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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.

More: the protests were not led by any political party, labor union, or established social movement. In fact, protesters explicitly resisted attempts by political parties to join, or co-opt, the movement. Analysts – myself included – were generally stupefied. There had been so much social progress! People were calling us every week to ask about lessons from the “Brazilian model” for other countries!  What on earth could explain this sudden explosion – the largest street demonstrations in the country in 21 years? And why were the protesters’ demands so disparate? There was anger against corruption; resentment against higher bus fares; complaints about the quality of health care and education. What, if any, was the common thread that kept a supposedly peaceful nation out on the streets for two weeks?

After some head-scratching, I think many of us are beginning to detect a pattern. In the conclusion of a recent book on the rise of the Latin American middle classes, my co-authors and I speculated about the implications of the growth in the continent’s middle class (from 100 to 150 million people in less than a decade) for the “social contract” in these countries. We argued that the social contract in most of Latin America was one in which, to stylize, the middle classes paid low taxes, got poor public services in return, but largely opted out of them and consumed privately provided alternatives: private schools, private health plans, private pensions, even private security. And they used cars, rather than public transport, whenever possible… The exceptions, we noted, were Brazil and Argentina. In these two countries - and in Brazil in particular – public services were still bad, but the tax take was actually fairly high: over 30% of GDP. The middle class did not seem to mind…

We wondered aloud whether, in the continent as a whole, the emerging middle classes might want to re-negotiate that social contract. Would those millions of people recently emerged from poverty, into what we called a “vulnerable” or lower middle-class group, also choose to opt out of public services? Or would they instead demand higher quality services – in health, education, transport, communications, and public safety – and be prepared to pay more taxes? Or, in the Brazilian case, demand a more efficient use of public resources?

I think we got our answer much more quickly than we had anticipated. Most of the thematic banners held by protesters in Brazil’s winter of discontent have to do with demanding decent public services. Better hospitals. Better schools and universities. A public transport system that works, despite the scourge of traffic congestion. That is where people seem to want their tax money to go, rather than into the pockets of corrupt politicians, or even into beautiful stadia for the World Cup. And yes, most of these protesters were not among Brazil’s poorest citizens. This was a cry from the middle classes – new and old, perhaps – for a State that uses the vast resources it collects efficiently, and delivers commensurate public services.

It may not sound as romantic as fighting for democracy, as we did in the 1980s. Neither is the motivation the same as in Egypt or Turkey. Brazilians are not calling for the immediate removal of the present government. They are not fighting an increasingly authoritarian state, and they perceive no threat to their democratic institutions from parties with a strong religious allegiance. The “technology” of using social media to organize the protests is similar, and young people like to feel solidarity with their counterparts in far-off countries. But, as always, context matters, and the Brazilian protests are about reforming the country’s social contract: the norms that govern the relationship between State and society. If the political establishment is able to respond adequately – which would require breaking generations-old patronage habits – the bursting of the bubble of complacency in which we had been living recently may be great news for the country. It may propel Brazil onto the next cycle of reforms that are needed for continued growth and social progress