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Street smarts: Brazil’s political maturity
July 11, 2013, 4:55 am

Countries are as big as their challenges and their potential. Brazil is enormous, and so are its paradoxes. The country holds tremendous promise as a global supplier of renewable energy.

But it suffers from an archaic and obsolete education system. In some states, 60 per cent of children enrolled in schools are functionally illiterate.

In contrast, Brazil has drawn the attention of the world for its creativity and entrepreneurial talent for innovation. But to succeed in Brazil is considered an exercise in persistence. Taxes are high while the social commitments are exorbitant.

Starting a business can be a saga because of a decades-old entrenched bureaucracy. Establishing a company can take extended periods of time – longer than most other G20 major economies – and the taxes can be unreasonable.

Between the pull of these historic forces and the country’s newly discovered promise, a new country emerges. Right now, the freshest nuance this new country has to offer is its people and their discontentment.

Frustrations articulated

Many Brazilians feel the price tag for World Cup preparations is much too high [Getty Images]

Many Brazilians feel the price tag for World Cup preparations is much too high [Getty Images]

Nothing changes when everybody is quietly dissatisfied sitting on their sofas. Historically, Brazil hasn’t shown much passion and organization except where it concerns soccer, soap operas and Carnival.

It is thrilling that, finally, people are getting to the streets, talking about what is right and wrong, making demands and understanding that there is power and strength in articulating their frustrations.

In the millions they have voiced that it is not acceptable to be stuck in traffic for hours just to get home on a regular day. It is not acceptable to watch endemic corruption unfold as if we were watching a Law and Order episode.

They are letting the powers that be know is not acceptable to cope with chronically understaffed and under-equipped hospitals, and a shameful education system.

Their frustration is all the more poignant when one discusses the country’s real challenges in lieu of the disgraceful cost of the stadiums being built for next year’s football World Cup.

Brazil has already spent 7 billion reais ($3.097 billion) on infrastructure for the World Cup, three times South Africa’s total four years earlier, and yet only half the stadiums have been completed.

Is Brazil’s future to be comprised of first-world stadiums and third-world education and health systems?

The World Cup bill is but one item on an overwhelming list of grievances raised by several niches of society.

Signs of maturity

For the first time in Brazil’s history, protests have no leaders, no parties nor unions, and that is a good thing. There are no leaders’ heads to be cut.

The public space presents society in its diversity: the right, the left, crazies, dreamers, activists, jokers, the angry – everyone. It is a picture of creative chaos, not the pre-established order.

Therefore, there is not a defined voice and the protests can seem diffusive in their purpose. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Brazilian society has grown more aware of the country’s economic and political realities.

Public dissent and mass demonstrations were never mainstays of Brazilian society – people complained privately to their friends and family and nothing really ever changed.

The people’s movement is a symptom of a new era and a different kind of citizenship looking for new leadership and representation. The street protests have also given rise to a new contract within society itself.

The fact that people are taking to the streets and organising themselves in order to articulate their frustrations and call for reform is a sign of socio-political maturity.

Enemy, thy name be inflation

In mid-June millions took to the streets of major cities to protest transportation fee hikes [Xinhua]

In mid-June millions took to the streets of major cities to protest transportation fee hikes [Xinhua]

While there is no economic crisis per se, there is a general feeling of underachievement. A few years ago, Brazil was touted as a major economic player and it’s no coincidence that it would join up with Russia, India, China and later South Africa to establish BRICS.

But our growth numbers are terribly low in comparison with the prospects the leadership’s economic team projected – and also in comparison with other BRICS partners.

Brazil’s economy grew by a healthy 7.5 per cent in 2010. But in less than three years, that fell by more than half; 3.1 per cent growth is projected for 2013 and 3.65 per cent in 2014.

New measures for controlling rising prices are among the top priorities for the government – one should bear in mind that Brazil is a country that has spent a great deal of time (decades) wrestling with exorbitant inflation.

Furthermore, Brazil’s economy isn’t really designed to deliver goods and services at low prices, which makes being middle class there significantly more expensive than it is in many other countries.

Even by developed-country standards, Brazil is a pricey place: A recent study ranked São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro among the 14 most expensive cities in the world – far above New York, which was thirty-third.

It is a measure of democratic progress that Brazilians are discussing these issues openly and for the first time, but this is hardly a political miracle.

The issues have been piling up over the course of several decades. It took a long time to reach the current state of affairs, and it will take some time to tackle the structural issues that led the streets to erupt in the first place.

There are still more questions than answers and there is only so much that can be done immediately. How to create solutions without bursting the state’s budget causing even more inflation is hard to puzzle out.

At the end of the day, it is not all about money. It is about planning and spending resources wisely and reinventing failed systems. Decent public services are pivotal to citizenship.

Dilma and the unthinkable

It does democracy a disservice when election results are considered foregone conclusion more than two years before citizens head to the ballot box. And for President Dilma Roussef, things seemed to be going well. Perhaps, too well. There was an overconfident attitude in the air, sustained by high popularity ratings, according to opinion polls.

After a perplexing week of silence following massive demonstrations, President Dilma Rousseff finally spoke on national television on June 17 and said she supported the protest movement.

Despite a recent poll showing a drastic plunge in her popularity at the time, some argue Rousseff has started to rebound by showing citizens she wants them to be heard within a political system most Brazilians complain has long since stopped listening to them.

In a bid to make Brazilian democracy more representative, the President delivered to Congress on July 3 her recommendations on what topics should be included in a national plebiscite on political reform.

These included how campaigns should be financed; how Congressmen should be elected; whether to end secret votes in Congress; if the party coalition system in voting for deputies and city councilmen should be nixed; and if there should be an end to allowing temporary replacements for senators when they take other posts.

It’s now up to Congress to convene the plebiscite.

All that being said, we come back to the initial argument. The core of this revolution does not hinge on who is in charge according to the country’s conventional hierarchy. The heart of the movement is comprised of the millions of people angered by decades of broken promises – and they have stated that enough is enough.

The unthinkable is already happening. People have been talking about political reform with an energy Brazil hasn’t seen in decades.

Rather than debating on the players’ performances the morning after their national soccer team won a major championship, Brazilians were discussing politics in coffee shops, elevators and supermarkets.

It is a post-protest phenomenon, the rapid politicization of a nation whose people have finally awakened.

The takeaway from what is happening on the streets is that there is now an enhanced understanding of citizenship.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.