Ana Lucia Araujo*
Brazil is witnessing the largest wave of public protests in its history. Over the last ten years, the federal government successfully implemented measures to overcome the country’s huge social and racial inequalities. After almost one decade of economic growth and praise in the international media, what is going wrong with the giant of Latin America?
Despite the major social changes underwent in Brazil in the last decade, becoming a major player in the international arena raised new challenges, now visible in the demands voiced during the recent protests. According to data provided by IPEA (Institute for Applied Economic Research), between 2001 and 2011, the income of Brazilian poor classes increased 91,2 % allowing more than 20 million people to leave poverty. This transformation is largely indebted to the Family Allowance, a program providing minimum revenue to poor families who agree to send their children to school. These changes also contributed to decrease racial inequality in Brazil, which has the second world’s largest population of African descent outside Nigeria. In 2011, Brazil became the sixth world’s largest economy, even though in 2012 this position was lost to the United Kingdom. In the international sphere, the country also gained great visibility as the host of the forthcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic Games.
The recent emergence of a new low middle class composed of workers with access to consumption and education heated Brazilian economy. Today, the members of this group can buy domestic appliances, cars, and travel. Even television programs and soap operas are now targeting this new group of consumers. Despite these positive changes, this new “low middle class” foresees what seems to be the deceleration of economy growth. More consumption and recent high inflation have led many of these families into debt. Brazilian government failed in making the necessary investments on infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, schools, and public transportation, a situation that became even more evident as the 2014 FIFA World Cup approaches. In many large cities, using public transportation is a nightmare. Metro and bus systems, largely controlled by various private companies, are extremely crowded and inefficient. For the majority of the population who use public transportation, episodes of violence like rapes and robberies are not uncommon. It is not a chance event that the recent widespread protests were triggered by the movement to lower bus fares in the megacity São Paulo. The emergent low middle class, and especially the youth, that now has access to consumption, gradually perceives the perverse results of Brazil’s new alleged economic miracle.
The hosting of mega international sport events, such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, has led to important public expenses in Brazil, especially to build soccer stadiums all over the country. But most members of the lower classes who used to attend soccer games will probably not be able to afford the high-priced tickets. Moreover, the rules imposed by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to held the World Cup and the Olympic Games in Brazil are drastically affecting millions of individuals living in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. Communities are being displaced and several favelas in Rio de Janeiro are occupied by the military police in a process called “pacification.” Last week, the residents of Rocinha favela joined the protests in Rio de Janeiro to demand better social service facilities, including hospitals, schools, and basic sanitation.
But the decline of social inequalities also affected the old middle class and the high middle class that are not always pleased to share the new spaces of consumption with individuals that until recently were confined to the lower spheres of Brazilian society. Perhaps the most striking example illustrating this dissatisfaction was the strong reaction against the newly approved welfare policies regulating the employment of domestic servants, a job historically performed by Afro-Brazilian women. The Brazilian elite complains about the quality of the public services, and being forced to pay private healthcare plans and private schools for their children, because the quality of the options offered by the state does not fulfill the standards. This same group also criticizes the federal government’s initiative to provide poor Brazilians with a family allowance, which they describe as being an assistentialist program. Among the most important demands made by this group during the ongoing protests is the end of political corruption, a complex and deep-rooted issue in Brazilian society that indeed affects not only the government and the national congress.
Various groups representing different interests are in the streets in Brazil making disparate requests. Although these groups do not defend the same interests and do not occupy the same position in the Brazilian society, they are now able to voice their particular demands. The protests are reverberating in the National Congress as well as among governors and mayors, even though the scope of this impact is still difficult to evaluate. In recent polls, President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity is shrinking. Despite attempting to respond to the voices coming from the streets, the protests continue. However, the protesters’ voices are too dissonant. Winter is coming in Brazil and it will hardly be possible for any political party to satisfy these several groups with so different agendas.
* Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and author. She is Associate Professor of History of Brazil and Latin America at Howard University (Washington DC)