Moral Low Ground

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Brazil’s Burgeoning Middle Class Fuels Ongoing Protests

(Photo: Semilla Luz)

(Photo: Semilla Luz)

In Brazil, there’s an old joke that “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” But over the course of the past decade or so, it seemed as if the future had finally arrived.

Brazil has boomed. According to the World Bank, Brazil’s economy is now the world’s sixth largest, surpassing Canada, India, Russia and even Great Britain. The country’s once-legendary inflation was tamed, although it has become something of a problem again of late. Its currency stabilized. Due to abundant natural resources and the widespread use of alternative energy, Brazil achieved energy independence even before the 2006 discovery of the largest offshore oil field found in the Americas in the past 30 years. Successive governments have greatly reduced extreme poverty and hunger through progressive policies and programs. Tens of millions of Brazilians have joined a burgeoning middle class that has formed the backbone of the nation’s 21st century rise into the top tier of global economies.

But it is also that same middle class that is fueling much of the ongoing protest activity throughout Brazil. For despite the great strides made by the South American giant, great problems remain. Corruption is endemic. Prices are rising. So is crime. Brazil’s wealth gap remains one of the world’s widest. Billions of dollars are spent on international showcase events like the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games while tens of millions of Brazilians lack adequate food, housinghealth care and education. Police cannot be trusted and are prone to brutality.

“Most people in our government, with some honorable exceptions, are solely focused on their own self-benefit. They promise a lot but they usually do not deliver,” César Viera, a 30-year-old digital media entrepreneur from Salvador, Bahia, told Moral Low Ground. “Corruption is everywhere. We love our country so much but unfortunately, the level of corruption in the government has made us numb for a long time,” Viera added. “The level of dissatisfaction with those who were supposed to represent us has reached sky-high. As they say, the giant has woken up and we are now fighting peacefully for our rights.”

“Corruption has gotten to a level that it is not possible to be quiet anymore,” agreed Georgiana Calimeris, a freelance journalist from the capital city of Brasília. “We have been robbed by the politicians for long enough.” Calimeris points to Senate President Renan Calheiro, who is accused of tax fraud and of taking money from a powerful lobbyist to pay for the support of a child he had as a result of an extramarital affair, as an prime example of why it is “very important that we take action… to fight against impunity” for crooked politicians.

As for the international perception that all Brazilians are elated to be hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, 30-something Rio de Janeiro theatre official Aline Macedo offers a sobering reality check.

“When we hosted the Pan American Games (in 2007), the budget was inflated over and over again… our population paid a ridiculous amount of money for an event that did not benefit us at all,” Macedo told Moral Low Ground. “When Brazil launched its candidacy for the Olympics, I was totally against it exactly because the Pan American Games were a fiasco.”

“The problem here is cultural,” Macedo asserts, attributing many of Brazil’s woes to the lingering legacy of ‘coronelismo’– the old patronage system in which dominant oligarchs handed out favors in exchange for loyalty. “Hosting events of such magnitude provides great opportunities for more corruption and evasion. Institutions in Brazil are still incipient, weak and people don’t believe in them.”

Carol Capozzi, a television producer who has worked with some of Brazil’s largest networks, counts herself among the majority of Brazilians who are proud that their country is hosting the World Cup. “We love football. Of course we do. But we have more urgent needs,” Capozzi, a native of São Paulo, told Moral Low Ground. “We need this money being invested in education and health care first.”

“The government spent tens of billions to build stadiums around the country, even in places like Brasília and Maranhão that don’t need huge stadiums,” Alan Delgado, an oil worker and married father of two from Rio de Janeiro, concurred. “Our hospitals, schools and public safety are in really bad shape, and then they decide to increase bus fares 20 cents, and that’s part of the reason why people started to protest. But then people started thinking about what the government is doing with our money. There’s poverty and corruption everywhere and politicians, even if they are tried and convicted, still have their jobs.”

“We are protesting for paying more for the same bad public transport system. We are protesting for having beautiful stadiums in cities that don’t even have good hospitals. We are protesting against corruption,” Capozzi explained. “There are really so many reasons to protest.”

Among these reasons is the shocking police brutality which has too often characterized the government’s response to what have been largely peaceful demonstrations. Capozzi points to the large number of journalists who have been brutalized by police as particularly alarming. Calimeris, the freelance journalist, told Moral Low Ground of a pregnant journalist who nearly lost her baby because of chemical agents sprayed by police. Calimeris said she personally witnessed three girls get shot by rubber-coated steel bullets. Delgado, the oil worker, lamented the decidedly undemocratic police practice of confiscating the cell phones of protesters who recorded brutal misconduct.

“People are afraid because the police are there to fight and not to protect public safety,” Delgado said. “It’s not fair. It’s fascism!”

Surprisingly, the majority of the Brazilians interviewed for this article did not express very much hostility towards the police despite their brutal crackdown.

“I don’t think it’s the police’s fault,” Capozzi said. “I don’t think that the cops, who receive ridiculously low paychecks every month, were against the protesters… I think they were doing what their bosses told them to do. I think the order to ‘do whatever you need to stop the protests’ came from the politicians… The Brazilian people are under leaders who don’t care about human rights, and that’s a pity.”

While Macedo believes that Brazilian police “cannot be trusted,” she blames this partly on the fact that “they don’t have an adequate career plan, salary, training or equipment.”

Macedo argues that the problem with the police helps explain why corruption is so rife in her country.

“[Police] don’t have the expertise to investigate high-profile crimes and they are much more subject to political pressure because they are directly linked to the Ministry of Justice… To top it all off, there’s currently a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would restrain the investigative powers of the federal attorney’s office, so that only the police could lead investigations. And that’s very problematic… How can you expect such an office to have the necessary independence to investigate corruption?”

Viera also blames the Brazilian media for the current situation.

“One of the biggest contributors to the country being the way it is at the moment is the national media which is, as in every other country, funded by the same people who support the politicians and their electoral runs,” said Viera. “Mass media has become a tool to control the people. Whatever comes out of the [television] is true and cannot be debated. This is why we have ‘socialized’ our protest movement, running it on the Internet, where information is not filtered before it reaches us. The revolution is for the people, by the people and now, it’s social.”

Despite all these problems– and many more, Brazilians are a famously optimistic lot. That probably explains why so many people are out in the streets– they genuinely believe that they can make a difference.

“We want the world to know that we are not a ‘poor country’ that accepts anything that anyone will impose on us,” Capozzi said.

“We want to show the world that we’re waking up,” Delgado said. “We are claiming our rights!”

“Our country is so full of life, resources and potential,” Viera added. “We deserve better than this.”

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