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.