Twenty Cents’ War

Might as well begin by explaining that the public transport service in São Paulo is, by lack of a more refined word, a bit of a joke. The buses are usually late, dirty, hot (only the lines going through “posh” areas such as Paulista Avenue have air conditioning) and crowded.  The subway (known as Metrô), though it’s cleaner than the buses, doesn’t cover much ground and can be just as packed, especially on the rush hour.

11 million people daily, present company included, use this rickety system and make do with it complaining all the way, as one does in big cities. And we pay dear for it: R$ 3 for a single fare (roughly US$ 0,50). It is a lot of money in a city where a snack and a drink in the city centre can cost at least R$ 7. Yep. That expansive.

At the beginning of the month, the Mayor of São Paulo announced the prices would go up to R$ 3,40 (US$ 1,58) for the single fare. Groans and protests followed, as expected. The mayor reduced the raise to R$ 3,20 (US$ 1,48) after an agreement with the federal government. It has to be stressed that the transport services are managed by third parties and subsided by the Prefecture, so any raises to the fares, in theory, has to be amortized by the government, to the happiness of the bus companies and the disgust of the general public.

Did you ever hear that story about the straw that broke the camel’s back? Well, those twenty cents broke the city’s back.


It has to be said that public demonstrations in Brazil are still viewed with suspicion. The shadow of the military junta that governed the country from 1964 to 1985 is still around, and any sort of organized march is seen as a threat to security and – the supreme abhorrence to a paulistano – a threat to the traffic. So, anyone thinking of protesting outside Facebook has to face the opprobrium of their fellow citizens and be prepared to face truculence from the police.

Nevertheless, some groups organized a demonstration in the city centre to protest against the raises. It was a mostly peaceful do, according to eyewitnesses. Some excesses have occurred, s in any big movement: trashcans were set on fire, the traffic was disrupted in some areas. The police responded to all that with tear gas and rubber bullets. The mainstream press started to say that the demonstrators were hooligans and that they should not be tolerated, thus commending the acts of the policemen as keepers of the order and the peace.  Two more protests were staged in the same week, culminating with a big fight on Thursday where about 240 people were arrested, according to official numbers.

The official line insisted on hooliganism, but the social media told a different story. Videos of the police shooting on knelt protestors, spraying people’s eyes with pepper spray and aiming at the press swamped the Brazilian Internet services. A reporter from São Paulo’s biggest newspaper was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. People living in areas close to the fight narrated scenes of chaos and violence. A journalist was ridiculously arrested in possession of wine vinegar (used as an antidote to the tear gas), which prompted the nicknames Salad Uprising or Vinegar Revolution to the protests. Trust the Brazilians to come up with jokes at times like these.

Suddenly, it wasn’t about the twenty cents in the bus fare, but also against the scenario in which the raise in the fare was placed: a world where the World Cup is costing about R$ 33 billion to the taxpayers, and few will be able to watch the game; a place where the buses are expansive, dirty, crowded; a place where the police feels free to let hell break loose, while both the Governor and the Mayor are abroad (in France, trying to bring the Expo 2020 to São Paulo).

There’s another demonstration booked this coming Monday, and I honestly don’t know how things will end.  If one thinks that the Arab Spring began because of a harassed fruit seller in Tunisia, and ended up sweeping the Gulf by storm, perhaps these twenty cents will be the reason to a change in a city not used to stand up for its rights. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic. But I’ll hang on to that for a while.

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