Why Brazilians Are Sick of Corrupt Politicians: And Signs That Their Government is Actually Listening

What does it take to drive a million people to the streets in over 100 cities? On a short visit to Brazil, I had a chance to ask citizens that question.

The protests, which have swept the country over the last three weeks, were initially sparked in Sao Paulo by a plan to raise busfares. But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Anger about unemployment, inflation, ridiculously crappy public services, billions spent on an upcoming World Cup tournament, and rampant political corruption have boiled over in a country that has been hailed as one of the world’s great emerging economic powerhouses.  

Heavyweight Champions of Corruption

Since the protests began, a new poll shows that the government’s approval rating has tanked by almost half, to 30 percent, the lowest point in two decades. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who leapt onto the national stage by winning the presidency in 2010 as the candidate of the Workers’ Party (PT), has been charged with tackling corruption and pressing social and economic issues facing the country. But since Rousseff’s election, the PT has been rocked by scandal and the president has had a difficult time stemming a growing tide of public discontent. Her ratings were on the wane even before the protests.

In contrast to the response of the Obama administration and New York’s billionaire mayor to the Occupy protests, which ranged from indifference to brutal suppression, Rousseff has actually listened to the protestors who were battered by the rubber bullets of the military police and has even asked Congress to hold a non-binding national vote to find out what changes Brazilians would like to see happen. Her chances of re-election, which are still high, will be impacted by how she is able to respond to the current unrest. 

Brazilians trust the presidency more than the Congress, but that’s not saying a whole lot. To understand why Brazilians look upon the government as a kind of malignant tumor, you have to know a little history.

When it comes to corruption, Brazil’s politicians are heavyweight champions, making our guys—if you can believe it’s possible—look like rank amateurs (see this eye-popping report in the New York Times). The legacy of no-holds-barred vice and violence goes back to the 1960s, when Senator Arnon de Mello calmly shot a colleague dead on the Senate floor. The killing was considered an accident, and de Mello escaped punishment. After all, he was aiming at another senator.

So how bad is the current crop of politicians sitting in Brazil’s Congress? Answer: off-the-charts bad. There was the guy accused of using slave labor on his cattle ranch back home. Then there’s the one who allegedly likes to have enemies offed with chainsaws and vats of acids. One member of Congress decided to buy votes from poor women in his district by offering free sterilization. Drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping — you name it, Brazilian politicians have done it in spades. The problem is that members of Congress enjoy protection from prosecution, and they almost never go to jail. They’re kind of like bankers that way, and possibly even more despised.

The entrenched power brokers in Congress are pretty much deaf to the cries of protesters, and the heads of Brazil’s individual states have far more power than, say, American state governors, so they can block the will of the president. Rousseff may push for reform, but she faces plenty of obstacles to achieving anything significant.

But the protesters in Brazil are not without hope. In asking how the Brazilian protests compared to those in other countries, one person I spoke to offered that in his view, America’s Occupy movement was about hopelessness—the resignation felt by people whose political and economics systems were unresponsive to their needs. He contrasted this with a more optimistic feeling among protesters in Brazil: many believe that changes may actually be possible within the existing system. I also heard Brazil’s situation contrasted with protests in other South American countries, like Chile. Chile’s protests, in which people took to the street for four or five years, also started over busfare, but the reaction of Chilean politicians was much more indifferent than Brazil's.

Middle Class Demands More

The wealthy in Brazil are doing just fine, and they don’t have to worry much about the cost of public transit from the comfort of their helicopters. They can retreat to their walled villas to escape rampant violence and crime, like the recent wave of rapes on Brazil’s buses.

But most people are not protected from the problems created by political corruption and indifference to deteriorating public services. The poor are crushed by the resulting chaos, and the middle class, though not as devastated, still feels thwarted and angered.

Many Brazilians I spoke to characterized the protests as the expression of the economic aspirations of a middle class that has enjoyed a rising trajectory in recent years. In Brazil, inequality has been on the decline for the last decade, and the middle class as a percentage of the population has increased. But stagnation for the last two years, along with inflation, badly paid and dwindling jobs, and a government that lacks transparency and responsiveness, has frayed public nerves. In this context, the protests are viewed as the pains of rapid growth, an expression of an empowered middle class that is demanding more from the country's economic and political systems.

Much of the international attention on the protests has focused on the supposed hostility Brazilians are feeling toward the national football team and over-the-top expenditures related to next year’s World Cup. But I found Brazilians no less enthusiastic about their favorite sport — they just want the government to know that they value things like decent education and healthcare as much as they do a winning team. In a country where suspicion of foreign profiteers has dominated political discussion, a new focus on domestic inadequacies is a shift that seems to reflect a global trend toward demands for government accountability and responsiveness.

One man described Brazil’s political challenge this way: How willing and capable is the country to negotiate tensions arising from unbalanced growth?

The Brazilian protestors can boast that they are not being ignored. The busfare hikes originally planned have been dropped and politicians are at least talking about wide-ranging reforms, including campaign finance reform and better representation of the people. Rousseff wants the proposed referendum to take place as soon as possible and for new rules to be in place before the October 2014 presidential and legislative elections. It remains to be seen whether or not this will actually happen.

Underneath it all, Brazil’s policies carry a neoliberal strain that degrades public services and tends to fuel economic growth without taking to account social costs. A rubber bullet is not going to stop the unrest that results, and there are signs that at least some of Brazil’s politicians may be starting to realize it.


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