Saturday, August 31, 2013

why are the Brasilians protesting?

While the massive June protests by over a million Brazilians have subsided, minor protests continue in small scale for diverse causes in various parts of Brazil. For example, the protestors in Rio de Janeiro have announced an agenda of protests for August and September directed against the Mayor, the Governor, the media monopolies and some specific companies. There is also the threat of bigger protests during the world cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
Why are the Brazilians protesting? Here is a brief analysis:
 It is not a protest of the poor masses who have revolted against an uncaring oligarchic government. The poor never had it so good in the entire history of Brazil as they have now. Over twenty million people have come out of poverty in the last decade thanks to the pioneering poverty alleviation programmes of the centre-left government. These were started by a poor man himself, Lula who became the President and champion of the poor. He had suffered more than most of the protestors and started a series of sincere and meaningful Inclusive Development programmes, which have become models for other developing countries.The rate of unemployment in Brazil is at its lowest ( ever since unemployment measurement was started in Brazil ) level of around 5%. There is job for almost anyone who wants to work. It is an employees' market. While they have ample choice, it is the companies which run after the human resources and work hard to retain them. The salaries are generally high. Consumers have had access to plenty of low-interest credit in the last few years since the government reduced the interest rates and forced the banks to increase lending. 
It is not a protest for freedom or against an oppressive regime. The Brazilian democracy is vibrant and open. The government has been elected in free and fair elections.The media is vocal and has been doing its duty of watch dog overzealously.
It is not against a corrupt and arrogant President. Dilma Rousseff is a clean and straight forward politician who herself is struggling with the corrupt and wheeling and dealing congressmen and senators to pass legislation needed for reforms. In fact, she should be happy that the protests have facilitated her job by putting pressure on many leaders of the Congress and Senate who have already shown some signs of responsibility and cooperation.
It is not against the ruling party. The centre-left Workers Party is the best bet for the poor. In any case no single party gets majority and coalition politics has come to stay as in India. Coalition means less control over corruption. In fact, the Workers Party suffered its biggest scandal called Mensalao because of this coalition logic. The party leaders had to bribe the opposition congressmen and senators with monthly payments to get their legislative support.
It is not a protest against football or stadiums. Football is the religion, opium, pride and passion of the Brazilians. The protestors are only against the over-the-budget expenditure and the priority given to stadiums over hospitals and schools. They are against the collusion between big business, venal politicians, local foot ball organizations and FIFA who enrich themselves disproportionately in the construction of stadiums and organization of events.
Lastly, it is not the outburst of a culturally stifled society. The Brazilians are lively and free-spirited. In general, they are laid back and relaxed people who take things in their stride and manage to find happiness in beaches, football, samba and caipirinha (a sugar cane liquor). They are not known for violent protests to change things. They did not even have to fight for their independence unlike in the case of the other Latin American countries, US or many Asian and African countries. The Portuguese prince in Rio de Janeiro himself declared independence from his father who was King of Portugal. He preferred Rio over Lisbon. Who will not? The Independence declaration was not followed by any violence or serious consequence from Portugal. There is no Father of the Nation in Brazil like Simon Bolivar or Mahatma Gandhi. Brazil was never invaded or threatened by any outside power and the Brazilians never had to rise to defend their country. Of course, they had suffered military dictatorships. But the military dictators were not brought down by public protests, although urban guerrilla groups and trade unions bravely stood up against the army rule. The military turned over power to the civilians after hopelessly messing up the economy and reaching the height of incompetence. 
So what triggered the protests? It was the discontent of the middle class. While the poor and the rich benefited more from the government programmes of poverty alleviation and business promotion, the middle class got squeezed by the high cost of living and poor infrastructure and services. They were angry with the corruption among politicians as well as with the football organizations. In fact those who run the football organizations are more corrupt and less accountable than the political leaders in Brazil. This is true of the rest of Latin America too.
It is an assertion of the middle class which has risen against the commissions and omissions of the political and business leaders. They have shown readiness to spoil the Fiesta of the powerfuls ( Confederation Cup, World Cup and Olympics) with global embarrassment. The threat of the protestors that they will come back to the streets during next year's World Cup is a more serious message than what happened in June. The facility of Facebook and other social media have helped in the mobilization of the people with the slogan of Vem para Rua ( come to the street ).
Such middle class protests took place in recent years in Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. The Venezuelan middle class rose against the authoritarian policies of Chavez in 2002. But he crushed it ruthlesslessly using his Chavista militants.  In Argentina, the middle class has held a number of protests against the outmoded Peronist policies of President Cristina starting from 2009 but she has managed to survive with the captive vote of her constituency of the poor. She is continuing her anti-middle class policies with a vengeance imposing more and more foreign exchange and import controls. The Chilean students and middle class agitated against the high cost of education in 2011 with limited success against the centre-right government of Pinheiro. The students have resumed their agitation recently. Unlike Chavez, Cristina and Pinheiro, the Brazilian President Dilma showed sensitivity and dialogued with the protest leaders and already initiated some measures to meet their demands.
The Brazilian protests will not bring about a dramatic change. But they will result in incremental improvement, as is evident already. Besides withdrawing the bus fare hike, the government has announced a 1.3 billion dollar investment to create 99 kms of express bus lanes and additional investment of billion dollar plus investments for sanitation and low cost housing. The protests have served a useful purpose in the maturing process of the Brazilian democracy and the transition of the country from the Third to the First World. The protesters have given a strong message that the country cannot become a First World if the political and business leaders continue with their Third World ways. The protests are indicative of the empowerment of the middle class, which has been enlarged by the pro-poor policies of the government. The growing and strengthening middle class is the solid new foundation of the young Brazilian democracy.