The ongoing protests in Brazil may appear to have come out of nowhere, but the grievances have been building for some time. Despite the co-optation Brazil`s historically strong labor and social movements into the framework of the ruling Worker`s Party, issues such as public transportation, health, education, police violence and public transportation have been kept in the public consciousness by smaller groups of activists and a growing alternative media. There are Popular Committees for the World Cup in all of the host cities that have kept the embers of discontent burning in public consciousness. The deteriorating condition of urban infrastructure and services has been exacerbated by the spending of public billions to create a heard of shiny white elephants. The World Cup was part of a larger promise of continued economic growth that would raise consumer capacity and living standards for all Brazilians. Only the first part of this promise was completed. The decision to raise bus fares on the eve of the Confederations Cup was the spark that lit a larger fire.
Brazil is an overwhelmingly urban country that has a fascination with the car. This is a bad combination. One of the federal government’s principal development strategies has been to stimulate the automobile industry to the detriment of public transportation. There are no rail networks connecting any major cities in Brazil. The Metro systems of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have a combined length of 120.4 km that have to service more than 30 million people. The city buses are dangerous, expensive, and uncomfortable and are the only mobility option for those who live outside of city centers. The increase in fares that set off the larger protests throughout the country have to do with issues of urban governance, corruption, collusion, incompetence in urban management and the fundamentals of the Brazilian democratic system. When people take to the streets to voice their grievances it is a sign that they have exhausted their democratic channels. The violent police reaction to these protests signals a series of other problems with Brazilian democracy.
The Brazilian president has tried to calm nerves by announcing a series of “reforms”. Among these are a R$25 billion urban mobility proposal and a willingness to meet with social movements. The announcement of these measures as “new” is an indication of their previous absence. Wasn’t urban mobility at the very core of the World Cup and Olympic spending? Weren’t these events supposed to open paths of social inclusion for all Brazilians? Clearly the president’s move in this direction is welcome, but tells us that the opportunity to use the World Cup and Olympics to attend to the basic infrastructure needs of Brazilian cities has been wasted. It is a tacit acknowledgement that the government has failed to communicate with its nominal base and is now scrambling to explain why. With the slowing of Brazilian economic growth and the twilight of an economic model based on unbridled consumption, the lost opportunities of the last decade are coming into sharper focus.