Brazil’s Protests Are The Largest Seen In Decades — But Why Now?

Demonstrators cite wealth disparity, police violence and issues surrounding the upcoming World Cup as just some of their grievances.
By @FrederickReese |
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    It began with an off-screen speaker addressing the viewers in Portuguese.

    “Hi Brazil. Hi World,” the speaker said, according to the translation from on-screen captioning. “I come to show you what television will not show. Just look and draw your own conclusions. And consider that Brazil is raped to 500 years on account of corruption and justice that does not move a finger to change NOTHING.”

    This is followed by video of Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where 12 protesters from Casper Libero College — marching under the chant “No more violence!” — were met by a wall of police gunfire.

    The video — entitled “Don’t Come to the World Cup!” — now plays on the News of the World Cup in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso website. The video — which captured bus-fare protests that took place last week in Brazil and portrays acts of extreme police brutality, including the assault of a journalist and gunfire at a film crew — has set off the largest set of protests in the nation in more than 20 years. All of this is happening in the backdrop of the Confederation Cup — a warm-up tournament to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which is expected to bring billions in sponsorship and tourism dollars into the economically rattled nation.

    The protest started with Sao Paulo university students — loosely tied to an organization known as the Free Fare Movement — marching in opposition to a 9-cent bus fare hike. However, anger about police violence and frustrations about the extreme cost of preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics — particularly in light of the crippling poverty endured by most Brazilians — overflowed onto the streets.

    Many in Brazil look at the 2010 World Cup matches in South Africa — where very little of the revenue went toward improving the region and where corporate interests and a privileged few ended up profiting — as an example of what could happen in their nation. Allegations of bribery and corruption — both within FIFA and outside of the group — have made discussions about the World Cup unpopular. The president of Brazil and the president of FIFA were booed at a recent soccer match.

    The Brazilian government hopes that the World Cup and the Olympics — which Ernst & Young has forecast will generate 3.6 million jobs for Brazil and add 0.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to the economy every year through 2019 — will be but the first step in reforming Brazil’s international reputation, which has been ridiculed after decades of unchecked violence and crime.

    The police crackdown on protesters has been documented extensively through videos shared on social media, including a disturbing account of a reporter for Folha de Sao Paulo who was shot in the eye at point-blank range by one of the police officers assigned to disperse the crowds.


    A people, frustrated

    As many as 200,000 people have marched so far. One hundred thousand marched in a largely peaceful protest in Rio de Janeiro, while in Brasilia, the National Congress Building was breached. In Sao Paulo, 65,000 people took to the streets. Reports that the police used rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful protestors during the initial moments of the protests only fueled the anger of the crowd and swelled the protest numbers.

    “For many years, the government has been feeding corruption, people are demonstrating against the system,” Graciela Cacador, a protester, told Reuters.

    “This is a communal cry saying: ‘We’re not satisfied!’,” Maria Claudia Cardoso, another protester, told the Associated Press. “We don’t have good schools for our kids. Our hospitals are in awful shape. Corruption is rife. These protests will make history and wake our politicians up to the fact we’re not taking it anymore.”

    By Monday, protests had been reported in as many as 11 cities. In Belo Horizonte — which is serving as host of the recent Confederation Cup game — protesters have clashed with the police. A 10-year-old is currently in stable condition after falling from an overpass. In Brasilia — after successful negotiations with the police to get off the National Congress Building’s roof, protesters formed a human chain around the complex.

    “Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said in a statement. “It is natural for the young to demonstrate.”

    Despite these sympathetic words, the government has indicated that it is prepared to take a hard line.

    “The government assumed the responsibility and the honour to stage these two international events, and will do so, ensuring the security and integrity of the fans and tourists,” Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo warned, according to Reuters.

    As of Monday, nearly 130 protesters have been arrested and 105 were injured in Sao Paulo. This is the largest protest seen in Brazil since the popular movement to impeach former President Fernando Collor in 1992.


    Poverty and soccer

    A large part of President Rousseff’s plan for pulling Brazil out of recession — which was triggered by the 2009 banking collapse — is a revitalization of Brazil’s tourism industry. High crime rates and violence toward tourists in the last two decades have tarnished the allure of Brazil as a vacation destination.

    This plan, however, has soured in light of a struggling economy. The World Cup and the Olympics are both being seen as symbols of the extreme wealth discrepancy Brazil is experiencing. With a median salary of around $1,382 per month, few Brazilians can actually afford to see a World Cup game — which ranges from about $50 to $450 for an opening-round match.

    While Brazil is the sixth-largest economy in the world, extreme poverty is a major issue with the nation. The country had no true social safety net until 2011. Currently, individuals over 65 years old are entitled to a pension equal to the minimum wage if they have a household income per person of less than a quarter of the minimum wage. The minimum wage is set currently at $312 per month.

    In addition, families with children that have a household income of less than about $64 per month can receive a discretionary monthly stipend — Bolsa Familia — that would bring the per-person income for the household above $32 per month.

    Under Rousseff, Brazil has spent over $138 billion in two years on social programs that have relieved the most extreme forms of Brazilian poverty but have failed to translate into economic growth. Despite the fact that Brazil’s 54.9 percent national-debt-to-GDP ratio and 4.5 percent unemployment are among the lowest in the world, the possibility of a resurgence of inflation and concerns about the rising cost of production have placed a damper on any boasts of economic recovery.

    Additionally, the social programs have eaten into Brazil’s primary budget surplus to the point that Standard & Poor’s has lowered their outlook on Brazil’s credit rating to negative.

    “The trend is very clear – there has been a steady erosion of the primary fiscal surplus,” said Alberto Ramos, economist at Goldman Sachs. “We have a lower fiscal surplus now but we don’t have much to show for it . . . it seems that the multiplier effect of fiscal spending is very low.”

    Projections show that Brazil will start collecting net debt again by 2014.

    Overruns in stadium costs and suspicions that the 12 stadiums being built for the FIFA championship will have no use after the World Cup has sparked frustration among Brazilians. The concern has not been alleviated in any way by FIFA, which is only concerned that the stadiums will be ready on time. Complaints that the money being funneled into these stadiums could be used to improve the infrastructure of the favelas, or slums, are becoming louder and more frequent.

    “People are still very optimistic [about staging the World Cup],” Rebelo said. “People understand that the [economic] difficulties of the world would also affect Brazil. But we have financial stability, we are a very important destination in the world in terms of investment, we have almost no unemployment.”

    Rousseff also rejects the rumors of Brazil’s poor economic health.

    “Brazil is not only not in a difficult situation, Brazil is a country that is extremely solid,” she said at an event to announce new investments in the favela and surrounding area. “Criticisms, we must have the humility to accept. But . . . information terrorism about the situation in Brazil, no.”

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