Published: July 16, 2013
São Paulo - Young people, quick fingers on their cellphones, have taken to the streets around the world.
It would seem easier to explain these protests when they take place in nondemocratic countries, as in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, or in countries where the economic crisis has raised the number of unemployed young workers to frightening highs, as in Spain and Greece, than when they emerge in countries with popular democratic governments - like Brazil, where we currently enjoy the lowest unemployment rates in our history and an unparalleled expansion of economic and social rights.
Many analysts attribute recent protests to a rejection of politics. I think it’s precisely the opposite: They reflect a drive to increase the reach of democracy, to encourage people to take part more fully.
I can only speak with authority about my country, Brazil, where I think the demonstrations are largely the result of social, economic and political successes. In the last decade, Brazil doubled its number of university students, many from poor families. We sharply reduced poverty and inequality. These are significant achievements, yet it is completely natural that young people, especially those who are obtaining things their parents never had, should desire more.
These young people did not live through the repression of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. They did not live through the inflation of the 1980s, when the first thing we did when we received our paychecks was to run to the supermarket and buy everything possible before the prices rose again the next day. They remember very little about the 1990s, when stagnation and unemployment depressed our country. They want more.
It is understandable that it should be so. They want the quality of public services to improve. Millions of Brazilians, including those in the emerging middle class, have purchased their first cars and have begun to travel by air. Now, public transportation must be efficient, making life in the large cities less difficult.
The concerns of young people are not merely material. They want greater access to leisure and cultural activities. But above all, they demand political institutions that are cleaner and more transparent, without the distortions of Brazil’s anachronistic political and electoral system, which has recently shown itself to be incapable of managing reform. The legitimacy of these demands cannot be denied, even if it’s impossible to meet them quickly. It’s first necessary to find funds, establish goals and set timelines.
Democracy is not a commitment to silence. A democratic society is always in flux, debating and defining its priorities and challenges, constantly craving new achievements. Only in a democracy could an Indian be elected president of Bolivia, and an African-American be elected president of the United States. Only in a democracy could first a metalworker and then a woman be elected president of Brazil.
History shows that when political parties are silenced, and solutions are sought by force, the results are disastrous: wars, dictatorships and the persecution of minorities. Without political parties there can be no true democracy. But people do not simply wish to vote every four years. They want daily interaction with governments both local and national, and to take part in defining public policies, offering opinions on the decisions that affect them each day.
In short, they want to be heard. This creates a tremendous challenge for political leaders. It requires better ways of engagement, via social media, in the workplace and on campuses, reinforcing interaction with workers groups and community leaders, but also with the so-called disorganized sectors, whose desires and needs should be no less respected for lack of organization.
It has been said, and with good reason, that while society has entered the digital era politics has remained analog. If democratic institutions used the new communication technologies as instruments of dialogue, and not for mere propaganda, they would breathe fresh air into their operations. And that would more effectively bring them in tune with all parts of society.
Even the Workers Party, which I helped found and which has contributed so much to modernize and democratize politics in Brazil, needs profound renewal. It must recover its daily links with social movements and offer new solutions for new problems, and do both without treating young people paternalistically.
The good news is that young people are not conformist, apathetic or indifferent to public life. Even those who think they hate politics are beginning to participate. When I was their age, I never imagined I would become a political militant. Yet we wound up creating a political party when we discovered that the National Congress had practically no representatives from the working class. Through politics we managed to restore democracy, consolidate economic stability and create millions of jobs.
Clearly there is still much to do. It’s good news that our young people want to fight to ensure that social change continues at a more intense pace.
The other good news is that President Dilma Rousseff proposed a plebiscite to carry out the political reforms that are so necessary. She also proposed a national commitment to education, health care and public transportation, in which the federal government would provide substantial financial and technical support to states and municipalities.
When talking with young leaders in Brazil and elsewhere, I like to tell them this: Even when you are discouraged with everything and everyone, don’t give up on politics. Participate! If you do not find in others the politician you seek, you may find him or her in yourself.