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Too many circuses, too little bread, Brazilian protesters seem to say

brazilian protests
REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Mass protests continued in Brazil throughout the weekend.

A sudden outbreak of massive nightly protests in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities last week shocked leaders of that giant country and focused attention on underlying social and economic tensions just as Brazil prepares to celebrate its arrival on the global stage by hosting two of the world’s premier sporting events, soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016.

The immediate cause of Brazil’s eruption was a 20 cent increase in bus fares. In Turkey just weeks earlier it had been government plans to take away green space in central Istanbul by converting a park to commercial use. In both countries, spontaneous protests about a relatively small issue quickly became much more, a broader indictment of business as usual. The signs and shouts from the demonstrators proclaimed a diffuse litany of grievances about the country’s policies, spending priorities, rising costs, income disparities and deep-seated corruption.

What surprised so many observers is that these traditional complaints surfaced just as Brazil  seemed to be realizing the greatness its continental size and immense resources justified. In recent years, as its economy boomed at a rate close to China’s remarkable clip, Brazil joined other rising powers in the “BRIC” bloc (Brazil, Russia, India and China). It also became a leader in the G-20, a new group whose influence on financial and economic issues now rivals that of the formerly dominant G-7.

A balanced economy

Brazil has long stood out for its coffee and magical soccer, but it also now leads in exports of soybeans, sugar cane and other agricultural commodities while also producing cars, airplanes, computers and other sophisticated equipment. Its balanced economy ranked among the top 10 in the world even before the recent discovery of vast of oil and gas desposits off shore from Rio de Janeiro. Only four countries have larger populations than Brazil’s 200 million citizens.

For the past decade, the economy boom has been presided over by a government led by the Workers Party, first by President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva for eight years, then since 2010 by his hand-picked successor, “Dilma” Rousseff.

Both leaders were active in the underground opposition to the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Lula grew up dirt poor and had little formal education. Brazil’s have-nots saw him as a workingman who identified with their plight. Thanks to programs like “Bolsa Familia” (family purse) and “Zero Fome” (no hunger), he left office after eight years with poll numbers U.S. politicians would die for.

Mansions and shanties

Under Lula’s government and then Dilma’s, an estimated 40 million Brazilians have been lifted above the official poverty line. Yet despite that impressive progress, millions still live in poverty alongside fabulous riches. The classic sociological study of the country, published in 1963, was entitled, “The Mansions and the Shanties,” and the contrast between rich and poor is as visible today as it was then.

(The United States has nothing to crow about either. Though our per capita income is at least three times greater than Brazil’s, we rank about the same as Brazil in equitable distribution of wealth).

What appears to be driving the gathering protests in Brazil is the contrast between the harsh  circumstances of daily life for ordinary Brazilians and the country’s readiness to spend huge sums for international sporting events. Too many circuses and too little bread, the protesters seem to be saying, without renouncing their own love of soccer. They want more money to go instead to hospitals,  schools and public services. Minnesotans unhappy with public spending on new stadiums for the Twins and Vikings will have no difficulty getting the point.

The decision to go for the Olympic gold reflected Brazil’s belief that it was ready for prime time. Given the booming economy of the past 15 years, Brazilian leaders felt the country deserved recognition as a major presence on the world stage. But to many citizens scratching out an existence on the sugar plantations in the northeast or in the favelas (slums) on the fringes of mega cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, spending billions for sporting venues looks wrongheaded and infuriating.

Economy has slowed; corruption is a factor

It hasn’t helped that the economy has slowed the past two years. Corruption is a major and continuing factor, too. Back in the 1990s, an American ambassador was sent home after he observed that corruption was endemic in Brazil. He wasn’t wrong, just imprudent. Political scandals have erupted at least as frequently under Lula and Dilma as they did under previous governments, to the frustration of the country's poorest citizens who had hoped for better from the Workers Party.

Dilma is up for re-election in 2014 and until now has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls. She reacted slowly at first to last week’s protests, expressing sympathy but doing little. Neither her government nor the demonstrators seemed to have a clear idea about what should come next. When the manifestations reached a crescendo and a million protestors hit the streets Thursday night, Dilma postponed a planned trip to Japan and called an emergency meeting of her Cabinet for Friday. Addressing the nation that night, she proposed to use revenue from off shore oil to improve the nation’s schools and to develop plans for affordable mass transit. She also vowed to be tough on demonstrators who resorted to violence.

No one knows whether her brief speech and the actions she outlined, even if she can deliver on them, will be enough to begin a process of reconciliation and renewal. Already there is talk of a general strike. Brazilians are famously creative in finding a “jeito,” a way, out of difficult circumstances. But what is required now is profound change, not athletic flair or clever tricks. The country will be fully tested in the days and weeks ahead.

Dick Virden is a retired Foreign Service Officer who was the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Brazil from 2002 to 2004. 

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