The surprising protests in Brazil, which have attracted huge crowds in the country’s biggest cities, have succeeded in organizing the discontent of the middle class. The unrest started with a specific complaint—a 20-centavos (9¢) rise in bus fares—and has grown to include a long list of amorphous and unrelated grievances. These include health care as well as schools, crime, official corruption, and public spending on the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Inflation has been picking up, particularly for food and fuel, and was 6.5 percent at the end of last month. Meanwhile, wage increases have barely kept pace with rising prices.
It all comes after a decade of strong growth. The Brazilian economy expanded at an average of more than 3 percent a year between 2000 and 2010, almost double the rate of the U.S. The expansion gave millions of poor Brazilians purchase on a middle-class lifestyle. Never mind that Brazil by many measures remained a country riven by one of the most unequal distributions of wealth and income in the world. The ascent of the middle class, combined with social programs promoted by President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, seemed secure.
Not so much anymore. Annual growth since Rousseff took office in January 2011 has averaged 2.2 percent and was less than 1 percent for three quarters last year. It’s the fragility of the Brazilian economy’s gains, so recently won, that undoubtedly fuels the unrest in Brazil. Rousseff doesn’t lack for reform plans—to Brazil’s tax code, its pension system, its labor laws, to name a few—and they are worth pursuing. It’s unlikely, however, that a dry recital of the necessity of economic reform will mean much to the hundreds of thousands of poor and middle-class Brazilians on the streets this week.
The rallying cry at many of the protests is “O gigante acordou,” which translates as “The giant has awakened” (a reference to a line from Brazil’s national anthem). Unless Rousseff can restore the growth that salves middle-class anxieties, those words will sound more like a threat than a promise.