Few Options for Brazil Leader in Protests
A demonstrator shouts at police during a protests in front of the Brazilian National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, June 17, 2013. Protesters massed in at least seven Brazilian cities Monday for another round of demonstrations voicing disgruntlement about life in the country, raising questions about security during big events like the current Confederations Cup and a papal visit next month. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Riot police aim their weapons at protesters near Castelao stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Protesters cut off the main access road to the stadium where Brazil will play Mexico in the Confederations Cup soccer tournament later Wednesday. Beginning as protests against bus fare hikes, the demonstrations have quickly ballooned to include broad middle-class outrage over the failure of governments to provide basic services and ensure public safety. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Maracana stadium seen from a helicopter during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 19, 2013. Protesters are planning to march to Maracana stadium where Spain and Tahiti will play in a Confederations Cup match on Thursday. Police have said they will not allow protesters to interrupt the game. (AP Photo/Renata Britto)
Protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, June 17, 2013. Protests in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, set off by a 10-cent hike in public transport fares, have clearly moved beyond that issue to tap into widespread frustration in Brazil about a heavy tax burden, politicians widely viewed as corrupt and woeful public education, health and transport systems and come as the nation hosts the Confederations Cup soccer tournament and prepares for next month's papal visit. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A military policeman pepper sprays a protester during a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, Monday, June 17, 2013. Protesters amassed in at least seven Brazilian cities Monday for another round of demonstrations voicing disgruntlement about life in the country, raising questions about security during big events like the current Confederations Cup and a papal visit next month. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
Spanish soccer players stretch during a Confederations Cup training session at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
Brazils President Dilma Rousseff, speaks at a graduation ceremony for graduates of the Rio Branco Institute, at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, June 17, 2013. Brazilian protesters angered by a hike in bus and subway fares are promising to hold their biggest demonstration yet. However, police say they will take a less confrontational approach and will not use rubber bullets during Monday's planned protest. Authorities say they want to avoid a repeat of last week's bloody clashes in Sao Paulo. About 100 demonstrators were hurt during that violent protest last Thursday. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
A police officer is dragged by colleagues after he clashed with protesters during a protest outside the state legislative assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, June 17, 2013. Officers in Rio fired tear gas and rubber bullets when a group of protesters invaded the state legislative assembly and threw rocks and flares at police. Protesters massed in at least seven Brazilian cities Monday for another round of demonstrations voicing disgruntlement about life in the country, raising questions about security during big events like the current Confederations Cup and a papal visit next month. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Protestors burn a Sao Paulo state flag in front of City Hall, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Some of the biggest demonstrations since the end of Brazil's 1964-85 dictatorship have broke out across this continent-sized country, uniting multitudes frustrated by poor transportation, health services, education and security despite a heavy tax burden. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)
A man takes photos of a bank that was destroyed during protests in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Beginning as protests against bus fare hikes, the demonstrations have quickly ballooned to include broad middle-class outrage over the failure of governments to provide basic services and ensure public safety, even as the country's economy modernizes and tax rates remain some of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)
A demonstrator shouts during a protests in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, June 17, 2013. Protesters massed in at least seven Brazilian cities Monday for another round of demonstrations voicing disgruntlement about life in the country, raising questions about security during big events like the current Confederations Cup and a papal visit next month. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)
Brazilians march demanding free public transit and against the money poured into stadiums for hosting the current Confederations Cup and next year's World Cup, at the Bus Station, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Another night of mass marches around Brazil and nearly a week of unrest has shocked the country's leaders ahead of a papal visit next month and next year's World Cup soccer tournament. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
In this photo taken Monday, June 17, 2013, a demonstrator holds a Brazilian flag in front of a burning barricade during a protest in Rio de Janeiro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff has tried to placate the largely middle-class crowds by supporting their right to protest, and the Sao Paulo municipal government has rescinded the 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares that sparked the demonstrations in the first place. But as the protests grow even bigger, with two major marches called for Thursday, the Brazilian government seems at a loss over how to address the sweeping, urgent demands of its people. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Sao Paulo — With massive protests by middle-class Brazilians demanding wholesale government reforms, people all over this continent-sized country have reached a verdict on the streets and online: “The giant has awakened.”
President Dilma Rousseff has tried to placate the crowds by supporting their right to protest, and the Sao Paulo municipal government has rescinded the 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares that sparked the demonstrations in the first place. But as the protests grow even bigger, with two major marches called for today, the Brazilian government seems at a loss over how to address the sweeping demands of its people.
Protesters have presented the government with myriad demands and a growing list of complaints: It can’t provide its citizens with basic security, officials are corrupt and inefficient, traffic is bottlenecked on pot-holed streets, and even cellphones don’t work. And the investment that should be going into health care and education are pouring into soccer stadiums and airports instead.
