By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – It was an apparently innocuous R$0.20 rise in the cost of a bus ticket in São Paulo that sparked mass protests that have since swept through at least twelve Brazilian states. On Monday, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets in São Paulo and Rio alone, in protests larger than any witnessed in Brazil since those against President Fernando Collor in 1992.
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) and its sympathizers continue to call for the increase to be reversed and for free public transport to be implemented, which has been achieved in some cities and discussions have progressed in others.
Now however, the protests have taken a much wider form, allowing Brazilians to vent their anger and frustration at the state of the country, from the country’s multi-billion-dollar hosting of the World Cup and poor public services, particularly health and education, to rampant political corruption and police brutality.
Yet despite the disparity in slogans, many have been united by a common concern for Brazil’s economy: even though incomes have gone up, Brazil’s new middle class has been demanding more from public services, and the rising cost of living, particularly food and services, has hit Brazilians hard.
American expatriate and Rio’s Gringo Café owner Sam Flowers says that food and labor costs have skyrocketed in just the last six months: “One product jumped forty percent in a week, many others are up 12 to 20 percent. Rent, food, transportation are all rising. Everyone is changing their spending habits and using credit cards more, some are even moving,” he tells The Rio Times.
A survey of families by O Globo newspaper also reported many seeing expenses go up forty percent in the last year, despite the government’s official annual inflation figure of 6.5 percent. Given Brazil’s economic track record in the 1980s and early 1990s, some have pointed to concerns over inflation as the main problem to be debated.
Yet Alexandre Macchione Saes, Professor of Economics at USP, says that those using the inflation argument are generally politicians, “Yes, the economy in general has not grown much lately, but unemployment is low and people’s spending capabilities have generally increased – people can now buy things they couldn’t buy before.”
“The only truly objective argument that can be carried at these protests is about the poor quality of public services – education, health, public transport,” he explains in an interview with The Rio Times.
Indeed most of those protesting, such as 25-year-old Tabiner Domingues Marques, an economics student at the University of São Paulo (USP), who has protested at each of the six São Paulo events to date, have not experienced hyperinflation in their adult lifetime.
For Tabiner, the protests represent an opportunity to galvanize a new generation to become politically active to change the face of Brazilian politics, as well as showing their concerns about the state of the economy today. “People are coming to the streets because victories won over the last decade in terms of income growth and distribution have not been accompanied by an increase in quality in public services.”
American journalist Steve Yolen, resident in Brazil since the 1970s, also warns that while ordinary Brazilians are protesting over the rising costs of living and venting “generalized frustration”, the business community in general is also increasingly unhappy, with two poor years now while government spending on the World Cup and Olympics has only benefited a few companies.
The government has certainly been caught out by the protests and while President Rousseff has tried to get protesters back on side by praising the protest spirit, Mr. Yolen warns that other politicians are likely to try to score personal goals from the protests.
The big question now for the protesters is, with almost daily protests planned and no central leader yet assuming control, “what next?”