What Brazil’s Protests Say About Latin America’s Fumbling Elites

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Felipe Dana / AP

Protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 17, 2013.

It’s a delusion harbored by ruling classes the world over, but especially in Latin America. It’s the bogus belief that even if people get richer, they don’t get smarter. Ask Chile’s Carménère-sipping elites where that clueless thinking got them. Ask them to explain why the country with the region’s highest per capita GDP and one of its stronger middle classes — the Latin American nation most likely to achieve developed status first — has been the scene of some of the region’s loudest street protests in recent years.

Call it the ire of expectations. Chile’s stellar economic performance has indeed raised incomes, but it’s also raised awareness about lingering inequality, big business abuses, deficient education — all the flaws that keep even quasi-developed societies from becoming genuinely developed, and which leaders like Chile’s think they can put off fixing as long as the masses can buy new cars. What they find out instead is that heightened public consumerism often means a heightened public expectation that feckless and negligent establishments will finally get their acts together. When they don’t, folks get ticked off.

That ire of expectations has now caught up with Latin America’s largest country and economy, Brazil. Angry, sometimes violent demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens have erupted this week from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the south to Salvador and Recife in the north — and in the central capital, Brasília, where some 200 protesters even mounted the roof of Oscar Niemeyer’s famous Congress building.

Don’t these people know that Brazil added 40 million of them to the middle class over the past decade, at one point creating almost 20 local currency millionaires a week? Sure they do, and they’re most appreciative. But here’s what else they know — and what their new economic clout has made them a lot bolder about challenging: Their political and economic systems remain in too many ways as corrupt, indifferent and dysfunctional as they were when Brazil had only two classes, the very rich and very poor. As TIME Brazil reporter Andrew Downie noted in his blog this week: “Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services in return.”

So it’s less surprising that this month’s irritation over a trivial ten-cent hike in public bus fares boiled over into this week’s nationwide upheaval. Brazilians were already grumbling about the fact that their remarkable economic boom has hit the skids, with less than 1% growth last year and less than 3% forecast this year compared to 7.5% in 2010. And that simply makes them ask all the more loudly why their leaders didn’t tackle Brazil’s epic systemic shortcomings, from impossibly bloated public bureaucracies to frighteningly threadbare public infrastructure, when times were good — why their leaders were so eager to convince the world that Brazil was developed enough to host the soccer World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, yet seemed so unwilling to show their own people they could improve the country’s pathetically underfunded schools, staffed by just as woefully underpaid and undertrained teachers.

The World Cup and Olympics, in fact, loom large in the Brazilian protests. It eventually short-circuits public patience to see a government lavish attention and resources on such mega-events while the nation’s violent crime crisis — a homicide rate equal to that of narco-ravaged Mexico — not to mention official malfeasance — like the recent mensalão scandal, which saw a chief of staff of popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva convicted for massive, multi-million-dollar legislative vote-buying — fester. The joys of expanded credit might have taken Brazilians’ minds off those societal defects; problem is, as Downie points out, they’re paying outlandish annual interest rates of more than 200% on their credit cards.

(MORE: How the Santa Maria Fire Could Mark a Turning Point for Brazil)

Brazil’s Congress, meanwhile, may simply fan the flames next week, when it plans to vote on a bill that, incredibly, would weaken the state and federal prosecutors charged with investigating crimes like official corruption. If the measure passes, one imagines it could be an open invitation to even more turmoil.

At least Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — whose re-election next year is hardly assured now — isn’t ridiculously scapegoating foreigners for the unrest as leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro have lately done in their countries. She’s called it instead a sign of “how important democracy is to our people” and pledged to listen to demonstrators’ complaints. That’s what you’d hope to hear from a woman who started her career as a leftist urban guerrilla four decades ago; anything else would sound fairly hypocritical. But it signals that Rousseff perhaps gets what’s going on. And if she does, it’s largely because Lula left her to deal with the less glamorous work of development — attacking the corruption (she has shown a number of allegedly compromised cabinet ministers the door), lifting education standards (via ambitious programs like Science Without Borders) and all the other heavy lifting Brazilians now expect from their own smug elite.

In that regard, maybe Rousseff also learned from recent events in Chile, where protest-generated issues like education reform and more equitable distribution of vast mineral wealth dominate the November presidential election. Or in Mexico in 2000, in places like Venezuela and Argentina today, and possibly in increasingly affluent countries like Peru tomorrow. Here’s to hoping that the Latin American delusion — the notion that new wealth obscures old incompetence — will finally die out on the streets of Brazil.

