Here’s Why Brazil’s 200 Million People Are So Angry
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Paulo Prada
Reuters
July 3, 2013

André Tamandaré isn't supposed to be so angry. Over the past decade, the 33-year-old high-school dropout has moved into his own house, got a steady job and earned enough income with his longtime girlfriend, Rosimeire de Souza, to lead their two kids into Brazil's fast-rising middle class.

Now a public health worker in a sprawling suburb east of Rio de Janeiro, Tamandaré is the kind of citizen that Brazil's government thought was fulfilled. Instead, he is one of the more than one million people across Latin America's biggest country who have hit the streets in a wave of mass protests.

Brazilians are railing against poor public schools, hospitals and transport. They are protesting soaring prices, crime and corruption. They are lambasting a political class so self-satisfied that it failed to see, much less address, the mounting dissatisfaction that led to the protests. Combined, the concerns reflect growing unease among Brazil's nearly 200 million people that the country's long-promised leap into the developed world has fallen short once again.

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"All you need to do is walk around a little to see how undeveloped we still are," Tamandaré says, smoking a cigarette on a plastic stool next to his small square kitchen table. "Take a bus, go to the health clinic. It's all shabby, slow, dangerous and infuriating."

The demonstrations, sparked by protests against a rise in public transport fares, at first drew mostly educated youth from Brazil's traditional middle class, a minority that historically has had more in common with a wealthy elite than the nearly 100 million Brazilians who until recently formed the ranks of the poor.

The demonstrations took off, though, when Brazil's "new" middle class joined the fray. "This is the discontent of people for whom having enough rice and beans on the table no longer comes as a surprise," says Rodrigo Dutra, a documentary filmmaker in Duque de Caxias, another working-class Rio suburb, who is studying the differences between these protests and rioting that followed a 1962 food shortage.

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Much has been made in recent years about Brazil's emerging middle class - most of all by the leftist Workers' Party, in power since 2003.

Booming commodity exports, a consumer binge and ambitious social welfare programs together fueled a decade of steady economic growth that lifted 35 million Brazilians from poverty. But now, as the economy cools, many among the new middle class say their much-vaunted ascent leaves a lot to be desired.

"It's all relative," says Dione Brandão, a schoolteacher, after a recent march along Avenida Atlântica, an oceanside promenade in Rio's Copacabana neighborhood. "What good is more consumer spending when security and education are worse?"

A MIDDLING MIDDLE
Approval ratings are plunging for President Dilma Rousseff, who until recently enjoyed some of the highest poll numbers of any elected leader worldwide. Since the protests began, her public-support rating has sunk 27 percentage points, settling at 30 percent of those surveyed by the pollster Datafolha

Middle-class Brazilians are expressing some of the same frustrations fueling unrest in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. The demands vary by country, but reflect a common struggle by the governments of many developing nations to meet rising expectations.

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The very notion of middle class in Brazil is quite different from the standards of North America and Western Europe. No tree-lined suburbs and Volvos for the newly empowered masses here.

Instead, the term is used broadly to include almost anyone able to pay rent, put food on the table and perhaps pay a monthly installment on the refrigerator, microwave or television that Brazil's government often touts as a sign of their emergence. The so-called "Classe C," the bottom rung of Brazil's middle class, earns as little as 1730 reais a month, about $790, and, unlike the much-smaller upper middle class, relies largely on public transportation, health services and schools.

The problem is that Brazil, for all its recent success, invests far less in public services than any other major economy.

When democracy followed a two-decade military dictatorship, Brazil's 1988 constitution enshrined European-style pensions and other social benefits despite the limitations of Brazil's developing economy. "We adopted a model that transfers a lot of public wealth to individuals and leaves very little for public investment," says Samuel Pessoa, an economist at the Fundação Getulio Vargas, a business school and research institute.

So, even though it taxes the populace at levels similar to Switzerland, Canada and Australia, with a tax burden equal to about 34 percent of the economy, Brazil spends most of its resources on personnel costs and entitlements. Instead of improving roads, rail systems or schools, revenues go toward pensions, public-sector salaries and transfers to state and municipal governments, who use the funds for their own high expenditures of a similar sort. Less than 5 percent of the government's expenditures in 2012 went toward investments, according to a recent study by Credit Suisse.

GOVERNMENT GAPS
And at a time when Brazil's once-booming economy is stuck in a prolonged lull, the government is being tight even with money it does have to invest. Last year, Brazil spent less than 10 percent of the funds it allocated for urban transport projects, according to data compiled by Contas Abertas, a watchdog group.

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The result is poor public services. For those who rely on them, day-to-day life is a battery of hassles that, at best, are a terrible grind, but often even dangerous and deadly.

Two-hour commutes, or worse, aren't rare in big cities like Sao Paulo or Rio, ot to mention the grimy, unpredictable and overpriced trains and buses helmed by overworked drivers. In April, during an argument with an irate passenger, a bus driver careened off an overpass, killing nine.

When Brazilians get home, often in neighborhoods where basic trash collection and sewage are lacking, they worry about some of the highest violent crime rates in the world. The homicide rate in Brazil, as tallied by the United Nations, was 21 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 - compared with 4.8 in the United States, and 1 in China. Sometimes it's not police Brazilians look to for protection, but drug gangs or other criminal factions that control entire suburbs.

Their kids are less truant than in years past, thanks to a welfare plan that pays parents to keep them in school. But children aren't learning a whole lot once there. Literacy rates and test scores lag those of many other developing countries, let alone the advanced economies that Brazil so hopes to join.

Those who can't afford private health insurance - and most Brazilians can't - are at the mercy of public hospitals that often lack sutures, spare beds and, increasingly, doctors, some of whom are so disgusted with the public health system that they limit their work to private providers. Such is the shortage of physicians in public hospitals that the government wants to import them from Cuba.

Brazil is not about to go belly up. The protests have been largely non-violent. And Rousseff, while blindsided by the protesters, moved quickly to recognize their concerns, met with some and has vowed to increase investments, even if by little. Her plummeting approval ratings don't yet mean certain electoral defeat, especially because the protesters don't have a unified agenda or political party of their own.

Unemployment, meanwhile, remains near record lows, the legacy of a past decade that by most accounts was remarkable.

THE BOOM
Tamandaré and de Souza, the health worker and his girlfriend, were among the decade's many beneficiaries. Originally from different blue-collar Rio suburbs, the couple met in 2000. Tamandaré at the time still lived with his grandmother, who raised him in Niterói, a city that lies across the river-like bay that gives Rio its name. He worked sporadically as a self-taught computer and appliance repairman.