It is natural to draw parallels between the protests in Brazil and other global movements—in India, the Arab world and most recently Turkey—which preceded them. Some comparisons may be relevant, like the use of technology to congregate mass protests. But in most other ways, Brazil’s protests are unique.
Did the protests really begin with the demand to rescind the 20 centavo increase in the minimum bus fare in São Paulo? No, and this is why.
It has been widely acknowledged that a non-partisan group, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), initiated the June 2013 protest with the objective of rolling back the bus fare hike. The movement took inspiration from a decade-old mass protest movement in Salvador, Brazil—also triggered by an increase in the minimum bus fare, where nine of ten of the protesters’ demands were met.
More recently, in September 2012, a group of students appealed to city hall in Natal, Brazil, winning an endorsement from a city councilman who declared the 20 centavo fare increase both “illegal and without foundation.” In less than two weeks, the ordinance was repealed by a unanimous vote.
So, by the time the fare increase was announced in São Paulo, citizens and members of the Free Fare Movement were prepared. Subsequently, after more than 10 cities in the State of São Paulo and other parts of the country reversed the bus fares last week, the Free Fare Movement leaders announced that they would no longer protest the bus fares because their “initial objectives were met.”
But the protests continued, swelling to include 1.25 million Brazilians. They are symptomatic of a much deeper discontent.Brazil has been lauded over the past decade for its poverty alleviation programs and impressive economic progress. More than 25 million have been lifted out of poverty since 2003, and the middle class now represents 53 percent of the Brazilian population. Income inequality hit a 50-year low in 2011. Much of this success has been credited to the famous Bolsa Familia program – a conditional cash transfer scheme reaching 12 million families that grants education and health benefits to the poorest Brazilians.
But along with Brazil’s growth has come rampant corruption, impacting the very healthcare, education and public transport services that Bolsa Familia was supposed to address. Corruption, the most resonant of protesters’ grievances, is endemic. In the last two years, numerous politicians have been named in a nationwide vote-buying scandal case; and a number of high-level politicians have resigned amid corruption allegations.
Another recent trigger of the protests is the expense of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. More than $3.2 billion has been spent on stadiums alone. The event is officially budgeted at $13.3 billion—though many estimates put it closer to $20 billion. In contrast, South Africa spent $3 billion on the 2010 World Cup, and $1.1 billion on stadiums.
Soccer fans comprise that very group of citizens who benefitted from the Bolsa Familia, but now want more. “Their bus queues are long and they can’t afford cars,” reported columnist Salil Tripathi of the Mint newspaper, who was recently in São Paulo. Eighty-five percent of Brazilians are now urban-dwellers, and the quality of healthcare, education and public transport services in many urban areas remains poor. Bolsa Familia must now be broadened and deepened to include the larger urban population.
The upwardly mobile middle class is joining the fight too: Brazil’s tax revenues are 38 percent of GDP, versus just 9.4 percent for India, and the average Brazilian has equally high expectations of government services. Now this group is demanding better quality services to match the higher costs and standard of living. For New Delhi, which has excluded the urban poor from its newly planned cash transfer schemes, the Brazilian protests should be a warning sign.
For Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the persistence of the protests should be of grave concern. Economic growth has slowed considerably, from 7.5 percent of GDP in 2010 to 0.9 percent in 2012. Brazil’s currency, the real, and the stock market index (Bovespa) both hit a four-year low last week. This, along with rising costs of living and an unusually high (15 percent) youth unemployment rate, make for a disturbing combination. In these protests, Rousseff has lost considerable support.
So far, Brasília seems to have responded fairly. The bus fares have been revised, the Brazilian development bank BNDES has approved loans totaling $1 billion to improve public transport systems and Rousseff has pledged to use oil revenues to improve Brazil’s public schools.
She can also learn some lessons from the protests. The effective use of social media has mobilized millions in Brazil—smart phone and mobile Internet use is widespread, with 130 telephone connections for every 100 people. Brazil has the fourth largest base of Internet users globally, at 90 million in 2012. These can be used to create positive change, especially in the areas of education and health.
Rousseff’s performance in the next few months will be critical and closely-watched. The referendum she has proposed on political reform may provide her with a good start. National elections loom in 2014—giving her a short window of opportunity to make things right.