The following guest post is from University of Minnesota political scientist David Samuels, the author of Ambition, Federalism, and Legislative Politics in Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
In recent weeks millions of Brazilians – urban youth, mainly – have taken to the streets across the country in protest. Why? Politicians, pundits and academics – this one included – continue to scratch their heads.
The protests began as an effort to stop a bus fare increase of US$0.10. A bus ride in São Paulo costs about US$1.50 – high, given per capita income, but an increase of a dime provides a puzzling spark for sustained nationwide street protests. Moreover, once the mayors of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other cities had rescinded the bus rate increases, the “Free Bus Fare” group claimed victory and announced that it would call no more protests. And yet the protests continued to grow and gain adherents.
Brazil’s protests echo those that have erupted in Cairo and Istanbul for example, where angry youth use social media to air grievances and coordinate broader protests. Still, disaffected youth glued to Facebook 24-7 are common to every country, while massive ongoing protests are not. And Brazil is different from Egypt, Turkey, and many other countries, richer or poorer – in that unemployment is low, the economy is (slowly) growing, and it is a stable democracy. The protests are not directed at incumbent president Dilma, who enjoys an approval rating over 50%, or her government.
If the movement is not merely about bus fares or the economy per se, it did gain momentum after police used excessive force to intimidate protesters. Brazil’s police are notorious for using such tactics against poorer and often darker-skinned favela-dwellers. Yet a survey firm discovered that São Paulo protesters are far more likely than average to have a college degree – which means they are also wealthier and lighter-skinned than average. Brazil’s wealthy and upper-middle classes have tacitly sanctioned repressive policing for decades, but witnessing or experiencing firsthand that the police do not care about protesters’ social class or race may have galvanized many, and brought the issue of poor police training and police response to expressions of free speech to the fore.
Still, episodes of police violence also cannot explain the protests’ spread, size and duration. Some suggest that the protests reflect generalized indignation with the country’s political class, but we can be a bit more specific. The protests may not be about economic performance per se, and may be surprising in their breadth and timing, but in my view they can be characterized as reflecting a growing disconnect between taxation and representation.
Brazil’s middle class has gained in terms of living standards over the past 20 years, but the poor and wealthy have gained more, in relative terms. The bus fare protest was just a symbol of broader complaints – as was the reaction to police brutality. As Brazilians move into or climb up the middle class, they inevitably pay more in taxes – yet they also inevitably grow increasingly aware that they do not get their money’s worth. One commonly hears Brazilians complain that they pay “1st world taxes” – about 36% of GDP – but receive “3rd world services” in return. The protests thus represent growing frustration that established political parties are unwilling to implement reforms on both sides of the fiscal coin – to improve public services (particularly healthcare, education, and public safety) and reduce corruption.