What’s going on in Brazil?
June 21st, 2013
12:05 PM ET

What’s going on in Brazil?

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.

More from CNN: Broken promises fuel protests

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.

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Topics: Brazil

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. RLTJ's

    Pumping idealism into people has been partly responsible for success in some countries like Brazil and China. With spirits high, people can endure sacrifice for the good of the whole. But problem is when what is meant to be tactical has become a way of life. A way of life that has become permanent . The cracks will be notable after generations.

    A few cents added cost on public transportation is causing a problem, why? It's because Capitalism or Socialism, wages are suppressed for economic stability. But all else keep rising. And add in there questions regarding how government spend public money.

    To make the story short, why the heck should people sacrifice has come to play in people's minds.

    June 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  2. Ricardo Captzan

    It's almost there, but the news did not report a delicate issue, which is the exhaustion of today's political parties, mainly the coalition of PT (Workers Party) with the old and anachronic PMDB, full of vicious tics and the real power behind the power.
    PMDB is only a huge and powerful banner to place quite different political coloration deputies in the same sac, just to get regional power in each state. Very few integrants are truly from the old times.

    June 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  3. RLTJ's

    As worse as rebellion another bad thing to happen to a nation is social degeneration, or a social demoralization and public corruption.... People stopped believing in their leaders and they don't see any better.

    June 21, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  4. What's

    What's going on is that the Poor People are fed up with the Rich People feeding them scraps all the time. Coming to the USA in the near future.

    June 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      We have essentially the same problem here as they do in Brazil. Our tax revenue is being spent for the wrong purposes. There it is wasted on sporting events whereas here, we waste ours on the military and foreign aid. Who in their right mind says that we need military bases in Germany anf J apan? And who says that we need to keep paying off the Islam aristocrats who rule the Middle East? Hopefully you're right, What's.

      June 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    A whole generation of young people across the developed countries has to bear the brunt of failures, as their elected governments don't deliver what they had promised. So they take to the streets to express their discontent. The economic growth in Brazil led to rising expectations of its citizens. Yet people face the cruel reality that they don't benefit from the country's wealth and that their basic needs been neglected. The protesters are leaderless, but they share same grievances: the fear of a lost generation mired in social inequality and struggling to make ends meet.

    June 22, 2013 at 8:57 am | Reply
  6. RLTJ's

    Corruption is not genetic. It is something learned.

    Corruption at the top is nothing yet. Worse is when government corruption has developed top and bottom – has become a way of life of a people, a culture, a sort of a decadent ideology.

    June 22, 2013 at 9:56 am | Reply
    • Marcelo Pacheco

      True, but it's hard to combat corruption, when it's been like this for 500 years.
      We must adopt a zero tolerance towards any non ethical behavior.
      Change the law instead of skirting it, pressure others trying to skirt the law to respect it.
      There are only two differences from Brazil and Greece:
      – Brazil has lots of valuable export commodities
      – Brazil is a much larger country so we have a stronger internal economy
      If it wasn't for those two factors, Brazil would be bankrupt like Greece / Spain / Portugal a long time ago

      June 25, 2013 at 3:51 am | Reply
  7. lizs

    It is not that the poor people are angry with the rich. They are fed up because of the corrupt system.Politicians can still as much as they can without any punishment . It is unacceptable what they have been doing for quite sometimes

    June 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  8. vistar hornbill

    The biggest problem with many emerging countries is the youth, new graduates who cant get a job. We know youths under 35 are notorious for wanting to change Goverfnment withou any thought what would happen in the future. We see it in Arab Spring, the outcome was worse after those youths managed to kick out the olv Governments. I amnor condoning with these old dictators, but just saying things worked out wrongly as they never thought it would.

    Brazil needs time. To overcome corruption and other social improvements.

    Its like in China, when the once impoverished Chinese people first time seeing so much prosperity happening, there are large sums of money appearing from its economic improvement,. Its a phenomenon for these once very poor people. So, many of their managers and even politicians started plans to steal the money. Over 700,000 corrupt civil servants have been arrested since, and the arrests of corrupt officials will continue until they hope to eradicate corruption in China by 2020.

    So, Brazil might need more time to improve infrastructures while trying to contain corruption, like China is doing.

    June 22, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  9. rightospeak

    It is hard to understand what is going on because of the distorted reality media presents. Too much propaganda, too little truth makes the news unbelievable. The problem of Brazil, Greece ( remember Olympics ?) , the US and even recently of the EU are not much different . Governments spending big while millions are out of work, people facing austerity measures, facing raising food prices. No reporter will tell you that, because they have no clue that many people in post Communist Countries are beginning to say that it was better under the Comunists-everybody had a job, free education. Most feel that the governments do not represent them-sounds familiar Brazil ??? US?? EU ??

    June 23, 2013 at 8:23 am | Reply
  10. Brian

    The people of Brasil seem to have forgotten that the government just lowered electric rates substantially in early 2013.

    June 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Reply
    • Gustavo Nery

      Sorry Brian, but the problem is not about R$ 0,20 or just money spent in our bills. We are talking about people who do not have nothing to eat, while billions are spent with Fifa's World Cup, Olimpic Games, Corruption, etc. We have priorities as a 3rd world country. Priorities that can not be overcome by megalomaniac events. You really think is normal and right, Brazilian politicians raise his own salary? Unfortunately you live in another reality . . . .

