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Brazil uprising: carnival’s over, everyone

Besides some smaller rallies, the tear gas has cleared and it seems all but game over for the massive protest movement that had swept Brazilian city streets.

SAO PAULO, Brazil — When millions of Brazilians took to the streets last month in nationwide protest against everything from corruption to overpriced bus fares to a despised political class, the demonstrators chanted, “The giant has awoken.”

The reference came from a TV commercial for Johnnie Walker whisky that showed a stone giant arise from its slumber in Rio de Janeiro. That seemed appropriate given that the demonstrations were the biggest popular protests here in more than 20 years.

There was a feeling that citizens in the world’s fifth most populous nation had been taken advantage of for too long and that they were finally rising up and saying, “Enough is enough.”

A month on from that sudden outpouring of anger and the situation has calmed. Unlike in theMiddle East or North Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets for months on end, or even in neighboring Argentina, where protesters shut down cities on an almost daily basis, Brazil’s anger was short-lived.

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As he waited in vain for more people to turn up for an anti-corruption march last week, protester Paulo Resende fumed at the inertia of his countrymen and women.

“The giant has gone back to sleep,” he said.

There are many reasons the anger has died down.

Politically, the response was swift and befitting of a president who spent three years in jail for opposing the military dictatorship in the 1960s. Within hours of the biggest protests kicking off President Dilma Rousseff told Brazilians she was “proud” of their actions and that she understood “that people want more.” She then unveiled a package of measures designed to address some of the most widely held grievances.

Rousseff vowed to devote more money to health, education and public transport and try to negotiate a political reform bill with Congress that would make the country’s notoriously unreliable politicians more accountable.

In the days and weeks after, other leading figures also responded. Mayors and governors in dozens of big cities and states, including Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, scrapped the proposed fare increases and announced they would freeze highway tolls, review or cancel existing transportation contracts and even sell their private helicopters to cut back on costs.

Congress, too, sparked into action, meeting into the wee hours to pass bills they had previously rejected or ignored, sometimes for years.

That rapid response is one reason the anger has cooled. Although the approval ratings of almost all the country’s top politicians plummeted — Rousseff’s decline was the swiftest for a sitting president in more than 20 years — Brazilians could see their government had heard their appeals and was taking action.

“The president listened to the voice of the streets and she called on people to get behind her and the pact she proposed,” said Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo. “She showed that she can lead. Life for Brazilians hasn’t changed. The economy is still doing well, unemployment is still at a historic low. When this period is over then people will once again see this government as positively as it did before.”

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But activists say they are disappointed that the anger built up over decades dissipated so quickly.

Some said that Brazilians are just not used to demonstrating collectively. Others believe the end of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament robbed protesters of the international backdrop and attention. The fact that so many of the most recent protests ended in violence — either by rioters or by heavy-handed police — undoubtedly scared off many people.

And there is also a feeling that many of the demonstrators took to the streets not just to protest, but also to have fun. The marches were a political version of carnival, evenings spent meeting friends, painting faces and writing snappy placards that culminated with singing, dancing and drinking.

“It was just a big party for a lot of people,” Resende said. “It was the excitement of the moment. But at the end of the day, people have other priorities.”

The protests have not stopped entirely, but the ones that do take place are much smaller and more focused. At the start, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the two biggest cities Sao Paulo and Rio and tens of thousands more in smaller towns and cities.

Now, a few thousand people gather at most, and their gripes focus on local or niche issues.

“The fact that bus fares were reduced is one of the reasons the momentum has died,” said Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist in Rio who watched and participated in the biggest demonstrations. “That was a unifying theme. But now there is a tiredness and you can’t get lots of people on the streets for generic issues, you need something for everyone to rally around.”

Some unions and groups have called for a national strike on Thursday, but Nicolau believes the era of the nationwide unrest is over and said they will be remembered in history books as “the June protests.”

But other analysts say that could depend on whether authorities make good on their promises and whether people see — or at least feel — a change.

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Next year is an election year and the World Cup will be held in Brazil just three months before October’s presidential ballot.

What happens between now and then will determine the national mood. The giant might have gone back to sleep. But only time will tell if he is to be roused once again.