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middle class

Brazil’s protests: The bursting of a complacency bubble

Francisco Ferreira's picture

Here was an exemplary developing country – nay, emerging market! In the 2000s, Brazil’s economic growth, albeit not stellar, was certainly steady. Inequality fell continuously and markedly throughout the decade and, as a result of those two things, poverty fell from 43% of the population in 2003 to around 25% by the end of decade (using a $4/day poverty line). By the World Bank’s definition – which is considerably more demanding than the government’s – the middle class grew in size by more than 50%, to over 60 million people in 2010. Infant mortality fell. Life expectancy rose. We were going to host the World Cup and the Olympics – the only country ever to do so back-to-back with the exception of the United States. The sun was shining... What could possibly go wrong?

Then, on June 13, a relatively small demonstration against a hike in bus fares in the city of São Paulo was violently repressed by police. The following two weeks saw a remarkable eruption of street protests across hundreds of Brazilian cities, with hundreds of thousands in the streets at certain times. In a soccer-loving country, Brazil’s successes at the Confederations Cup did nothing to mitigate popular anger. On the contrary, one of the protesters’ multiple banners was indignation at the scale of spending on (and corruption from) football stadia for next year’s World Cup, while schools, hospitals and public transport are allowed to languish.