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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Brazilian protests

Brazilian protests, The protests were heating up on the streets of Brazil’s largest city last week, but the mayor was not in his office. He was not even in the city. He had left for Paris to try to land the 2020 World’s Fair — exactly the kind of expensive, international mega-event that demonstrators nationwide have scorned.

A week later, the mayor, Fernando Haddad, 50, was holed up in his apartment as scores of protesters rallied outside and others smashed the windows of his office building, furious that he had refused to meet with them, much less yield to their demand to revoke a contentious bus fare increase.

How such a rising star in the leftist governing party, someone whose name is often mentioned as a future presidential contender, so badly misread the national mood reflects the disconnect between a growing segment of the population and a government that prides itself on popular policies aimed at lifting millions out of poverty.

After rising to prominence on the backs of huge protests to usher in democratic leadership, the governing Workers Party now finds itself perplexed by the revolt in its midst, watching with dismay as political corruption, bad public services and the government’s focus on lifting Brazil’s international stature through events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics inspire outrage.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands protested outside the newly built stadium where Brazil faced off against Mexico in the Confederations Cup, as the police tried to disperse them with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. In what would normally be a moment of unbridled national pride, demonstrators held up placards demanding schools and hospitals at the “FIFA standard,” challenging the money Brazil is spending on the World Cup instead of on health care or the poorly financed public schools.

With support for the protests escalating — a new poll by Datafolha found that 77 percent of São Paulo residents approved of them this week, compared with 55 percent the week before — Mayor Haddad and Geraldo Alckmin, the governor from an opposition party, bowed on Wednesday night, announcing that they would cancel the bus and subway fare increases after all. Other cities, including Rio de Janeiro, pledged to do the same.

But while the fare increases might have been the spark that incited the protests, they unleashed a much broader wave of frustration against politicians from an array of parties that the government has openly acknowledged it did not see coming.

“It would be a presumption to think that we understand what is happening,” Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to President Dilma Rousseff, told senators on Tuesday. “We need to be aware of the complexity of what is occurring.”

The swell of anger is a stunning change from the giddy celebrations that occurred in 2007, when Brazil was chosen by soccer’s governing body to host the World Cup. At the time, dozens of climbers scaled Rio de Janeiro’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, from which they hung an enormous jersey with the words “The 2014 World Cup is Ours.”

“We are a civilized nation, a nation that is going through an excellent phase, and we have got everything prepared to receive adequately the honor to organize an excellent World Cup,” Ricardo Teixeira, then the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, said at the time.

Since then, the sentiment surrounding Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup, and much else overseen by the government, has shifted. Mr. Teixeira himself resigned last year, under a cloud of corruption allegations, and while the Brazilian government says it is spending about $12 billion on preparing for the World Cup, most of the stadiums are over budget, according to the government’s own audits court.

The sheen that once clung to the Workers Party has also been tarnished by a vast vote-buying scheme called the mensalão, or big monthly allowance, in a nod to the regular payments some lawmakers received. The scandal resulted in the recent conviction of several of high-ranking officials, including a party president and a chief of staff for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was a popular Brazilian president.

“There’s been a democratic explosion on the streets,” said Marcos Nobre, a professor at the University of Campinas. “The Workers Party thinks it represents all of the progressive elements in the country, but they’ve been power now for a decade. They’ve done a lot, but they’re now the establishment.”

The economic growth that once propelled Brazil’s global ambitions has slowed considerably, and inflation, a scourge for decades until the mid-1990s, has re-emerged as a worry for many Brazilians.

But expectations among Brazilians remain high, thanks in large part to the government’s own success at diminishing inequality and raising living standards for millions over the last decade. The number of university students doubled from 2000 to 2011, according to Marcelo Ridenti, a prominent sociologist.

“This generates huge changes in society, including changes in expectations among young people,” he said. “They expect to get not only jobs, but good jobs.”

Unemployment is still at historical lows — partly because of the very stadiums and other construction projects that have become the source of such ire among some protesters. But well-paying jobs remain out of reach for many college graduates, who see a sharp difference between their prospects and those of political leaders.

“I think our politicians get too much money,” said Amanda Marques, 23, a student, referring not to graft but to their salaries.

Earlier this year, Mr. Alckmin, the governor, announced that he was giving himself and thousands of other public employees a raise of more than 10 percent; his own salary should climb to about $10,000 a month as a result. High salaries for certain public employees have long been a festering source of resentment in Brazil, with some officials earning well more than counterparts in rich industrialized nations.

Both Mr. Alckmin and Mr. Haddad followed the protests together in Paris last week on their smartphones. But at the time, Mr. Alckmin dismissed the protests as the equivalent to a routine strike by air traffic controllers in Paris, something “that happens.”

“What has to be done is be strong and stand firm to avoid excesses,” he told reporters then, before the protests had spread on the streets of São Paulo and dozens of other cities across Brazil.

By this week, it was clear how thoroughly officials had miscalculated. At one point on Tuesday night, protesters tried to break into the Municipal Theater, where operagoers were watching Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress.” The doors to the elegant theater remained shut and as the show went on, they spray-painted the outside of the recently renovated structure with the words “Set Fire to the Bourgeoisie.”

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