Dare to Wear Red in Brazil as Crisis Widens Public Fury

Brazil's Dilma Rousseff Loses Largest Ally
  • Shirts signifying Rousseff party draw jeers and confrontation
  • `The country is polarized' as social media sharpens the divide

Raquel Varjao, an advertising professional in Sao Paulo, had just picked up her 7-year-old daughter from school when three passing motorists cursed her. The offense: wearing a red shirt.

“They felt entitled to verbally attack me and in front of her,” the 35-year-old mother said after dressing recently in the color associated with President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. “Why do ideological disagreements need to get to this point?”

Workers’ Party Supporters in Sao Paulo.
Workers’ Party Supporters in Sao Paulo.
Photographer: Dario Oliveira/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rousseff’s impeachment saga is disrupting the rhythm of everyday life across Brazil, a nation with a largely peaceful history and political tolerance since its return to democracy in 1985. In barrooms, chat rooms and above all on the streets, the debate over her possible ouster is growing more hostile and bringing latent class and partisan divisions back to the fore.

“The country is polarized,” said Ricardo Ribeiro, a political analyst at business consulting firm MCM in Sao Paulo.

At the heart of the crisis are corruption allegations pointed at the administration and lawmakers, and a new generation of Brazilians who are tired of graft. Darkening the public mood is the worst recession in at least a century that’s threatening a fledgling middle class in Latin America’s largest economy.

For two years, the probe into kickbacks at state-run oil producer Petrobras has captivated the public, 82 percent of which disapprove of the job she’s doing, according to an Ibope poll released Wednesday. Federal police have arrested corporate executives and politicians, including some from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. The detainment of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in early March led to the biggest anti-government protests on record.

More Protests

Rousseff’s fate was thrown even further into doubt on Tuesday as the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the nation’s biggest party, formally left the governing coalition. Pro-government protests are planned for Thursday in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre -- following anti-government marches that drew millions just a few weeks ago.

Even for those uninterested in politics, choosing the wrong color can draw them unwittingly into the fray.

Red has been associated with union members, landless movements and other leftist activists who think there is no reason to oust Rousseff without a proven crime. The Workers’ Party has been in power since 2003. Growing in numbers are wealthier, educated elites who have adopted yellow and green -- the colors of the Brazilian flag -- as a show of opposition to the government.

“When I go for a walk along the coast, I now avoid wearing red,” João Studart, a public official who describes himself as a Workers’ Party militant, said by phone from Rio. “I’m 60 years old. It’s not only me; people are afraid of being attacked.”

Insults, Scuffles

Larissa Grutes, a 31-year-old English teacher, said she intentionally wore red for three straight days earlier this month in Rio’s upscale beach neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon. A stranger yelled “corrupt whore!” in her face, she said in a phone interview Monday.

So far, the country has been spared the kind of social unrest that has plagued neighbors such as Venezuela. But anger is spawning more violence. There were scuffles in Brazil’s Congress this week, and tear gas was lobbed at street protesters this month as both sides harden their views.

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Brasilia.
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Brasilia.
Photographer: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Several district offices of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party were ransacked and vandalized around the country, as was the building of the Lula Institute, the foundation started by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Physical confrontations occurred outside a university campus in Sao Paulo.

“Brazil is going through a big transition,” said Priscila Minervino, 25, a psychologist who took part in a demonstration March 23 in Brasilia calling for a peaceful resolution.

Stories of people getting drawn into the strife are spreading on social networks such as Facebook, a shift Minervino said has its pros and cons.

“People are more informed and have more ability to express themselves, they can understand and think,” she said, sitting among a group dressed in all white clothing. “At the same time, it’s a lot of conflict, a lot of hatred and fighting. Rather than uniting, it divides.”

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