Brazil: Can Someone Explain What’s Going on Down There?
By Carl MeachamJun 20, 2013
On June 6, protests broke out in São Paulo, Brazil, in response to the increase of the bus fare from R$3 to R$3.20. Since then, the protests have grown, with more than 250,000 people participating in coordinated protests in Brazil’s major cities. Meanwhile, Brazilians abroad are staging demonstrations in London, Dublin, New York City, Berlin, and Montreal.
Although the protests are now entering their third week, international media only began covering the issue in recent days. What we hear on the news amounts to “bus fares, police violence, and confusion,” so what are Brazilians—known in the United States as fun-loving people that like soccer, samba, and carnival—actually protesting and why?
Q1: What do the protestors want, and who is participating?
A1: The protests erupted when the hike in bus fare was seen as another unnecessary burden for the poor of São Paulo, where the minimum wage is R$678 (roughly US$312) per month. On June 19, the governments of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro gave in to protestors’ demands, agreeing to not implement the fare increase. But as the protests gained momentum and spread across the country, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are motivated by a host of concerns that have been building up for some time. Brazilians are demanding improvements in health, education, and public transportation, as well as an end to the wasteful government spending and corruption that have long plagued the country.
At the same time, the protests are somewhat uncharacteristic of Brazilian society, which has not seen demonstrations of this scale for over 20 years. As a result, the students leading the protests are part of a generation that has generally been politically inactive.
The protests have empowered Brazilians across the country, who see themselves as standing up for their rights and demanding change for the first time—a process that has, itself, brought them an immense sense of pride. Protestors are proud to be Brazilian, proud of their fellow protestors, and proud to be involved in a concerted effort to improve their country.
And though students have led the movement, the protests are not limited to the youth. The frustrations are largely shared by all sectors of the population, from the upper class to the favelas—many Brazilians are uniting to demand an end to business as usual.
Q2: What does this mean for President Dilma Rousseff?
A2: President Rousseff publicly praised the protests, which have remained largely peaceful, and committed her administration to addressing the population’s demands. Many protestors, however, have by and large disregarded her statements of good feeling, challenging the president for her inability to confront the systemic problems facing Brazilian society.
An online activist network, AVAAZ.org, has gained attention by organizing an ongoing petition—currently with over 280,000 signatures—demanding Rousseff’s impeachment. The petition and its signatories accuse her of “betraying the Brazilian people,” suggesting that her impeachment will bring an end to the “corruption, diversion of public funds and the devastation of health, infrastructure, education and security.”
Still, others insist that naming the president as the scapegoat is both unfair and an oversimplification of the problem at hand—one that instead is based on long-standing history of corrupt officials and poorly functioning institutions.
Regardless, Rousseff, hopeful of reelection in 2014, must tread lightly. Although she was not personally involved in the massive corruption scandal that plagued her party just eight years ago, and her approval ratings remain at a high 57 percent, the sluggish economy and sustained protests have many reevaluating her electoral prospects.
Q3: What does this mean for the World Cup?
A3: Anger and frustration over government spending in preparation for the 2014 World Cup has also fueled the recent protests. While the government has invested US$14 billion in new stadiums for the events, the protestors feel it has neglected public services. And though the government uses tax revenues to prepare for the Cup, most revenue generated will be channeled back to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the event’s sponsors. Most Brazilians will see little return on their investment. Protestors are encouraging the government to focus on the needs of its people—not its global image.
Brazilians are also urging foreigners to boycott the World Cup and have already staged demonstrations both outside and inside the stadiums hosting the Confederations Cup. Though it is unlikely the protests will affect the attendance of the World Cup, protestors will surely make the World Cup an uncomfortable event for FIFA and the Brazilian government.
Q4: What can be expected going forward?
A4: The protests began with a specific complaint: bus fare. But as they have continued, the list of demands continues to widen. As the protests lose their focus, protestors may lose their momentum and unity. Nevertheless, the protests are unlikely to end until concrete steps are taken by the government to address their demands.
In the long run, Brazil is faced with a new politically active group, that is capable of mobilizing and that will demand more accountability and transparency from its government. If the protests are sustained, current and prospective leaders will be forced to address protestors’ demands. And Rousseff’s developing response to the protests may well make or break her reelection.
Conclusion: In 2012, Brazil overtook the United Kingdom as the sixth-largest economy in the world and, within the past eight years, 40 million Brazilians have joined the middle class. Excitement over the South American powerhouse grew, and countries all over the world looked toward Brazil as the “country of the future.” Internationally, the protests serve as a reminder that Brazil must address socioeconomic disparity and poor governance. The protestors have chosen an opportune time to address these issues: when the world is watching. It remains to be seen what will come of the demands for an effective government that works for the improvement of society—rather than for itself—and leads Brazil toward its full potential.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Sinclair, intern scholar with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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