Why Is Brazil Going Nuts?

The Protests Are As Confounding As the Country. And Yes, Traffic Here Is Terrible.

My wife and I live two and a half miles from my office at the Universidade de São Paulo. But there is no quick way to complete the commute. São Paulo traffic jams make driving difficult. Riding a bike would be suicidal. Finding a space to stand in a rush-hour bus or metro is nearly impossible. Most days, the fastest and healthiest way is to walk.

São Paulo and other cities across Brazil are now experiencing huge protests. The international media have identified all sorts of triggers for the current unrest—including public corruption, the high costs of sports stadiums, and economic inequality. From what I can see here, the frustration has much to do with the everyday difficulties of life and transport. However, pinpointing one specific reason for the protests is as confounding an exercise as navigating Brazil itself.

I can’t complain too much about this, since it was the complexity and diversity of this country that drew me here to begin with. I’m a Swiss political scientist who first visited Brazil in 1996 to see a friend, fell in love with the country, started studying Portuguese, and kept coming back until I moved to São Paulo four years ago. I did a post-doc on political participation and now work as a researcher at Universidade de São Paulo. About a year ago, I married a Brazilian woman. We are expecting our first child in August.

The more I learn about Brazil, the less I seem to understand. In recent years, I have been particularly puzzled by the population’s reaction to the poor public services, high tax burdens, and corrupt politicians who openly make fun of their duties. Don’t they care? The protests have reassured me in one sense—they do care—but left me puzzled as well.

Brazil has been a success story of democratic development, educational attainment, and economic growth over the past generation. But that success obscures worrisome recent trends: slowing growth, inflation above the target of 6 percent, increasing public and private debt, a negative trade balance, and job creation figures in May that were the lowest in 21 years.

The country’s sophisticated democratic institutions obscure something even more maddening: deep problems of governance. Corruption is not usually visible on the street—no one has ever asked me for a bribe—but high-level government corruption has led to mismanagement and a lack of resources for public services.

Even in our very pleasant neighborhood, you can’t help but feel this dysfunction. When it rains heavily, electricity is regularly cut. The streets are full of potholes. Renewing my driver’s license requires an investment of several days standing in lines. Recycling garbage demands a lot of individual effort. I try to leave my MacBook at home because I’m afraid I’ll get robbed on the street. For the same reason, I do not wear a wristwatch.

Taxes are particularly Kafkaesque. The federal government passed a law requiring the declaration of all taxes on bills and receipts, but the tax system is so complex that nobody is able to calculate the exact amount. One multinational company that requires only five tax specialists in Mexico requires, for similar work in Brazil, more than 100 tax professionals.

The protests here began with a 20 centavos (10 U.S. cents) fare increase for urban public transport in São Paulo. The buses and metro daily test public endurance. On the worst line, it is not uncommon to have to stand in a line for 45 minutes just to get into a metro station. Recently, when we were coming back to the city from the airport and had to use the metro in morning rush hour, we were unable to get onto several trains because they were so packed.

The initial demonstrations here, triggered by outrage over having to pay more for ever-worse service, were relatively small. But police attacks against protestors prompted a wave of solidarity. The country’s leaders failed to respond for a few critical days, and so the protests spread—from the metropolitan centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the suburbs and to more than 100 cities in all parts of the country. According to surveys, 80 percent of Brazilians support the protests. Attention from abroad, with Brazil preparing to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, has put more pressure on the authorities.

Considering the large number of people in the streets—so far, the peak was about 1 million, with 300,000 people in the center of Rio de Janeiro alone—incidents of violence have not been excessive. (Some small groups of protesters acted violently against public infrastructure, but obviously without political agenda.)

As the protests grew, the authorities revoked the increase of the transit fare, but the move came too late to contain the movement. By then, many other demands had been declared. All the demands, however, aroused confusion among the protesters themselves; many felt hijacked by other groups.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, after an emergency meeting with all governors and the mayors of the main cities, recently issued five proposals, four of which were not particularly controversial: greater fiscal responsibility, an increase in spending on health, dedication of oil royalties to education, and new investments in the urban public transport system. The fifth proposal was for a plebiscite to approve a special constituent assembly to enact profound political reforms. But the constitution provides only for the national congress to call a plebiscite, and there is no provision for a constituent assembly. The president came under such criticism that her idea, after only a day, seemed obsolete. For now, confusion reigns on all sides. Informal protesters and the formal authorities still haven’t found a way to talk to each other.

I haven’t participated in the protests because I both fear the police and don’t like large crowds of people. My wife, now pregnant, had a scary moment last week when, on her way home from work, she found herself nearly in the middle of a demonstration; she was able to escape only thanks to some illegal maneuvers with her car. But if the protests continue, I may join in. Reforms are desperately needed.

As I face fatherhood, I am not sure if this mega-city is a good place for a child. There is little green space. Private education is expensive. Living costs are reaching high Western standards, but salaries remain lower. In the long run, we may have to leave. But in Brazil you never know what will happen next. Perhaps these protests will inspire changes that make life more livable in this country, at once so easy to love and so hard to understand.

Rolf Rauschenbach, a researcher at the Universidade de São Paulo, is a scholar of political participation and direct democracy.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of Ben Tavener.
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