Rousseff’s response has been little more than rhetoric. She hasn’t formed any emergency committees to deal with the crisis or offered grand gestures or fresh ideas. And that has further angered Brazilians such as Rosana Reis, a 51-year-old nurse who like millions in the middle class is feeling the pinch of high taxes and perennially poor public services while the country spends billions of dollars to host next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
“I worked for years in public hospitals and I’ve seen with my own eyes how everybody but the richest Brazilians suffer,” Reis said during a protest this week that took over central Sao Paulo. “These politicians have money for the World Cup, money for the Olympics, but none to spend on health care or education. We’ve had enough. The people have woken up!”
The protests began a week ago in Sao Paulo and spread quickly to other cities after an initial police crackdown on demonstrators. They have become a collective, if unorganized cry for help from a newly expanded middle class that expects more for its taxes and from its democratically elected left-of-center government.
The public outcry has caught Brazil’s leadership off-guard. Instead of dealing with one group with one list of demands, the government has been confronted with a spontaneous mass movement without a unified agenda.
How to quell the discontent adds up to the stiffest challenge yet to the ruling Workers Party since it took power in 2003. Rousseff has been meeting with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad in search of a solution.
They are working under the immediate pressure of pacifying protesters before next month’s papal visit to Rio and inner Sao Paulo state.
“The response of most politicians has been insufficient because they don’t understand that by being elected they made a commitment to the population,” said Domingos Dutra, a Workers Party congressman who has often butted heads with party leadership. “Protesters’ demands are clear — the immediate reversal of transportation fares. But there are others: improvements in health care, combating violence and combating impunity. President Dilma has taken too long to recognize that these demands are genuine.”
Dutra said that when it comes to cracking down on dissenting voices, allowing environmental destruction in the Amazon or to building big public works for the World Cup and Olympics, the government moves quickly.
“But when it comes to meeting social demands, it works slowly. I hope that the government understands that society is evolving and it needs to act quickly to meet demands,” he added.
A poll of protesters attending this week’s rallies in Sao Paulo shows they are solidly middle class. Three-quarters have a university degree, half are younger than 25 and more than 80 percent say they don’t belong to any political party, according to the survey by the respected Datafolha group.
The disconnect is apparent between those taking part in demonstrations and their Workers Party government, whose support lies among the lower-middle class and poor.
In fact, Brazil’s poorest have seen their economic lives dramatically improve under the Silva and Rousseff governments, largely because of much-applauded government cash transfer programs that have helped 40 million people move from poverty into the lower-middle class in the last decade.
But other Brazilians who make up the country’s solid middle- and upper-middle classes feel alienated and unrepresented by any political party, said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
He said the wages of middle-income households have stagnated and their spending power has diminished, with no government programs helping them as they have Brazil’s poorest. Complicating the picture is the so-called “Brazil cost” — infrastructure woes and other bureaucratic red tape that make everything in the nation so costly, Roett said.
“There is a clear sense among the Brazilian middle class that the Workers Party has ignored them,” Roett said. “There is no short-term answer. There has to be a multiparty dialogue to gauge just how deep the frustration goes and how government responses must be prioritized. Rousseff has to cut across the political spectrum for answers.”
Natalia Querino, a 22-year-old university student, put it succinctly while joining thousands of other protesters in downtown Sao Paulo on Tuesday. She’s watched Brazil spend some $13 billion so far on preparing for next year’s World Cup while the country’s education system continues to lag behind those of other middle-income countries.
“We are against a government that spends billions in stadiums while people are suffering across the country,” Querino said. “We want better education, more security and a better health system.”
Organizers said the decision to rescind higher transit fares would not bring a halt to the protest, and a demonstration scheduled for Thursday in Sao Paulo would go on as scheduled.
“What we will have is a demonstration to celebrate the victory of the people who took to the streets,” said Mayara Vivian, a leader of the Passe Livre movement that kicked off the protests last week with the mantra “The giant has awakened.”
Another leader, history professor Lucas Monteiro said “the government has finally ceded to popular pressure.”
“The decision shows that citizens can obtain victories through popular mobilizations,” Monteiro said.
For Christopher Garman, the Latin America director of the U.S.-based consulting firm the Eurasia Group, the Brazilian government has in some sense become a victim of its own economic success.
“As Brazil has gotten richer, the political demands begin to change. People are demanding different things of their government,” Garman said. “When you have a shift to a ‘middle income’ country with a robust middle class, they start asking for something else, for improved public services.”
The long-term solutions that protesters are demanding, improvements in all facets of the public sector, will require significant reforms to the political system, not simply more funding, Garman said.
“The problem isn’t money; it’s how you spend it,” Garman said. “It’s hard to see this sustaining itself for weeks on end. The nature of the movement is so diffuse it will probably peter out of its own accord. You have diffuse discontent over all these but there is no specific target.”