facing protests in Europe and Latin America.

"Theses protests are made up of alliances of numerous causes and ideas," he said. "The difficulty is getting people to follow one of the ideas and see it through. You have 50,000 people out there, and each has their own agenda."

Bloom said a hallmark of modern protests is their dependence on loosely affiliated groups such as hackers collective Anonymous. Yet those groups by definition don’t believe leaders can carry out traditional negotiations with governments, and form and disappear at will.

Such groups have driven the protests in Brazil, where every demonstration has included people donning the mask of British rebel leader Guy Fawkes _ a symbol adopted by hackers and anarchists globally. Brazil’s Anonymous wing, however, has taken down several government and corporate websites and issued demands for combatting corruption and implementing government reforms.

For cab driver Roberto Amorim, what Brazilians need now is patience and to not lose hope if the protests die down.

"There are so many faces and voices out here, they’re crying out against the same suffering that most in Brazil know," he said. "Nobody is waiting for deep changes today, tomorrow or next week _ I have no idea how it will come about. But the Brazilian people have been so submissive for so long, for now it’s good to just see that we’re able to put the scare into our leaders."

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Associated Press writers Luis Henao in Santiago, Chile, and Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)