39 comments
interactidiomas
interactidiomas

Brazil is turning into a hellish social nightmare.

On the streets, murder is common, for the most banal of motives; a daily-ration of television images show mothers, fathers, their children- shot down in the middle of the day, in the middle of busy streets. Cities are literally under siege by organized criminals, directed by their leaders from behind prison walls. Hundreds of buses, cars and trucks are burned-at-will; to punish the governments that dare to transfer them to other prison facilities in an attempt to erode the criminal’s command-and-control structure. There’s nothing novel, over the last five or six years, about criminal gangs invading high-rise apartment buildings and holding dozens of residents hostage in their own homes, robbing and beating them, threatening their lives- and then escaping. ATM’s are no longer seen in any place deemed to be vulnerable in-the-least to dynamite. Whole small towns have been temporarily occupied and their banks robbed by criminals with machine-gun-mounted vehicles. Farmers are increasingly abandoning their lands because they are victimized by violent criminals, who steal their livestock and farm machines.

Every rainy-season, South America’s largest city, São Paulo, experiences frequent and widespread flooding, resulting in lost lives, cars swept away and families made homeless, year after year. Officials repeatedly point to drainage systems choked with trash. The government doesn’t keep them clear, in anticipation of floods, and the citizens continue to stuff them with trash.

The sale of spoiled meat, adulterated gasoline and dangerously defective buildings is widespread- even among the most high-profile and theoretically “reputable” enterprises. Buildings crack and collapse, oil platforms capsize and subway construction projects implode.

Massive, half-finished public works, and thousands of smaller abandoned public facilities dot the country; with no one paying any penalty, no one pursuing explanations; the funds forever gone into some pockets, somewhere. This country, with an economy that ranks in the top 5% in the world, and with one of the highest tax rates in the world, has severely under-performing schools, many of which are physically near-collapse; and ranking among African nations on standardized testing. Its roads, highways and airports are notoriously bad. Its territory is larger than that of the Continental United States, yet its railroad system is vestigial.

But while all this can be laid at the feet of a “government” which the population consistently elects and re-elects from a recycled mix of politicians that are seemingly impervious to any scandal or revelation; it’s the people themselves, that demonstrate their cynicism in other ways. Doctors working for the public health system in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, collect their salaries while not showing-up to attend their patient’s, but instead going to private clinics to treat other paying clients. When the government attempts to make them accountable through use of fingerprint-verification of time-sheets, doctors have made silicon-casts of their thumbs to falsify their time-sheets. During holidays and weekends of three days or more, the absentee rate of medical professionals skyrockets, leaving many facilities unstaffed. Students graduating from medical schools are not subjected to ANY licensing exam, and horror-stories of unqualified doctors botching plastic surgery and killing patients has become regular fare for news exposé shows;

Getting diplomas is generally a matter of paying the tuition, and is reflected in the 75% failure rate of law graduates taking the national licensing exam.

Air traffic controllers, at international airports are required to speak English, but tests and proficiency have often been ignored and even linked to major air catastrophes.

However, this cynicism and asocial mentality is not limited to the professional classes. It permeates every social stratum. Bus drivers are well-known for poor service, by-passing requested stops, driving at high speeds in a dangerous manner, or simply not following their routes. Neither shouting matches, nor fist-fights between passengers and drivers are unusual, even while the bus is moving.

How does the contemporary situation qualify as worse than the historical past? Because Brazil has emerged economically as a near-developed nation, stripped of its excuses for asocial and uncivilized behavior. While every developed-nation experiences asocial, uncivilized- even barbaric incidents, they are largely not woven into the cultural fabric of those nations. This is borne-out in oft-repeated comment by Brazilians returning from working, studying and living abroad in developed countries, “Things work, there. Their society functions.”

cdgbxl
cdgbxl

this is so patronizing it's almost funny.

btt1943
btt1943

When hunger keeps gnawing at one's vital, who cares about football? Even if it is Brazilians' craze and pride, who could tolerate long years of abject poverty and subjugation while watching the rich get richer by the day?   (mtd1943, ttm1943)

crysthianocabral
crysthianocabral

I would like to know if the international press could do something to put shame in the face of our rulers and moralize public services and lower taxes. Thanks!

