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Brazil’s New Middle Class: We Want More Than Circuses

Civilian police officers take part in a demonstration over salaries and working conditions in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images.

For nearly two weeks, South America’s largest country — Brazil — shared headlines with Turkey and Egypt in what looked like a global revolt of the middle class. And while tensions are still bubbling around the Mediterranean, Brazil is settling down to the hard part of how to deal with the fruits of success — government policies that for several decades were instrumental in creating a massive new middle class that now demands decent public services.

Sometimes the import of events from Latin America travels slowly to the conference rooms of Washington think tanks, more slowly than the upheavals in the Middle East which are constant think tank fodder. But a pre-July 4 session sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute drew an overflow crowd to hear analyses around the theme of what one speaker called “a crisis of normal.” In Brazil, a country of more than 200 million with a landmass slightly larger than the continental United States, democracy is not under threat, even if that country’s often corrupt political class is now under siege.

And if the United States and the Obama administration are a focus of protesters, conspiracy theorists and some officials in the Middle East, the Brazil consensus is that America’s role is near zero as their country sorts out its economic and social priorities.

Two of the panelists, both just back from Brazil, are familiar to NewsHour viewers — Joao Augusto de Castro Neves of the Eurasia Group and Paulo Sotero, a veteran journalist now running the Brazil Institute. They were joined by Raul Juste Lores, Washington bureau chief of the A Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

The economic issue now, said Castro Neves, is finding the money to finance public service investments demanded by a million demonstrators in 110 cities from Porto Alegre in the south through the Amazon — better hospitals, schools and transport — as the economy begins to slow down from a boom fed by consumer spending.

Lores pointed out some basic contradictions that have led to the current cul-de-sac. Government policies have encouraged auto production and ownership and created suburban housing projects to replace inner-city favelas, all the while starving investment in roads and public transportation. As he noted, 85 percent of Brazilians live in urban centers, far higher than the United States, most of Europe and the other nations that comprise the BRICS group (Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa).

Commenting on the national mood of celebration when Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Lores said, “our moment of confidence has passed, our condescending moment, our time on fantasy island.”

In contrast to predictions then that Brazil would surpass Great Britain as a world economic power, Lores added, “we are not surpassing the United Kingdom in public transportation or hospitals.”

Indeed, even in soccer-crazy Brazil, the multi-billion dollar construction of new stadiums for the World Cup and last week’s international games became a focal point for demonstrators. As Sotero noted, non-ticket holders were kept three miles from the stadiums. And roads and airports and other infrastructure projects that were supposed to accompany them remain unbuilt.

Indeed, the preparations for the World Cup provided some of the visual theater that accompanied the demonstrations. FIFA, the international soccer federation, has been trying to impose rules and standards, which have been irritating Brazilians, even suggesting they shorten the rendition of their long national anthem before the matches.

According to Sotero, signs and videos are demanding FIFA standards for the country’s schools and hospitals.

A recent one, Sotero said, aimed at FIFA and prospective World Cup fans journeying to Brazil, includes this message:

“We apologize for the inconvenience while we improve the country.”

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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