This week’s visit by Pope Francis to Brazil to address a million-strong gathering of Catholic youth should keep the country in the headlines. With some 200 million people, Brazil has the largest number of Catholics of any nation. Amazingly, both the hip new Pope and a number of Brazilian cardinals have expressed support for the mass demonstrations in June that brought more than a million people into the streets in cities across the country. Triggered by a 10-cent increase in the Sao Paulo public transport system (now revoked), the protests quickly spread to other issues, like better health and education, and against excessive spending for the soccer World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2016 — at $16 billion (U.S.) and counting.
Has the country that seemingly could do no wrong lost its way?
Support for President Dilma Rousseff dropped 30 points in three weeks, from 57 to 27 per cent. A number of her proposals, like calling for a constitutional assembly to reform the country’s problematic political system, did not fly. The medical association opposed a plan to bring in foreign doctors to serve Brazil’s rural population. Leading the demonstrations has been the Free Pass Movement, which argues that public transport should be free and paid for from general revenues. Others complain that Brazilian taxes (at 35 per cent of GDP, roughly twice the Latin American average) are too high.
As can be seen from these inchoate, contradictory demands, it is unclear what the demonstrators want, apart from better public services — a reasonable demand that is being met. The government has allocated $23 billion (U.S.) for improved public transport around the country. Measures to fight corruption, another pet peeve of the demonstrators and a real problem in Brazil, are also being taken.
Yet at a time when Canada is finally putting relations with Brazil — for a long time on the skids — on a better and sounder footing, the big question is whether Brazil going off the rails. Are creeping inflation, slower economic growth (from 7.5 per cent in 2010 to a projected 2 per cent in 2013) and inefficient public services indicative of a deeper malaise? In other words, has the so-called “Brazilian miracle,” nurtured under the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), come to an end?
The argument has been made that Mexico is displacing Brazil as the next big thing in Latin America. A variant of this viewpoint has been that the newly formed Pacific Alliance (a group of countries that includes Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Peru) is leaving behind good, old Mercosur (a group led by Brazil) and showing the way forward in the Americas.
This is wishful thinking. As Francis Fukuyama and others have pointed out, Brazil’s, like Turkey’s, is a middle-class revolt, in a country that a decade ago had a very small middle class. Forty million Brazilians joined the middle class from 2004 to 2010, which now makes up half the population. Almost 80 per cent of the demonstrators make twice the minimum wage, and 76 per cent are employed.
Quite literally, Brazil is the victim of its own success. Newly empowered Brazilians, in a country with one of the world’s highest social media penetrations, are coming out and saying what they want.
They deserve a response. But the notion that Brazil should put down the very tools that have brought about this progress (like BNDES, the national development bank, or the high tax intake, or its effective industrial policies), as some foreign critics are arguing, is a non sequitur. Brazil’s progress over two decades has been impressive. As with any such process, there are ups and downs. It has now had a couple of off-years, but its fundamentals are sound. There is no reason to panic.
“Off Its Game: Why Brazil isn’t playing to win at home or abroad” was the title of a column penned by a prominent critic in late May. A month later, the Brazilian soccer team beat world champion Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final in Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. There is a lesson there for all those who care to see it.