360° Analysis

The Brazilian Quest for a Better Future


July 25, 2013 08:43 EDT

Brazilians are tired of unending injustice and exploitation.

Eager to boost its economic and political image on the world stage, Brazil’s government clung stubbornly to hopes that a trinity of world-class sporting events – the 2013 Confederation Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games – would exhilarate the man-in-the-street with such excitement so as to shove his daily grievances off the list of immediate concerns.

However, any effort to mollify public opinion is fraught with the risk that the target population will react in unpredictable ways. The world media enjoys depicting Latin Americans as lighthearted people, who prefer having a good time to worrying about more prosaic concerns. Yet, for understandable reasons, the Brazilian people have remained focused on their vital concerns.

The stunning economic growth that occurred within the last decade opened the eyes of the average citizen to increasing possibilities for upward economic mobility. However, the rapid pace of economic growth has come at a considerable cost. The cost comes in the form of inflation and a rise in the prices of basic but critical amenities, such as food, rent and public transportation. Inflation, coupled with the recent slowdown in economic growth, has hit Brazil's middle-class hard and has made life for lower-class Brazilians almost unbearable.

In such an economic climate, a virtually uncontrollable chain reaction arose from two separate streams of concern. On one hand, the government decision to increase bus fare by 20 cents ignited protests that rattled nearly all of Brazil’s larger cities and many of its smaller towns. While it may not seem that a simple bus fare increase justifies nationwide protests, bus fare rates became an issue for the vast crowds of poor citizens, whose rising travel costs eat away at already low incomes. Worsening this heated atmosphere, widespread Brazilian resentment at government spending on the 2014 FIFA World Cup and other major sporting events escalated the situation. The unjustified pouring of $15 billion in taxpayer funds into sporting events that have no immediate public benefit, reveal such arrogance and indifference as to encourage extreme levels of discontent.

Endless Betrayal and Burning Resentment

While Brazilians may properly pride themselves on their country’s return to democracy in 1985 and on the country’s economic successes of the past decade, many find that the infestation of government corruption still looms large as a daily reality. Elected to office in 2011 as Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, an erstwhile protégé of the popular former president, Lula Da Silva, has persistently failed to adequately address Brazil's structural and social problems. Similar concerns plague Brazil’s congress.

More to the point, the litany of official indiscretions that provoke public anger seemingly run to infinity. For example, the Congress recently drafted a proposed constitutional amendment, known as PEC 37, which, of all things, purports to immunize public officials suspected of criminal activity from investigation. Many Brazilians find it laughably ironic that, even when public officials are overpaid relative to their actual job performance, those same bureaucratic officials show no hesitation in voraciously pilfering from the public purse. While the most equitable thing to do would be to promptly relieve these unmoored persons from their positions, strong and deeply entrenched unions form an almost impenetrable wall that protects underperforming government civil servants.

Further, the government allowed some officials, who were previously punished for corrupt dealings, to return to politics. Take former Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, for example, whose role in seizing the saving accounts of private citizens sparked mass protests in the early 1990s and led to his impeachment. However questionable his character, the former president managed nevertheless to return to the political stage. Even with his absolutely unforgivable record, Collor de Mello managed to insinuate himself back into a comfortable niche in government, where he now leads the Committee on Foreign Affairs and National Defense.

In a related example, in spite of its widespread reputation for abusing and exploiting tax monies, FIFA was given supervision over the World Cup soccer games. The irony is that FIFA will once again exercise governance over public funds. No wonder that Brazil, a country known for its high taxes and rampant corruption, consistently falters in providing essential public services.

Because of the indifference of well-entrenched elites, either a wall of silence or genteel resignation meets every plea for government transparency and policing. The same benign neglect arises when activists desperately demand necessary improvements to roads, hospitals and schools. Aware that his needs are not being met, the activist believes that this inaction is the expected by-product of the culture of unholy collusion that binds together key government officials with representatives of big business. 

Deep resentment erupted publicly after the average Brazilian admitted to himself that these elite political and business groups had perpetrated an endless cycle of betrayals against the public trust. This public anger intensified further when prices ballooned, even as economic growth seemed to come to a screeching halt.

On June 13, 2013, that resentment percolated to a boiling point. The catalyst for this change was a violent police crackdown against the “Free Transport Movement.” Essentially a peaceful demonstration, hundreds of students organized in São Paulo to oppose the previously mentioned hike in bus fares. Hundreds of protests rippled across the nation. Although many of these demonstrations were peaceful, others became needlessly violent, as errant protestors vandalized businesses and government buildings. 

