‘The Giant Has Awoken’ -- Brazilian Americans Reflect on Protests

‘The Giant Has Awoken’ -- Brazilian Americans Reflect on Protests

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SAN FRANCISCO -- As protests continue to rock major cities across Brazil, here in the United States Brazilian Americans are expressing support for their fellow compatriots. Many take pride in the ongoing demonstrations, but also fear that plans to host two major international sporting events could spell disaster.

“Everyone is very excited,” said Sao Paulo native Natalia Paiva, a recent University of Miami graduate who participated in a June 18 rally at Miami’s Bayside Marketplace. The rally drew some 200 from the city’s sizable Brazilian community.

There are about 300,000 Brazilians living in Florida. Nationwide they number just over one million.

“The giant has awoken,” Paiva added, citing the continued unrest in her home country.

That giant represents the millions of Brazilians who feel increasingly left behind by the country’s recent economic success. The protests that began June 17 have since swept across the country, with crowds of up to one million swarming streets in Sao Paulo, Rio and other cities. The latest involved a crowd of some 5,000 in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, where protestors clashed with police during a Confederations Cup soccer match.

Bruno Tambasco is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is currently interning in Rio. A Brazilian American, he says anger at the government over rising inequality and corruption has long simmered beneath the surface, and that preparations for the World Cup and Olympics, far from rallying the populace, have helped bring those frustrations to the fore.

“Brazilians are not pleased with their government,” he said, “and if [the government] continues to worry more about the World Cup and the Olympics rather than the people’s needs, then the outcome could be terrible.”

In the past decade Brazil has climbed from a developing country to one of the world’s leading economies. In 2011 it was listed as the sixth largest, behind France and ahead of the United Kingdom. Still, in recent months signs of slowing have emerged.

A piece in The Economist that appeared just a week before the protests erupted hinted at the coming unrest. Titled “Stuck in the Mud,” the piece noted, “Stagnant growth is now hitting Brazilians in their pockets … Consumer confidence is falling and more people say rising prices are their biggest economic worry.”

Indeed, what began as a movement against a proposed bus fare hike has now morphed into a wider backlash against the government of President Dilma Rouseff, a left-leaning pragmatist who in May enjoyed a 79 percent approval rating for steps that included increasing public spending and hiking the minimum wage. But, as The Economist points out, her efforts also fueled rising inflation that has hit the nation’s poor and middle class.

Rouseff is up for re-election next year.

William Smith teaches international relations at the University of Miami. A veteran Brazil watcher, he says the government’s failure to address the rampant poverty and social inequality contrasts with the eagerness with which it has thrown itself into planning for the sporting events.

“The World Cup and Olympics reinforce the perception that elites have their priorities all wrong,” said Smith. “Billions [have been spent] for stadiums and mega-events versus little public investment in the human capital, schools, healthcare, and public services that benefit the poor and the middle class.”

Smith notes that some 26 percent of Brazil’s population of 196 million lives below the poverty line, many of them in slums that stand cheek by jowl to wealthier enclaves.

“In Brazil, there are homeless everywhere including in rich neighborhoods,” said Gabrielle Pin, a Brazilian-born college student living in South Florida. “You can have a beautiful house with all the electronics you can imagine and go down the street and have the entrance of a favela [or slum], where you don’t even have sewage.”

Like others in the community she says she’s been inspired by the protests, and troubled by the increasingly harsh government response, which she describes as “hypocritical.”

Rouseff’s administration waited five days before responding to the growing protests, as police attempted to disperse crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. Last week she met with the leaders of the Free Fare Movement, one of the lead organizers of the movement that for years has been pushing to eliminate bus and train fares.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s lower house of congress voted 403-9 to drop a measure that would have limited the investigative powers of federal prosecutors, reports the Associated Press. Many feared the bill would make it harder to prosecute official corruption.

“Maybe things are headed in a new direction,” said Mauricio Melchor, an architect originally from Sao Paolo but now living in Oakland, California. “The federal government has been making a lot of promises, and while it’s easy to make empty promises for the first time we are seeing more democracy.”

As for the upcoming sporting events, he is less optimistic.

Pointing to the rampant corruption plaguing infrastructure projects like hotel construction to beefing up transportation and security for the thousands of visitors expected to flock to the country, Melchor worries the recent demonstrations may be “too little too late.”


 

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