Brazil’s Protests: Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest

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Ueslei Marcelino / REUTERS

A demonstrator with the Brazilian flag protests against the Confederation's Cup and the government of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia, on June 17, 2013.

Last Thursday, police violently waded into ranks of protesters and fired rubber bullets into crowds amassed in Brazil’s financial capital, sparking days of unrest. On Monday night, some 200,000 to took to the streets of this vast country’s major cities. In São Paulo, many of them clutched flowers and chanted, “No violence.” Maura Veera, a 20-year-old student of international affairs, brought 100 flowers to distribute. “I really don’t want people thinking we are doing the wrong thing,” she says. “We are here to try to change the country.”

In São Paulo, some 65,000 protesters were allowed to march around the city, primarily down its main artery Avenida Paulista, chanting slogans in a joyous atmosphere. Rio de Janeiro boasted the biggest turnout of around 100,000. Police there used rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters, some of whom threw rocks and fireworks as well as vandalized property. Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and some half a dozen other cities also saw unrest. In the country’s capital Brasilia, around 200 stormed the Congress building, designed by famed local architect Oscar Niemeyer, and climbed to its iconic domed roof.

What began earlier this month as relatively small protests against a nine cents rise in single bus fares in São Paulo have escalated into nationwide unrest that could threaten President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election hopes next year. “These protests do not help her, but they do not help anybody else either,” said Marcelo Carneiro da Cunha, a writer based in São Paulo. The last major outpouring of this scale on the streets was in 1992 when around three-quarters of a million people endured a heavy downpour of rain in São Paulo to march for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello on charges of corruption.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from Brazil’s Angry, Nationwide Protests)

Protesters’ grievances are united around a common theme: social inequity. They decry a political culture marked by corruption, a general lack of a return on high taxes, and point to inadequate government upkeep and spending on infrastructure, education and healthcare. That stands in stark contrast to the country’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup, which takes place in Brazil next year to the tune of some $14 billion of state investment. The tournament’s lavish funding has served to illustrate the divide between the country’s haves and have-nots. To that end, protests also marred the opening game of the smaller Confederations Cup soccer tournament on Saturday, which takes place in the World Cup host country a year before the real tournament. “The government pays for the World Cup but we don’t have hospitals. We don’t have schools, education,” says Felipe Goncalves, a 33-year-old human resources worker.

“It’s absolutely not just about a rise in bus fares, that was just the last straw,” says Veera, the student, clutching her flowers. Commentators and protesters alike see the current unrest as a symptom of the country’s dramatic rise on the world stage. During the recent presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, the country saw huge annual growth, with 2010 —Lula’s last year in power — delivering a 7.5 percent rise in GDP. Wages continue to rise and some 35 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Consumer credit was a major factor in that success and created a middle class whose demands are rising rapidly.

“This [is about] the incapacity of traditional political representation to deal with the new and unheard of demands of a changing society,” says Carneiro da Cunha. “The situation is turbulent but we cannot say that Brazil is living through economic or political crisis,” added Maria Cristina Fernandes in newspaper Valor Econômico. Indeed, the high-end cameras, smartphones and trendy clothes on show in the São Paulo crowds made clear that this was a middle-class protest. “It’s easier for me to stay at home with my kids but I’m here because I want to change things,” says Jose Eduardo Fernandez, a 45-year-old media executive who strolled down to Avenida Paulista with his wife.

Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, has voiced sympathy for the protesters, saying that it was “befitting of youth to protest.” She is clearly popular though her numbers are falling. A poll released by Datafolha earlier this month set her approval rating at 57 percent in comparison to 65 percent in March. While the numbers seem high compared to other world leaders, it marks a precipitous decline for Rousseff.

The 65-year-old faces elections in October 2014 and the issues highlighted by these protests could hurt her chances. Under her watch, GDP growth last year was just 0.9 percent. This was despite market-friendly policies that her government says will make a positive impact over the coming years. Annual inflation is at 6.5 percent and the month-on-month figure is rising. Brazilians are sensitive to rapid price increases, having suffered hyperinflation during the 1980s and early 1990s. They are also sensitive to police brutality, with memories lingering of a two-decade military dictatorship which came to an end in 1985.

São Paulo’s newly appointed mayor Fernando Haddad, who brought in the fare rise, is a prominent member of the ruling Workers’ Party and is in an awkward position, much like the Brazilian President. Haddad, a 50-year-old former Minister for Education, was handpicked by Lula to stand for election in São Paulo and is backed by Rousseff. In his victory speech in October, Haddad promised to “reduce the huge inequality that exists in São Paulo. We’re simultaneously one of the richest and most unequal cities on the planet.” Walking a political tightrope, Haddad was last week more meek, admitting that the police “apparently did not follow protocols.” He has called for meeting with protesters. The opposition governor of São Paulo, former presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin, backed the government’s line, calling the protesters “troublemakers” and “vandals.” They are as much a headache for him as for Haddad and Rousseff.

As the world’s attention prepares to fall on the Latin American giant—Brazil hosts not only the World Cup in 2014, but the 2016 Summer Olympics—the current round of demonstrations present a clear challenge to narratives of Brazil’s rise. Brazilians await the government’s next move, but, in the present climate, likely know politics is not their country’s beautiful game.