Kalunga
Kalunga

I am from Brazil and I believe that I follow the political/economical situation  here pretty well, but I was happily  surprised with the " natives' " (lol) reaction.  Yes, it all begun with the increase in the buss fare, but also 1. cost overrun of several soccer stadium 2. overrun of a  Petrobras' refinery from R$9 B to R$36B 3. the constitucional change "PEC 37" limiting the  very popular federal policy (like the FBI) investigating power ( I guess it is irritating many politicians) 4.  the daily news that some mayor in some small city have stolen millions of reais and nothing happens . It is the daily grind of a  political machine / elite that does anything to survive and care little about the population.  There are cases of politicians' criminal cases that are going on 9/10 yrs without a resolution.  When I think about the Brazilian politicians, I think of an Agricultural Fair in Iowa, where for the first time, I saw kids trying to tackle a greased pig.  Believe me, the American politicians and elite (when not the same) is remarkably illuminated.   I congratulate on Mr Padgett's very well written article.

DannyKCabrera
DannyKCabrera

"it’s also raised awareness about lingering inequality, big business abuses, deficient education — all the flaws that keep even quasi-developed societies from becoming genuinely developed"

Taking into account what you said, USA is not a developed country..but a quasy developed country.

Juliana
Juliana

Overall a very well written article, it "gets" what's going on down here better than our local media seems to. However I think it is overly optimistic about President Dilma. She, along with pretty much everybody else, was caught by surprise by the size and scope of the protests. I don't think anyone saw this big of a show of public unhappiness with the overall state of things coming, not from a people that many accused of being too accommodated, or even too uneducated to either care or understand what was really going on.

Politicians are now scrambling to react to this, but most have no idea how. The President herself, while trying to say the right things, has so far said nothing besides platitudes. If these protests don't fizzle out now that it was announced that the price of the bus fare would go down in most major cities, next year's election will be very interesting indeed.

litoplan
litoplan

Costa Rica, Latinamercan country IS a developed country... Get informed, please.

punkakes13
punkakes13

if u get a bullet for claiming a right, imagine when insulting someone in power

punkakes13
punkakes13

the thing is that is not right for people to have to manisfest whats right all the time..

the representers that should be replaced.. and directly attacked

and morally atacked

but i guess peopel r scared to do it directly

punkakes13
punkakes13

woow, thats a very supportive and clearful article.. goo you quoted these 2 president names...

im not that sure though about the part "hard to be reelected..

because the manisfestations r not directed towards them, and the president keeps inforcing the manisfestations, and also willing to help with the positive changes..she claims..

she may strategically make positivaly changes... and manippulate the masses hehehe 

MegP
MegP

It's interesting to read this while keeping in mind the US's galloping growth in economic disparity, withdrawal of support for public services, and blithe 'investment class' dismissal of needs of 'the commons'. One could almost overlay the description of economic experience in Brazil with the same in the US and find a match. 

One could almost forget what nation they're reading about if it weren't for article reminders that Brazil is coming *up from* "developing nation status"; (whereas, the US appears to be passing them on our way *down toward".)  Oh yes, and another difference, other than direction of trajectory - US citizens are strangely silent, offering no general citizen-based shared analysis of how things are here. 

Well, (sigh), populations of both nations and of all other nations will need to become not only vocal but responsible and insist govts and investment class do the same. Measuring 'success' by gaining or sustaining of high consumption life-styles is an 'old paradigm carried too far'. Although acceleration of rise in global population numbers is slowing down, and is expected to plateau - we still can't gobble up everything in sight and destroys habitats, watersheds, and oceans as we do and expect to thrive - any of us.  We're supposed to be a pattern recognizing, creative, problem species. Hope the 'citizen masses' get into this very soon. (Some Latin American nations are leading in this - 'earth rights' legislation is not a good fit for current global economic practices, but it's an inspired fledgling vision.)

jabberwolf
jabberwolf

Brazil raised import tariffs on 100 foreign products. Brazil raised taxes on BEER (bad idea). In 2010 Brazil raised taxes on the Financial Transactions (IOF) from 4% to 6% for foreign fixed-income investments. The government also increased the IOF rate from 0.38% to 6% on the guarantee margin for foreign investments on the futures market.
Again raising taxes on the rich sounds like a great idea - but it scares away investment and you get less in revenue, you then get less money for buses, schools, hospitals.
You want change - vote out the people that promised you everything.
Socialist policies ultimately FAIL !!

eloynunes
eloynunes

@TIME @TIMEWorld It's a new time here. The medium class woke up and is fighting for a new Brazil. We ask for no more corruption!

rafael_anschau
rafael_anschau

Congratulations, very well said. As people become more educated, the "wait a minute response" gets a higher probability of firing. "Wait a minute, we pay first world taxes to get third world services ? Hmmm that doesn´t sound right." That would be an intellectual cry only a few years ago with no resonance in the masses. Thanks to the Internet and education, it´s now a mass complaint.



