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Brazil is a Stable and Growing Democracy – And We’re Not Going to Take It Any More!!!

- June 24, 2013

The following guest post is from University of Minnesota political scientist David Samuels, the author of  Ambition, Federalism, and Legislative Politics in Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 2003).


In recent weeks millions of Brazilians – urban youth, mainly – have taken to the streets across the country in protest. Why? Politicians, pundits and academics – this one included – continue to scratch their heads.

The protests began as an effort to stop a bus fare increase of US$0.10. A bus ride in São Paulo costs about US$1.50 – high, given per capita income, but an increase of a dime provides a puzzling spark for sustained nationwide street protests. Moreover, once the mayors of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other cities had rescinded the bus rate increases, the “Free Bus Fare” group claimed victory and announced that it would call no more protests. And yet the protests continued to grow and gain adherents.

Brazil’s protests echo those that have erupted in Cairo and Istanbul for example, where angry youth use social media to air grievances and coordinate broader protests. Still, disaffected youth glued to Facebook 24-7 are common to every country, while massive ongoing protests are not. And Brazil is different from Egypt, Turkey, and many other countries, richer or poorer – in that unemployment is low, the economy is (slowly) growing, and it is a stable democracy. The protests are not directed at incumbent president Dilma, who enjoys an approval rating over 50%, or her government.

If the movement is not merely about bus fares or the economy per se, it did gain momentum after police used excessive force to intimidate protesters. Brazil’s police are notorious for using such tactics against poorer and often darker-skinned favela-dwellers. Yet a survey firm discovered that São Paulo protesters are far more likely than average to have a college degree – which means they are also wealthier and lighter-skinned than average. Brazil’s wealthy and upper-middle classes have tacitly sanctioned repressive policing for decades, but witnessing or experiencing firsthand that the police do not care about protesters’ social class or race may have galvanized many, and brought the issue of poor police training and police response to expressions of free speech to the fore.

Still, episodes of police violence also cannot explain the protests’ spread, size and duration. Some suggest that the protests reflect generalized indignation with the country’s political class, but we can be a bit more specific. The protests may not be about economic performance per se, and may be surprising in their breadth and timing, but in my view they can be characterized as reflecting a growing disconnect between taxation and representation.

Brazil’s middle class has gained in terms of living standards over the past 20 years, but the poor and wealthy have gained more, in relative terms. The bus fare protest was just a symbol of broader complaints – as was the reaction to police brutality. As Brazilians move into or climb up the middle class, they inevitably pay more in taxes – yet they also inevitably grow increasingly aware that they do not get their money’s worth. One commonly hears Brazilians complain that they pay “1st world taxes” – about 36% of GDP – but receive “3rd world services” in return. The protests thus represent growing frustration that established political parties are unwilling to implement reforms on both sides of the fiscal coin – to improve public services (particularly healthcare, education, and public safety) and reduce corruption.

For example, the Free Bus Fare protests coincided with the opening of the Confederations Cup, a prelude to next year’s World Cup, and to the 2016 Rio Olympics. This gave protesters an opportunity to attract national and international attention to perceived wasteful spending and misguided government priorities. Many are angry that the government spent billions on stadiums and other sport facilities, but has ignored persistent social welfare and infrastructure needs. As for corruption, many protesters are reacting to some politicians’ efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to curtail the authority of Brazil’s Public Ministry to investigate and prosecute political corruption. One newspaper survey indicated that corruption was the most common reason protesters offered when asked why they took to the streets. And when asked who they plan to vote for in next year’s presidential election, nearly 30% said “no one,” but another 30% (far more than any other politician) said they would vote for a crusading Supreme Court justice with zero electoral experience who has railed against politicians who are trying to avoid jail time for corruption convictions.

I am suggesting that Brazil’s protests differ from those in Tahrir or Taksim Squares in that they can be likened to a tax revolt, rather than a call for greater freedoms or the removal of a dictator. I recognize this diagnosis is too simplistic, because the protesters have taken to the streets for many and varied reasons. What is central, however, is the feeling that Brazil’s political system does not represent the interest of Brazil’s growing urban middle classes, particularly for better public services, ranging from public safety to healthcare to education, and more responsible use of public funds.

The diffuse nature of the protests may reflect the movement’s Achilles’ heel. The protests echo the “Occupy” movement in deliberately eschewing formal leadership, denigrating established political parties, and exalting the power of spontaneity and street action. The PT – which itself emerged out of social-movement and labor action in the 1980s to become Brazil’s largest political party – may not be the protesters’ target, but it also has no influence over the movement. Yet neither does the PT’s opposition in Congress, which has failed to capitalize on the growing sense of middle-class frustration. Protests occurring this weekend have been characterized by increasingly diffuse and contradictory demands. No one knows where the protests may lead, but completely eschewing leadership and institutions may limit the ability of the movement to accomplish any of its broader long-term goals.