By Carl Meacham, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (@CSIS). The views expressed are his own.
When Americans think of Brazil, protests are the furthest thing from their minds. Rather, soccer and carnival – and more recently, the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics – have, for better or worse, been the images most closely associated with the South American giant.
Imagine, then, Americans’ surprise upon being presented with images of massive and sustained protests – some violent – all across Brazil.
Americans have heard of policemen throwing their weapons into protesters’ bonfires and joining the movement; of thousands of Brazilians turning their backs during the singing of the national anthem at the Confederations Cup on Wednesday; of a young Brazilian woman reaching out to Americans on YouTube, asking them to consider the protesters’ demands.
And as U.S. media has aired more and more footage of empowered Brazilians demanding substantive change, many Americans can’t help but wonder where this all is coming from. Answering that question, however, has not proved simple.
When U.S. media began covering events after Monday’s protests, reports focused on the bus fare hike as if it were the primary – if not the only – driver of popular dissent and demonstration. But as has become increasingly clear, the fare increase was just the tip of the iceberg.
With limited news media coverage of the story and still less detailed information about protesters’ demands, Americans quickly turned to social media, connecting with their friends and family abroad to learn more. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube unsurprisingly told a different story.
Through those sources, Americans gained access to the voices and perspectives of the protesters themselves.
Though the fare hike clearly most heavily impacted the poor, working population, it became clear that the country’s youth – its students – were among the most vocal protesters. And the widespread nature of the protests and demographic diversity of those participating in them turned Americans’ attention to Brazilians’ concerns, which proved far greater than the cost of public transportation.
Increasingly, media – both social and otherwise – have conveyed the protesters’ demands for improvements in health, education, and public transportation, as well as an end to the reckless government spending and corruption that have long plagued the system. And though the protests by and large have remained peaceful, Americans have been confronted with images of protesters running from police wielding water cannons and tear gas – and aiming both, at times, at journalists.
Avaaz.org, an online activist network, has even organized a petition demanding President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, a petition that has already garnered over 270,000 signatures. And again, the U.S. audience found itself surprised, having heard Brazil touted as the South American success story – a fast-growing economy and stable political system whose regional and global influence would only increase, and who would show that success to the world by hosting the upcoming Olympics and World Cup.
But now, Brazil is looking increasingly like Chile, whose fiscal and economic success over the past decade has been largely overshadowed by the country’s own protest movement – one that has been ongoing, despite periods of lull and resurgence, since 2011.
If anything, what Chile’s protest movement has taught us is that growth is not a panacea for a country’s problems – far from it. While a state’s economic success certainly enables its government to address domestic issues, that same success increases the pressure leaders face to do just that.
In Brazil, as in Chile, that pressure has translated into a demand for services: infrastructure, healthcare, education, and social programs.
A YouTube video of a young Brazilian woman demonstrates the extent of those demands. The woman explains that Brazil’s economic success brought with it heightened expectations for the government’s capacity to provide for its citizens.
And, as the government has funneled $14 billion into the facilities for the World Cup and the Olympics, popular impatience with the government’s hesitation to use that money instead for a population desperately in need of better schools and expanded social welfare programs has skyrocketed.
In a sense, then, perhaps Brazil is a victim of its own economic success. It seems that the Brazilians who are filling the streets and pushing for change are asking no more than that their government use its resources to provide its people with the services they sorely lack. For all that Americans have reacted with surprise at the eruption of protests, perhaps, then, that surprise is unwarranted.
The protesters have made their concerns clear – and their presence on the international stage grows each day. Rousseff has for her part called for an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the demonstrations. So now, the United States is waiting and watching, curious to see how Brazil’s government will respond. Hopefully, the president will be able to mobilize her government and its considerable resources to both meet and manage the expectations of the Brazilian population.
But what Rousseff undoubtedly knows – and what protesters often forget – is that political and social change is inevitably an incremental process. We hope she can bring the protesters on board.