For years we’ve been reading about Brazil as a budding economic powerhouse, an emerging alternative voice on the world stage, and a future force in global politics. When Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, those events seemed like an opportunity to cement Brazil’s new, prominent role.
Brazil’s good press, however, always seemed at odds with the country’s great disparities in income and its grinding poverty. Recently some of our friends visited Brazil and were shaken by the terrible living conditions of the poor, the aggressive begging, and an outright street theft in which a necklace was snatched from a neck by urchins who sprinted away and were quickly lost in the ever-present crowds. It’s safe to say that they aren’t recommending it as a tourist destination.
Now some of those economic and class tensions have bubbled to the surface and are shaking Brazil’s political leadership to the core. Brazil has been rocked by huge demonstrations that show no signs of ending. They started as a protest about bus fare increases in Sao Paolo but quickly expanded to become a nationwide movement that is protesting political corruption, poor health care and education, and the money being poured into venues for soccer matches and the Olympics rather than being used to help the poor, among other topics of concern.
Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, has held emergency meetings with her Cabinet to address the issues raised by the protests. She promises to develop a new plan for public transportation, to earmark oil revenues for education, and to hire thousands of doctors from overseas to improve Brazil’s health system. The protesters no doubt are wondering why it took huge public protests to get the government to focus on these issues — and whether they can trust the government to follow through on its promises if the protests end.