Tonino13
Tonino13

It's amazing how you as a typical American WASP is ready to view and judge Latin America with this problem as if the US itself is of course above and beyond these wannabe savages in South America. Did you see the Miss America pageant? Can a regular car buying American find Chile on a map? Answer NO! As an American of Spanish decent it's blows my mind how the inequality has grown in this country and frankly how stupid we are that we can't even know where are neighbors came from and relate to them as if they are aliens. Pun intended. This country is the most elitist, hypocritical and has such a skewed sense of reality, that we think everyone in the world has to speak English, but somehow think that for us to learn another language is beneath us. Sounds like an inferiority complex to me. Psych 101.

diogo005
diogo005

@interactidiomas sorry but you have no understanding of what's going on here.. Your description of the way things are in brazil is ridiculous. You're taking unique incidents and generalizing them as every-day occurrences. Your explanation that the protests are due to "brazilians returning from abroad" is ridiculous to say the least. For starters, the number of brazilians "returning from aborad" is negligible, and they're not "influential" in any way. Seems to me like you spent a lot of time writing a text describing your "guess" of what brazil's like. Time that would be better spent trying to understand what it's like in reality. That is, if you're concerned about that at all.

shleper
shleper

@elzeide oi vei ! guit shabes amigo , fuerza para sobrevivir esa realidad , un dia la vieja se toma los vientos y algo mejor vendra porai :)

Centrosphere
Centrosphere

@Kalunga  Actually, the PEC 37 limits the investigative powers of the "Ministério Público", that should be compared to the federal prosecutors or the DOJ.  The consequence is to give the Federal Policy _ a less independent body _ the virtual monopoly on investigations.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@litoplan  

it's developed by latin american standards. that's like being the smartest kid at the retard table or the skinniest person at fat camp

MegP
MegP

I could repair my wording several places - but only one is going to bother me if I don't fix it:  Omission of word in 3rd line from bottom of my comment: "pattern recognizing, creative problem SOLVING species" is what I meant. That we might also be a 'problem species' is probably true, but a different topic!

VictorCL
VictorCL

@MegP Meg,  I liked your comment. I was thinking much the same as you while reading the article.  Also, I found the article exceptionally well written and that in itself is becoming a rarity.  I grew up in Latin America and travel throughout the region frequently. Moreover I live in New York.  I can therefore attest to the observations of both the article and your responding comment.  My thanks to you and to Tim Padgett.

CacauValimRossi
CacauValimRossi

@jabberwolfIt´s easy say this when you come from a country which is a democracy since the independence. Brasil's last constitucion is from 1989 (before it Brazil was living in a military regime - which was a totalitarian regime), the brasilian citizens are still learning how it is to have the power to choose their representants. Finally, socialist people in Brazil fought against military regime, people still see them as heroes,  President Dilma Rousseff, as you see in that article, used to be a guerrilla.

EricPeacock
EricPeacock

@Tonino13Hey d^mbass, do you think Central and South American countries print government forms in different languages, here's a hint, NO! These countries are just that, SOVEREIGN countries. They are not in the business of letting other cultures dictate how they should govern. That is the lesson the U.S should learn. Get on with the business of business. You are basically crying racism or some PC argument in saying that the U.S. should be more accommodating or understanding of "alien" cultures . The unregulated influx of ILLEGAL immigrants is a major contributor to the growth of inequality in the U.S. It brings down the wages of the working class and only benefits the wealthy. In addition signing free trade agreements with everyone but not expecting the other countries to abide by the agreement is another huge cause of the increase in wealth disparity. But dumb hippies like you just keep wanting more feel good policies that are in the end ruining this country. You can't create lasting jobs and wealth by increasing government, you need to increase incentives for businesses to create jobs, here. How about lowering corporate incme taxes? No way you say, that's not groovy man. You fail to realize that the consumer pays all corporate income taxes in the form of higher retail prices, the only people that benefit are tax lawyers and accountants. But you won't open your eyes to this. You keep harking on the need for social engineering through "Mo gubment!" F@ck  you, you ret@rd.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

You turn an article about Latin Americans wanting better than they're getting into an anti-America rant, and it's Americans with the inferiority complex?  I think you may be projecting a little here (also Psych 101).