The huge street protests sweeping across Brazil this week caught almost everyone by surprise. But maybe they shouldn’t have.
For all of Brazil’s achievements over the past few decades — a stronger economy, democratic elections, more money and attention directed toward the needs of the poor — there is still a huge gap between the promises of Brazil’s ruling leftist politicians and the harsh realities of day-to-day life outside the political and business elite.
The World Bank lists Brazil as the world’s seventh-largest economy, but puts it in the bottom 10 percent on income equality. Its 15-year-olds rank near the bottom in global rankings of reading and math skills. A succession of its top politicians have been implicated in flagrant payoff schemes and other misuse of public funds.
No wonder that public-transit fare increases provoked outrage from the poor and middle class, who are burdened by a regressive tax system. No wonder that lavish spending on World Cup soccer stadiums while public education remains grievously underfinanced became a rallying cry. To her credit, President Dilma Rousseff has tried to be responsive to the demonstrators. She declared that she welcomes the desire for change, and will respond to it. Local authorities have rolled back the transit fare increases.
Brazil’s long silent majority seems to be finding its political voice. Rousseff, who is up for re-election next year, will have to address new demands with substance as well as sympathy.