Friday, June 21, 2013

A Brazilian Awakening

If you read my last post, you likely became a little more intrigued about the current situation here in Brazil from my last point made about the protests.

I wanted to wait a few days since the first protest to let some news accumulate before writing this post because I wanted some great content to link to this page but also because I wanted to become educated myself about what's happening so that I'm giving an accurate account.

Two weeks ago, this country was business as usual.  Shortly thereafter, news broke that there would be a slight increase in public transportation fares that spread nationwide due to "rising costs".  A concentrated group of protesters began to speak out against the raised fares.  To no surprise though, the group's longstanding purpose has been to lobby for free transportation throughout the city and country, thus such protests made sense.

However, there seemed to be a little more steam behind such manifestations and I understood why.  Brazil, a country plentiful in beauty and natural resources, carnival and soccer, beautiful beaches and energetic people is also plagued with some of the most deficient public services in the world, frightening levels of poverty, horrendous health and education systems, and a tax burden that is one of the worst in the world.  Effective transportation, regardless of which societal class you are in, is fundamental to every citizen's life.  So while wages haven't been increasing and scares of high levels of inflation simmer, the concept of raising transportation fees is generally viewed as regressive in nature as these fees are unavoidable as people need to get around the city to work and live, but also as unfair because they simply take more money out of the pockets who have less to give.

Now as you can imagine, that previous paragraph makes a lot of sense and for most places around the world, would tick a few people off.  But for the grand total of 20 centavos (about 9 cents USD), I doubt there would be as much of an uprising as there has been here.  However, this uprising is more than justified, as we must gain a better understanding of the macroeconomics to paint the larger picture.

Soccer and Brazil are synonymous.  The soccer gods of Pele, Ronaldo, Neymar around the world are household names.  Soccer is a cultural identity here, glorified in a way that is cult-like and vicious.  And there's simply no doubt that Brazil will long reign king in this sport, so it only makes sense that the World Cup finals would be played at an awe-inspiring place such as Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.  Brazil has welcomed the glamour of being put in the global spotlight, securing successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.  And however "cool" this may seem, the economics behind it just don't seem justified.  Allow this video to help paint the picture why.

Ahhh, yes.  Now, we are starting to get a better idea about why tensions are getting so high.  Even worse is the basic math equation that Brazilian citizens are doing.  Government says no public funds would be used for World Cup/Olympic preparation.  That lasted about a whole minute.  Line item budgets from both health and education have been used to build stadiums, plow down neighborhoods, pacify favelas (slums), etc.  The slum pacification project deserves a post on its most believe this is a simple band-aid for a much bigger problem and that post-games, the slums will go back just to the way they were beforehand.  Even worse, they're building stadiums in places that will never be used again.  Most stadiums built in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, etc at least will be used again in the future.  But they're building a stadium in the Amazon Jungle, for millions of dollars, that will literally be used for a few games for the simple fact that it sounds cool to have a World Cup game in the Amazon.  After the game, it will likely be abandoned forever.  There goes millions of dollars, not to mention destruction of the world's most robust landmass of biodiversity.

So, Brazilians are connecting the dots...and starting to question this corrupt activity.  How can it be that Brazil is so rich and wealthy, abundant with natural resources, with such a high tax can it be that we're spending billions and billions on stadiums when there's a parallel decrease in the amount of investment being made in public health, transportation, education, pension support, infrastructure, etc?!  This is what has set the scene for these protests.

Corruption runs rampant, taxes are astronomical, and quality of life is appalling.  Only 17% of Brazilians have a degree of higher education.  Some twenty years ago that number sat at just 5%.  And that's a pure nominal number...we haven't even begun to discuss the qualitative aspects of that education.  With a tax burden that's some 36% of GDP, it is estimated that nearly 70% of your income goes to the government here in Brazil.  Brazil's tax system is so regressive that it is ranked one of the worst in the world.  It's the only system in the world that has a consumption tax with collection based at origin, which de-incentivizes economic growth outside major metropolitan areas, drives population congestion, and makes the cost of living for the impoverished unbearable.  The poorer you are, the more of the burden you pay relative to your income.  And corruption underscores it all.  Many economists agree that Brazil generates enough wealth to solve its issues surrounding health, education, transportation, etc.  But until a shift in principle and practice occur, the gap continues to widen.

Brazil is a constitutional and representative democracy.  It's President, Dilma Rouseff, was a rebel during Brazil's dictatorship in the 80's, tortured by the military in a fight for human rights.  Most question why things are the way they are under her leadership.  National slogans proclaim: Brazil - Um pais rico e sem pobreza (A rich country without poverty).

And as these protests continue...most are simply saying the following: What kind of democracy is this?!

These protests started small, and against a raise in bus fares.  Now, they're becoming a social movement...the largest since the dictatorship.  Brazilians are fed-up with corruption, high taxes, poor education, insufficient health care.  They want change and they're going to the streets to demand it.  Efforts to disperse these large crowds have only amplified tensions as non-violent protests have been met with violent police forces, impeding the democratic right to peacefully protest, with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets.  Innocent people, like this reporter who was shot in the eye, are convincing other citizens that if they don't speak out, they're passively allowing this country to regress to an unprecedented stage of crime, poverty, and pain.  You need not speak Portuguese to understand this video and only need to watch the first 2 minutes to get the idea.

These actions have called the attention of millions.  Just how much?  1 million took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro yesterday.  Some 100 protests around the country lasted through the night, including one in the capital (Brasilia) where protesters rushed the National Congress building successfully making their way to its roof (shown below).  And this all happened after most city governments revoked the increase in transportation fares, Sao Paulo included.  The images are impressive.  The people are impressive.  It's an awakening of a country like I've never seen.  A demand for change...and nearly all agree that it needs to happen.

I have never been involved in a protest personally.  I've never marched in the streets against a policy shift made by a government.  I've never seen the anger and passion by a people so inspired to change the status-quo, that millions take to the streets to make their plea, exhibit their pride, and reaffirm their commitment to their country, brothers, and communities.

It, indeed, is impressive and despite the fact that it makes going out and enjoying this country a little more difficult during my last week here...I couldn't think of a better way to be leaving it.  To all my Brazilian friends who read this post...sou orgulho ser o seu amigo.  O mundo está torcendo pelas mudanças que todos vocês estejam demandando.  Espero que vocês vençam e estejam certos que, não obstante qualquer demora entre as demandas e os resultados, que a civilidade, o respeito mutual, e a luta pelos direitos humanos sempre valerão a pena.

If you're interested in reading more about these protests, I've copied a few more article and video links below.

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