      June 24, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
      • Marcelo Pacheco

        People with nothing to eat ? The problem is the total opposite. Bolsa familia fits perfectly to those that don't want to work. Two couples can share a house in the country side and live off 2 bolsas família, with just a little sloppy rice or bean crop.
        Bolsa familia is causing inflation, not because of the consumption it added to the economy, but because with a large percentage of people that don't want to work, the ones that are working can ask for raises that our economic productivity can't compensate.
        Unfortunately we have in power people that care only about being re-elected. That's the only thing PT and PMDB (and others) care about. They think it's ok to hire all their party friends into public service, with job stability and no return to society. They're bankrupting Petrobras and other govt companies.
        Those that eventually be forced to fix that will be in great trouble, since we don't study basic economics in high school, typical of the communist minds that created our school curriculum.

        June 25, 2013 at 4:20 am |
  11. Babs

    ... Leaders are simply what "their mothers made of them " – as much as Brazil is so opportune-ed in natural resources endowment, it's terrifying to see it's citizens living in squalor. The political class gets elected into various political office as much as he remains alive – most die in office.
    It's like ex- president Clinton or George W. Bush after their terms as presidents returning returning to via or contest for a Mayor-ship, or Senate or Deputy political post – this is what happens in Brazil – the same set of politicians with the same political ideas of over 40 years – without positive changes or impact on the citizenry.
    The way forward not only in Brazil, but in most third world countries is the citizenry going to the streets – by taking their political destiny right into their own hands – by electing directly people who they knew would be selfless in serving,administrating and managing their communities and providing them with the so much social facilities which is badly needed.

    June 24, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
  12. Babs

    Leaders are simply what "their mothers made of them " – as much as Brazil is so opportune-ed in natural resources endowment, it's terrifying to see it's citizens living in squalor. The political class gets elected into various political offices as much possible – most even die in office.
    It's like ex- president Clinton or George W. Bush returning to contest for mayor-ship, or Senate or Deputy political post – after serving their terms as presidents... this is what happens in Brazil – the same set of politicians with the same political ideas of over 40 years – without positive changes or impact on the citizenry.
    The way forward not only in Brazil, but in most third world countries is the citizenry going to the streets – taking their political destiny right into their own hands – by electing directly people who they knew would be selfless in serving,administrating and managing their communities and providing them with the so much social facilities which is badly needed.

    June 24, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  13. Renato

    Do not come to Brazil.
    The violence reached absurd levels.
    They do not care whether they are tourists. Protesters are destroying what is in front.
    The order is to destroy the World Cup. 72% of Brazilians do not want the World Cup in Brazil and will fight for it. Believe ... And stay away from Brazil!
    Next Wednesday will be a big confrontation between police and protesters, as there will be play Brazil and want to destroy the stadium and the fans who bought tickets.
    Outside FIFA. Outside the World Cup.
    The Brazilian people woke up late, but awoke.

    Greetings from São Paulo, Brazil

    June 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Fernando

      Renato is not telling the truth ..the violence is coming from the police ..and some minor groups inflitrated ..the people is willing for peacefull demonstrations ..

      June 24, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  14. Fernando

    Take a look iin this video , after minute 5 .. Police man triying to take a smartphone that was filming and a man being told by another policeman that they will find where he lives and will be visited in the midleof the night


    June 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  15. Marcelo Pacheco

    Until we face the fact that the root of our problems is our corrupt culture, this will continue.
    Policitians are corrupt, because we're corrupt too.
    Brazilians hoping for change should begin by adopting a zero tolerance posture towards any kind of wrong doing.
    And those saying not to come to Brazil are part of the few that demonstrated with violence.
    Yes, the police overreacted to the violent few in the protests, but it only happened AFTER the violence came from the rioters and criminals mixed with the peaceful crowd.

    June 25, 2013 at 3:47 am | Reply
  16. Marcelo Pacheco

    Here's the answer to your question:
    Brazil has this culture of tolerance above all.
    99% of the population don't like violence, not even violence in words.
    Love and Peace.
    Largest TV networks and some newspapers are always in bed with govt, they report issues, but always in a very careful way to avoid stirring dissent.
    Those that have more inflated feelings over issues mainly kept to themselves.
    Not anymore.
    We're in the Internet age, recently we achieved over 50% of our total population connected to the Internet.
    TV Globo's pact with the government no longer is enough to keep the people thinking there's nothing we can do.
    We can now freely discuss our ideas on the Internet, in a few days a great idea can reach 10% of the population over e-mail and social networks.
    We the people no longer fear, we the people no longer are afraid, we the people won't keep quiet, ever !
    There's your answer.

    June 25, 2013 at 4:01 am | Reply
  17. Ima Freeman

    Corruption. The people are fed up. It's a shame I had to hunt for this on CNN. I know why. Corporate controlled media. Soon enough America will awaken as well and when we do. I pray fro those who have attempted to keep us in the dark and asleep. I really do. See you soon.


    June 25, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Reply
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