Some demonstrators shut down roads, highways and collection booths, enabling cars to pass through without paying toll. Desperate to deter protesters from entry into government buildings or encroachment upon stadium grounds, the police attempted to scatter the protestors by lobbing tear gas and firing rubber bullets. Near the very top of their concerns, the police harbored fears that the protestors would interrupt the ongoing Confederation Cup soccer games. Even with the protestors putting forth their best efforts, FIFA President Sepp Blatter initially made a proud declaration that the 2013 Confederation Cup games were the “best ever.” Brazil, he urged, would be more than ready to host the 2014 World Cup. In recent days, however, he has reversed his stance, stating to German reporters: “If this happens again, we have to question whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights.”

Brazilians Protest in Solidarity

Over one million people protested nationwide, not only in Brazil's urban centers of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasilia, Salvador, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, but also in smaller municipalities. Reflecting a wide spectrum of age groups and a variety of economic backgrounds, these protestors were bound by grievances against officialdom’s misdeeds. 

The driving force behind these protests have generally been young students. The protestors draped Brazilian flags on their backs and donned Guy Fawkes masks as part of their strategy to show their own solidarity with the global Occupy protests. Older protesters and impoverished residents from Brazil's underserved and violent areas, known as favelas, appeared equally at home among the protesters’ ranks.

The Reaction Strikes Back

President Rousseff’s initial televised speech was so bland that it struck many listeners as not just shallow but, indeed, hollow and insincere. Subsequently, it appeared that her administration intended to follow through by issuing a series of proposed political reforms, known as the "Cinco Pactos," or "Five Pacts." These overarching points highlight some of the most critical political and social concerns that plague this enormously wealthy country. 

In announcing her Five Pacts, Rousseff pledged that her administration’s priorities were:

  • To ensure fiscal responsibility, which necessarily includes a governmental commitment to control inflation and to assume responsibility for reasonable economic growth and stability;
  • To invest 100% of federal and state government oil royalties in educational expenditures, and to give a special emphasis on those areas that are impoverished or underserved;
  • To hire and place foreign medical workers into the National Health Service (NHS), and to deploy them in such remote areas and communities, where the local population experiences hardship in accessing otherwise available health services. With this measure, the administration recognizes that the number of domestic physicians was too small to enable the NHS to fulfill its task of educating and serving those portions of the population that suffered the greatest need;
  • To call for a referendum against corruption within the government’s own ranks. One major Rousseff initiative, in this regard, would classify corruption as a species of high crime that warranted very severe penalties;
  • To lower the cost of public transportation, and to channel more public funds into new public transportation projects.

A Future of Change or More Broken Promises?

Whether the government follows through on the promised pacts remains an open question. On one hand, the government promises to function with greater accountability and transparency, and to improve essential public services. On the other hand, the government refused to countenance any compromise that would include cancelling either the highly expensive World Cup, or the Olympics. Recognizing that these world-class spectacles rank among the government’s highest priorities, the Brazilian people must not forsake their responsibility of continuously monitoring the progress that President Rousseff and the Congress pledged to make on improvements in the social welfare.

In truth, the Congress has already shown that it lacks the institutional will to implement President Rousseff’s Five Pacts. True to form and habit, some members of Congress resolutely opposed the president's reform proposals, and even questioned the legal basis for their enactment. Others questioned the legality of the method, through which the Five Pacts became watershed issues for Rousseff’s administration. To circumvent these obstructionists, the president suggested that she raise these demands in a direct referendum with the public. In a posture that sings with defiance and irony against its background of lethargy and self-serving inertia, Congress argued that as it is the public’s sole duly authorized representative; only it has the authority to promulgate legislation pertinent to the public interests.

No one should be surprised that opinion polls show that Rousseff’s popularity took a dive in the wake of the protests. That is a sure sign that the president’s promises failed to sway the public, and that the public remains doubtful that Congress has the ability – or perhaps even the integrity – to candidly act in the public’s behalf. Undeniable evidence of this mounting distrust emerges from the fact that the protests continued even after President Rousseff announced that she intended to carry out reforms. Not only that, but protestors held a general strike on July 11, 2013, nearly bringing the country to a physical and commercial standstill. Labor unions, student unions, medical workers, teachers and transportation workers were among the many participants. Additional protests took place outside the state government buildings of Rio de Janeiro on July 12, 2013, with some escalating into violent confrontations with police.  The administration of Rio de Janeiro state governor, Sergio Cabral, has been a focal point of great protester dissatisfaction. Perhaps these protests should be received as a political harbinger of things to come.

With protests this intense and the World Cup still one year away, the continued inaction from the government could spark even more unnerving protests and generate more chaotic social unrest. One might well expect these protests to intensify as the truly mixed blessings of hosting a World Cup competition in São Paulo draws near. 

From an historical perspective, the protests may represent a critical turning point. Patient to the nth degree, the Brazilian people are nevertheless tired of the cycles of unending injustice and exploitation that the hands of a few privileged elites dish out to them. As with any people,  they are determined to bring about for themselves, their contemporaries and for their yet unborn generations, a more just and equitable future.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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