In a matter of days, Brazil’s image as the emerging economic power to watch, and a fun-loving one to boot, has given way to that of an angry, noisy giant as seas of protesters fill the streets.
After the intoxicating giddiness and visions of a limitless future that came with being chosen to host the World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympic Games, a painful and sobering reality has sunk in: for many people, life has not changed very much.
Stop just about anybody taking part in nationwide street protests that broke out 10 days ago — more than a million marched Thursday — and the gripes sound similar.
Sure, 15 minutes of global limelight are nice, but Brazil’s public schools are lousy, and so are public transport and the health system, the protesters say. And politicians are still seen as useless and corrupt.
“We were living a dream. We let ourselves get carried away with the message that everything was going to get even better. We pay taxes and what do we get?” asked Monica, protesting Thursday with her 18-year daughter in Gama, 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Brasilia.
Those schools, buses and hospitals? “They are a disaster,” she said.
The banners people carry at the nightly rallies also speak volumes.
“The people have woken up,” one said.
“More money for health and education,” read another.
Then, this: “So much is wrong that it will not fit on one banner.”
Over the past 10 years, the income and minimum wage of Brazilian workers have in fact gone up like never before. Unemployment dropped to record lows.
Social welfare programs championed by union leader turned president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva fattened the middle class by a whopping 40 million people, making it account for more than half the total population of 194 million.
Consumption exploded thanks to easy credit, and foreign investment gushed in as Brazil became the B in the BRICS — the world’s hot emerging economies. The others are Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Lula left office in 2011 with an 80 percent approval rating and handpicked a successor to lead his Workers Party, current President Dilma Rousseff.
She is tough, but lacks Lula’s charm, yet she is still popular.
However, the glow has dimmed over the past two years as inflation crept up and economic growth slowed dramatically. She did however wage a fierce fight against corruption.
In these days of rage, Brazilians are rebelling against “a growing situation of shortcomings in urban life, with unreliable public transport, a disastrous health system, rampant violence and unbearable traffic, which for years had been offset by the improvement in wages and jobs,” said Ricardo Antunes, a sociologist at the University of Campinas.
Two years of low growth and rising prices have unearthed a familiar and crude reality, he added.
“Economically, things got better. We can buy a car on credit. But the hospitals and schools are terrible. A rich country is not one where everybody has a car but rather one in which a rich man takes the bus,” said one young female protester in Brasilia who did not want to give her name.
Granted, Brazil did reduce poverty levels in a country with a traditionally gaping divide between rich and poor. Even as much as Brazilians dislike politicians, democracy in a country that was ruled as a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 was consolidated, said political analyst Ricardo Ribeiro of MCM consultants.
“It was not all an illusion,” he said. “The thing is, a lot of problems remained unresolved and these are coming to the surface as the economy worsens.”
Brazil is the world’s football crazed nation par excellence. So it is somewhat stunning to see people so furious over the high cost of staging the World Cup.
When Lula pushed for Brazil to get the Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazilians were literally euphoric amid the belief that such vast undertakings would mean big investments in infrastructure, business and tourism.
“It all made sense. But a lot of public works never made it off the drawing board, especially the ones to make it easier to get around in the cities. What ended up getting built were super-expensive stadiums,” said Ribeiro.
And amid all the anger, politicians are taking it on the nose. People want solutions to their everyday problems.
“Enough corruption already,” protesters shouted Thursday in Sao Paulo. Another slogan was that a united people does not even need political parties.
Years of corruption scandals that stained politicians of all stripes, including the Workers Party, blended with anger over meager public services to create “a chasm between civil society and the world of politics,” said Chico Alencar, a lawmaker from a party that formed by breaking away from Lula’s.
The young people crowding the streets of Brazil in recent days “were eight years old when Lula came to power. They did not live through the transition to democracy,” Alencar said.
So for them, he said, the Workers Party, in power for a decade and tracing its roots back to social and union movements, “is an institutionalized conservative party.”