Few options for Brazil leader in face of protests

As the protests grow, with two major marches called for Thursday, the Brazilian government seems at a loss over how to address the sweeping demands of its people.

A protester shouts during an anti-government protest in Rio de Janeiro's sister city, Niteroi, Brazil.
Powered by automated translation

SAO PAULO // With massive protests by middle-class Brazilians demanding wholesale government reforms, people all over this continent-sized country have reached a verdict on the streets and online: "The giant has awakened."

President Dilma Rousseff has tried to placate the crowds by supporting their right to protest, and the Sao Paulo municipal government has rescinded the 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares that sparked the demonstrations in the first place. But as the protests grow, with two major marches called for Thursday, the Brazilian government seems at a loss over how to address the sweeping demands of its people.

Protesters have presented the government with myriad demands and a growing list of complaints: It can't provide its citizens with basic security, officials are corrupt and inefficient, traffic is bottlenecked on pot-holed streets, and even cellphones don't work. And the investment that should be going into health care and education are pouring into soccer stadiums and airports instead.

Rousseff's response has been little more than rhetoric. She hasn't formed any emergency committees to deal with the crisis or offered grand gestures or fresh ideas. And that has further angered Brazilians such as Rosana Reis, a 51-year-old nurse who like millions in the middle class is feeling the pinch of high taxes and perennially poor public services while the country spends billions of dollars to host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

"I worked for years in public hospitals and I've seen with my own eyes how everybody but the richest Brazilians suffer," Reis said during a protest this week that took over central Sao Paulo. "These politicians have money for the World Cup, money for the Olympics, but none to spend on health care or education. We've had enough. The people have woken up!"

The protests began a week ago in Sao Paulo and spread quickly to other cities after an initial police crackdown on demonstrators. They have become a collective, if unorganized cry for help from a newly expanded middle class that expects more for its taxes and from its democratically elected left-of-center government.

The public outcry has caught Brazil's leadership off-guard. Instead of dealing with one group with one list of demands, the government has been confronted with a spontaneous mass movement without a unified agenda.

How to quell the discontent adds up to the stiffest challenge yet to the ruling Workers Party since it took power in 2003. Rousseff has been meeting with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad in search of a solution.

They are working under the immediate pressure of pacifying protesters before next month's papal visit to Rio and inner Sao Paulo state.

"The response of most politicians has been insufficient because they don't understand that by being elected they made a commitment to the population," said Domingos Dutra, a Workers Party congressman who has often butted heads with party leadership. "Protesters' demands are clear - the immediate reversal of transportation fares. But there are others: improvements in health care, combating violence and combating impunity. President Dilma has taken too long to recognize that these demands are genuine."

Dutra said that when it comes to cracking down on dissenting voices, allowing environmental destruction in the Amazon or to building big public works for the World Cup and Olympics, the government moves quickly.

"But when it comes to meeting social demands, it works slowly. I hope that the government understands that society is evolving and it needs to act quickly to meet demands," he added.

A poll of protesters attending this week's rallies in Sao Paulo shows they are solidly middle class. Three-quarters have a university degree, half are younger than 25 and more than 80 percent say they don't belong to any political party, according to the survey by the respected Datafolha group.

The disconnect is apparent between those taking part in demonstrations and their Workers Party government, whose support lies among the lower-middle class and poor.

In fact, Brazil's poorest have seen their economic lives dramatically improve under the Silva and Rousseff governments, largely because of much-applauded government cash transfer programs that have helped 40 million people move from poverty into the lower-middle class in the last decade.

But other Brazilians who make up the country's solid middle- and upper-middle classes feel alienated and unrepresented by any political party, said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

He said the wages of middle-income households have stagnated and their spending power has diminished, with no government programs helping them as they have Brazil's poorest. Complicating the picture is the so-called "Brazil cost" - infrastructure woes and other bureaucratic red tape that make everything in the nation so costly, Roett said.

"There is a clear sense among the Brazilian middle class that the Workers Party has ignored them," Roett said. "There is no short-term answer. There has to be a multiparty dialogue to gauge just how deep the frustration goes and how government responses must be prioritized. Rousseff has to cut across the political spectrum for answers."

Natalia Querino, a 22-year-old university student, put it succinctly while joining thousands of other protesters in downtown Sao Paulo on Tuesday. She's watched Brazil spend some $13 billion so far on preparing for next year's World Cup while the country's education system continues to lag behind those of other middle-income countries.

"We are against a government that spends billions in stadiums while people are suffering across the country," Querino said. "We want better education, more security and a better health system."

Organizers said the decision to rescind higher transit fares would not bring a halt to the protest, and a demonstration scheduled for Thursday in Sao Paulo would go on as scheduled.

"What we will have is a demonstration to celebrate the victory of the people who took to the streets," said Mayara Vivian, a leader of the Passe Livre movement that kicked off the protests last week with the mantra "The giant has awakened."

Another leader, history professor Lucas Monteiro said "the government has finally ceded to popular pressure".

"The decision shows that citizens can obtain victories through popular mobilizations," Monteiro said.

For Christopher Garman, the Latin America director of the U.S.-based consulting firm the Eurasia Group, the Brazilian government has in some sense become a victim of its own economic success.

"As Brazil has gotten richer, the political demands begin to change. People are demanding different things of their government," Garman said. "When you have a shift to a `middle income' country with a robust middle class, they start asking for something else, for improved public services."

The long-term solutions that protesters are demanding, improvements in all facets of the public sector, will require significant reforms to the political system, not simply more funding, Garman said.

"The problem isn't money; it's how you spend it," Garman said. "It's hard to see this sustaining itself for weeks on end. The nature of the movement is so diffuse it will probably peter out of its own accord. You have diffuse discontent over all these but there is no specific target."

Sibaja reported from Brasilia and Barchfield from Rio de Janeiro.