Brazil protests, finally

Here in Brazil, I am a gringa. What’s more, I’m also relatively new, after moving to Rio de Janeiro eight months ago. The beaches still have a wonderful novelty for me, having grown up in landlocked Northamptonshire, my Portuguese sometimes lets me down (why must avocado and pineapple sound almost the same?) and I’m not yet bored of drinking Guarana.


What did I know about Brazil before I arrived? Beyond the country’s reputation for football, music, Carnival and plastic surgery, I knew the last government had been disgraced by a vote-buying scandal called mensalão. I knew there was gaping social inequality in which those living in favela communities were seen as a problem to hide not an opportunity for improvement.

I also knew that life was in the hands of bureaucrats. Simple, everyday civil functions and processes were protracted because of swamps of paperwork and taxes. It’s a favourite past time of expats to compare how long it took to receive their foreigners’ identity card, a process that involves paying at least four taxes and charges, and multiple trips to the international airport.

But it isn’t just foreigners who complain about this. Brazilian friends also complain about monthly bank charges for a current account and four “free” ATM withdrawals a month.

They give advice over which hospital to use in an emergency because the standard varies so much, even in the wealthy parts of Rio de Janeiro, and the first question doctors will ask is: “have you got insurance?”

Queues at public notaries stretch the length of the office because official documents need to be “notarizada” by a man you’ve never met before. A friend tells of two people left in tears because they could not afford the R$116 (£33) cost of a duplicate birth certificate.

Cartorios in Brazil: the new mafia?
Cartorios in Brazil: the new mafia?

I can’t imagine what it is like for the mother of a child needing ongoing medical treatment in a country like Brazil; I have the luxury of private medical insurance. And after benefitting from the UK’s education system, I can’t know what it is like for a young and curious mind to be left to the mercy of Brazil’s state schools.

But the question left on my mind was: why doesn’t anyone do something? If everyone is aware of the problems – the crazy, slow wheels of public bureaucracy, the exorbitant taxes on almost everything and the poor public services – why can’t Brazil change?

In my first months in Brazil, it appeared tolerance of political incompetence and corruption was much higher than in other countries. It is what it is, was the general feeling.

Collingtree church: more interesting that press reports of Lula's fishing habit
Collingtree church: more interesting than press reports of Lula’s fishing habit (BBC)

There were clues in the media. Reports of MPs renovating their grace and favour flats to the tune of millions of reais were reported with as much scrutiny and enthusiasm as I would have reported a news in brief on Collingtree’s church fayre.

Even when Estadão de Sao Paulo reported the last president’s expenses, including more than £15,000 on pet food, £110,000 on cleaning products and £13,000 on seeds and plants, there were no critical voices.

So when the status quo of ordinary Brazilians tolerating the contemptible deal they received from the government was shaken, it was inspiring.

And it wasn’t just an historic rejection of conditions in Brazil, it was perfectly timed and carefully executed. With the international press keeping just one lazy eye on the Confederations Cup, the Brazilian public shook the world by its shoulders. Suddenly, a tournament that has previously had little significance was the backdrop to a public revolt. And it was all achieved without a shred of patriotism being lost.

Though crowds marched on stadiums and filled streets, as is typical when the seleção is playing, workers left early and everything stopped. There were displays of support from the players themselves and the minor chords of the national anthem took on a new significance ahead of Brazil versus Mexico.

Some 300,000 took to the streets in downtown Rio (G1)
Some 300,000 took to the streets in downtown Rio (G1)

In Avenida Presidente Vargas, normally an ugly road leading to Candelaria church in Rio’s business district, the protests looked more like a jubilant football crowd. Almost everyone was draped in the Brazilian flag, wearing face paints and masks and singing songs.

Those who turned to vandalism compromised what was the first demonstration of the public’s real political power.

So 2014 is a huge year for Brazil. As well as the World Cup, the country goes to the polls. Voting may already be compulsory in Brazil but next year, it is likely to be historic.


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