Brazil, once revered, now rocked by protest

SAO PAULO, Brazil — In 2007, just as this country was being revered for its strong economy and fight against poverty, officials here announced that Brazil had at last arrived on the world stage with its selection as host of soccer’s biggest event, the 2014 World Cup.

Two years later, the president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, shed tears of joy as Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the site of the 2016 Olympics. God was Brazilian, went the popular refrain, and the news was certainly rosy: a bustling economy, tens of millions of poor people lifted into the middle class, inflation under control and unemployment falling.

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“Brazil went from a second-class country to a first-class country,” said an ecstatic Lula, whose inspirational trajectory from shoeshine boy to the pinnacle of power mirrored his homeland’s rise to prominence.

But now hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who have been protesting in dozens of cities nationwide are starting to tell the world a different story — that their country, despite real tangible improvements in the past decade, has fallen far short.

From the wealthy cities of the south to glitzy Rio de Janeiro to outposts in the Amazon, people across Brazil’s social strata have been swarming the streets night after night for more than a week to vent their rage against the status quo. The biggest outpouring came Thursday, when 1 million people protested nationwide, astonishing Lula’s friend and successor, President Dilma Rousseff, and her cabinet.

The spark was a strike against a 9-cent bus-fare hike, with the bulk of the protesters coming from the middle class. Now factory workers and waiters have joined university students and middle-class professionals who are livid about the billions of dollars in public funds being spent on sports facilities for soccer matches and Olympic track meets when public hospitals are substandard and schools are rundown.

Leaderless, faceless and assembling through social media, they have become a loud, collective voice against widespread graft, with some protesters carrying placards vowing, “Stop corruption or we will stop Brazil.”

They are tired of paying what they call first-world tax rates for third-world services, from pitiful roads to decrepit airports. Even the cellphone service, operated by private companies, has drawn the ire of users complaining of high costs and terrible connections.

The protests, which continued Saturday in several cities, come as the “Brazilian miracle” — a reference to how this once-sleepy giant morphed into one of the world’s top economies — is now seemingly grinding to a halt.

“I never saw a Brazilian miracle taking place,” said Mareli Volpato, 43, who works in an investment bank and has been protesting in the streets of Sao Paulo. “Corruption in politics is affecting everybody. This is killing Brazil. The money is not invested. You see no return.”

‘The voice of the streets’

The government has been powerless to stop the protests, which come just a month before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the country.

Though the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, recent days have seen some protesters burning cars, looting stores and clashing with police. The initial hike in bus fares was reversed, and then, on Friday night, Rousseff made her first substantial comments about the situation in a taped, 10-minute address.

A former Marxist guerrilla who was jailed in the 1970s by a military dictatorship, Rousseff said Brazilian society should not tolerate the “violent and authoritarian minority” of those who have resorted to violence. But she also struck a conciliatory tone, saying “the voice of the streets needs to be heard and respected.”

The president offered to create a national plan for public transit. She also said she would improve health care and education by bringing in foreign doctors and reviving an earlier plan to funnel oil royalties to schools.

But it appeared too early to tell whether her words had defused the demonstrations. One protester in Sao Paulo on Saturday, Tiago Luiz de Marcos, 28, said Rousseff “talked and talked” but simply “made people want to fight for their rights.”

Hard problems to solve

Rosana Schwartz, a historian and sociologist who is an expert on social movements at Mackenzie University in Sao Paulo, said responding to Brazilians will be difficult because of the broad range of complaints. She noted that the public condemnation of the status quo was not ideological but rather focused on the day-to-day indignities people suffer, making it difficult for the government to address in a short time frame.

“Brazilians want a state that can solve their problems,” Schwartz said. “Parties from the left and the right haven’t been able to solve the daily problems, like transportation, housing, health, education.”

It is also increasingly clear that Brazil’s economic outlook is not going to be the catalyst for change, at least in the short-term.

An economy that grew steadily in the 2000s is expected to grow just 2.5 percent this year, inflation has accelerated by 6.67 percent in the last year and the Brazilian currency, the real, is sinking. Brazilian unemployment remains low compared with many countries in Europe, but people here complain about the price of everything from groceries to apartment rents, which in big cities are among the highest in the world.

Emerson Silva, 22, a computer technician who is part of the new middle class, said people are feeling the pinch but are watching with growing frustration as the government directs billions of dollars to ensuring the World Cup and the Olympics are a success.

“If politicians can build a stadium that cost 1 billion reais,” he said, or the equivalent of $450 million, “then why aren’t they building high-quality schools?”

Particularly galling to demonstrators has been the sensation that the country’s political class seems to enrich itself at the expense of a middle class that has trouble making ends meet and poorer Brazilians who in some cases do not have enough to eat.

Though Rousseff remains popular, her Workers Party has drawn the ire of protesters. High-ranking officials in the government of her predecessor, Lula, have been convicted in the mensalao scandal, in which huge payoffs were made to secure votes from members of congress.

“Imagine people having no money to eat!” said one protester, Luysa Satyro de Moraes Sarmento, 17, carrying a sign reading, “No World Cup — I want education.” “I think Brazilians can’t take it anymore. Corruption is everywhere. The politicians don’t even hide it.”

The demonstrations have drawn comparisons to uprisings in Turkey or other parts of the Middle East, starting small and morphing into something much larger. “It’s what I call carpe diem — seize the moment,” David Fleischer, a Brasilia-based political analyst, said of protesters. “The whole world is watching.”

But unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Brazil is an established democracy that has made inroads against poverty. Demonstrators here are also venting over a range of complaints and calling for sometimes nebulous changes, such as a more accountable government. In Turkey, protesters have focused on the government’s strong-arm tactics, while protesters in Europe rose up against economic belt-tightening.

“It’s fascinating that it’s not the poorest people who are the focus,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s the middle class, the students, thrown in with the poor folks.”

Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia.

 
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