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The giant has awoken

The demonstrations in Brazil increased almost overnight from a few thousand to over a million protestors. But it is the middle classes who are pouring out into the streets

The protest in Brazil seems drawn verbatim from a book: The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Well over a decade of rapid, broad-based progress has kept dammed up a landslide of unrealized expectations, which now emerge in an outburst of commotion that is more than indignation, but quite a bit less than revolution.

The key terms to associate with it are middle classes and Lula-dependence. Between 2002 and 2012, the Brazilian middle class has risen from 38 to 53 percent of the population, almost 20 million people having emerged from what the World Bank classifies as poverty, to form what it calls a still “vulnerable” social class; while 35 million now make enough — from $10 to $50 per family member per day — to qualify as “middle class.” The landslide, which has mushroomed almost overnight from a few thousand to over a million demonstrators throughout Brazil, is not, then, an insurrection of the shanty-towns. On the contrary, it is these middle classes who are pouring out into the streets, with university students abounding in a land where education spending has grown from an abysmal 3.7 percent of GDP in 1995 to a decent 5.5 in 2010 — not far from the OECD average of 6.2. Thousands of families now aspire to have a college graduate in the house. This protest, which can be put in much the same bag as those in Chile in 2010 and in Argentina since that time, is proof that economic progress does not necessarily produce social peace. It does produce middle classes — the most difficult social strata to keep happy, and the most feared by elected governments, being the one that most regularly comes out to vote.

Lula-dependence is probably an inevitable by-product of a period of success as bountiful as the two successive mandates of Lula da Silva, whose chief symptom is inebriation of the national ego. Brazil is the giant of Latin America; it has the biggest army and makes sophisticated armaments. Its diplomacy is nationalistic and competent; it has big reserves of undersea oil; and under Lula the elites saw the road open to the status of great power. Lula carefully picked the scenarios for his displays of power. Between 2003 and 2010 he visited 20 sub-Saharan countries and doubled to 37 the number of legations on that continent, with which the Brazil of color — half the population — feels cultural and ethnic affinity. His other preferred theater was, of course, Latin America. For its part, the West, which wants to keep the giant on the right track, celebrated Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 soccer World Cup, and of the 2016 Olympic Games, due to be held in Rio. Adding in the Confederations Cup now underway, sports expenditure adds up to 20 billion euros.

Brazil is the giant of Latin America; it has the biggest army and makes sophisticated armaments

Tocqueville would nod agreement with recent surveys to the effect that 59 percent rate the country’s economic situation as good, which does not prevent 55 from feeling unsatisfied. While 74 percent say their personal economic situation is good, 75 support the protests. The protests are aimed at: a) inflation, for the crisis is there too; b) corruption, shown up by the trials in 2012 in which 25 politicians, bankers and businessmen were convicted; c) the huge squandering on sports mega-events, with the concession of exorbitant privileges to Fifa; and d) the brutality of repression on the part of a police force that, perhaps, has not progressed as much as the rest of the country. The political establishment, anesthetized by the popularity of President Dilma Rousseff, was taken aback by the popular outburst, whose anonymous grassroots character is underlined by placards reading: “No party represents me,” or “The giant woke up” — with general elections 14 months away.

A shopworn cliché goes: “Brazil was the land of the future — but it will always be that.” Now the future is here, wearing the scowling face of an irate middle class.

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