There is not a lot in Brazil that is more important than football but on Wednesday, not even Brazil’s victory over Mexico in the Confederation Cup could divert attention from the wave of protests that have shaken the country this week. Indeed, the news that the authorities of Brazil’s largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, were backing down on a planned bus fare hike in the face of mass demonstrations, and the fact that a protest of some 30,000 people took place in Fortaleza at the same time as the game against Mexico there, were arguably of greater significance than the much-needed football result.
The reversal of the fare increase has not, however, put a stop to the protests. These were expected to spread to over 50 cities nationwide yesterday and there was even a small demonstration by Brazilian nationals in front of the Brazilian Embassy in Georgetown.
Earlier this week, there were protests involving more than 200,000 people in at least a dozen Brazilian cities. They may have been sparked by a small one on June 2 against the proposed fare increase in São Paulo but the ensuing mass demonstrations have reflected more general discontent with official corruption, urban crime, poor social services and the rising cost of living; a disproportionate police response in some cases has not helped to soften the people’s mood.
Coinciding with Brazil’s hosting of the Confederation Cup, a curtain-raiser for next year’s World Cup, the protests are serving as an opportunity for people to vent their anger at the billions being spent (accompanied by allegations of massive corruption) on hosting not only the World Cup but also the Olympic Games in 2016, when the money could be better spent, they feel, on health, education and combating crime and insecurity.
The scale of the protests, with tens of thousands of protesters from all backgrounds taking to the streets – a phenomenon not seen in Brazil since President Fernando Collor de Mello was forced from office in 1992 – has taken the authorities at city, state and federal levels, completely by surprise.
Only a few months ago, public opinion polls painted a picture of a fairly content and optimistic society, as Brazil rode the crest of the wave of economic growth and greater international clout and looked forward with national pride to the World Cup and Olympics. But with a dramatic slowdown in growth – barely 0.9 per cent over the past year – and rising inflation, exacerbated by spending on the vast infrastructural works required for the world’s top two sporting events, the Brazilian ‘miracle’ has begun to lose much of its allure.
Even President Dilma Rousseff, the hand-picked successor of former President Lula da Silva, who came to power in 2011 on the coattails of her mentor’s popularity and who has attained high levels of popular approval in her own right, has come in for brickbats. Nonetheless, on Tuesday, in her first public comments since the escalation of protests on Monday night, Ms Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla herself, said that she was “proud” of the protesters and that her “government is listening to the voices calling for change.” And while she made the point that the government had lifted “40 million people” out of poverty, she acknowledged that more needed to be done, particularly in the areas of health and education.
Clearly, economic growth and the alleviation of poverty are not enough. As the middle class grows, people’s expectations rise. And, even as deep social inequities persist in Brazil, the delivery of improved public services is not keeping pace with these heightened expectations. One activist has even suggested to the BBC that the issue goes beyond the ability of people to afford more goods when the “good” they are really clamouring for is that of having a voice as citizens, a voice that will be heard by those in power.
Inevitably, parallels are being drawn with the Arab Spring and Turkey. But Brazil is not an authoritarian state and Brazilians are not fighting a dictator to reclaim basic rights. What appears to be happening in Brazil is an explosion of anger amongst people getting accustomed to better standards of living, greater access to information and better education, and who now feel they should be less tolerant of inequality, substandard public services, corruption and the abuse of power.
In addition to the deep national embarrassment that this crisis is taking place at the same time as a major sporting event in the country, with there already being much international scepticism about Brazil’s readiness to host both the World Cup and the Olympics, the president and her government have been taken aback by the widespread outpouring of dissatisfaction amongst the populace and the implications for social and political stability. The mass protests are an obvious wake-up call to shake the powers that be in Brazil out of whatever complacency they might have been feeling about the social and economic successes of the past decade. Other emerging democracies will be watching closely.