Why Brazilians Are Protesting

A major Latin American country has been engulfed by massive anti-government protests. The people marching in the streets are concerned about a range of issues, including crime, corruption, inflation, and inadequate public services.

Such news wouldn’t be surprising if the country in question were Venezuela or Argentina. But the ongoing demonstrations in Brazil -- which were initially sparked by a hike in bus fares in São Paulo, but which quickly exploded into a broader, nationwide protest movement -- caught many foreign observers by surprise.

After all, wasn’t it just the other day that Brazil was being celebrated as a great success story? Since 2003, the country has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty. Indeed, its signature anti-poverty initiative -- a conditional cash-transfer program known as Bolsa Família -- has inspired similar efforts throughout the world. In the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, Brazil seemed poised to take the next step in its development. A 2009 Newsweek headline declared it “the crafty superpower.” That was a word you often heard attached to Brazil -- “superpower.” In a December 2010 piece, CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft described it as “a fledgling economic superpower.” That same year, Brazil’s annual GDP growth reached 7.5 percent. As late as March of 2011, Latin Trade magazine was still calling it “Latin America’s superpower.”

During this same period, Brazil’s biggest rival in Latin America -- Mexico -- was struggling to control runaway drug violence. And yet, despite all the global attention given to the violence in Mexico, Brazil actually had a higher murder rate. In fact, Brazilian sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz has estimated that Brazil’s youth homicide rate increased by a stunning 346 percent between 1980 and 2010. Meanwhile, the country’s overall murder rate jumped by 124 percent, reaching 26.2 per 100,000 in 2010, according to the Sangari Institute. In other words, the 2010 Brazilian homicide rate was 162 percent above the World Health Organization’s “epidemic” level of 10 per 100,000.

The drug violence in Brazil has generally not been as sensational as the drug violence in Mexico, which helps explain why it hasn’t received as much international media coverage. Last year, however, São Paulo experienced a sharp increase in drug-related murders, as police forces battled with members of the city’s most powerful criminal organization. Amid preparations for World Cup 2014, which Brazil will host next June and July, the São Paulo violence made headlines around the world. More recently, Brazilians saw video footage that appeared to show an extrajudicial killing of two teenagers by São Paulo military police. Such killings have long been a source of public outrage, and they have fostered distrust of law enforcement. It is probably not a coincidence that São Paulo was ground zero for the ongoing protests, which have become a nationwide affair. The murder rate in Brazil’s largest city is still much lower today than it was a decade ago, but residents now have much greater expectations of security than they did in the early 2000s.

Speaking of expectations, the rapid expansion of the Brazilian middle class has fueled a rapid rise in public expectations of government. It’s the same phenomenon we’ve seen in developing nations around the world: As the middle class grows, so do middle-class expectations. Chile is the richest, most advanced country in Latin America, but that hasn’t stopped university students from conducting a series of protests over tuition fees and inequality.

In Brazil, taxes are high by American standards, and they’re extremely high by developing-world standards. (Total revenues amount to 36 percent of GDP.) But while Brazilians pay European levels of taxation, they don’t get European-quality public services. That is a major complaint of the demonstrators. “We just want what we paid in taxes back, through health care, education, and transportation,” a 34-year-old Brazilian attorney told the Associated Press. “We want the police to protect us, to help the people on the streets who have ended up with no job and no money.”