RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — As the 2014 Brazilian World Cup approaches, Brazilians have yet again taken to protests to show their dissatisfaction with government policy. In Rio de Janeiro, protesters demanding lower transport fees clashed with riot police who used tear gas and force to disperse the civilian uprising at the city’s Central Station.
The demonstrations, opposing a 9 percent increase in transport fares declared by Rio De Janeiro’s Mayor, Eduardo Paes, follow a chain of Brazilian uprisings.
In light of the $13 billion Brazil has invested in the Olympic games, citizens have increasingly taken to the streets to focus government attention on the need for improved public services. The government has responded by forcefully repressing protests, some of which have turned violent and manage to continue despite government efforts.
The protests reflect Brazilian dissatisfaction with public resources and widespread poverty. According to the World Bank, economic growth between 2005 and 2009 helped reduce the percentage of the Brazilian population living in poverty from 30 percent to 21 percent. However, problems still remain.
As of 2009, Brazil had a Gini Coefficient of 54.7, showing a high level of income inequality.
16 million Brazilians are currently living in poverty, defined as having $30 or less per month to spend, while 124 of the richest Brazilians hold $238.6 billion in assets, 12 percent of the country’s GDP.
This growing income disparity has exacerbated social tensions and, through the protest, increased Brazilian demands for improvements across public services to address their needs.
Specifically, protests spanning from the summer of 2013 until as recently as this week’s uprising in Rio De Janeiro have called for an improved public healthcare system, higher teacher’s wages and more accessible public transportation.
Meanwhile, President Dilma Rouseff has focused public funds on the upcoming international tournament. The government has financed all but 15 percent of the Brazilian World Cup’s $13 billion cost and has spent $3.2 billion of that sum on constructing new stadiums. The Brazilian cities of Manaus, Nital, Cuiba and Brasilia all will build or rebuild state-of-the-art arenas by the start of the summer tournament.
However, none of these cities will have any significant use for the arenas after the games. None regularly host major sporting events and will get moderate traffic for other events, such as concerts. Lavish spending on the brand new stadiums for the Brazilian World Cup along with the growing needs of the populations has only magnified the despair of the urban poor and middle class in Brazil.
More and more they feel the government has ignored their pressing needs in order to host the high-profile soccer tournament this summer. While the tournament brings Brazil international prestige, the government must seriously evaluate whether its increased profile is worth risking the improved livelihood of millions of Brazilians.
Hostile attitudes towards lavish government investment in sports infrastructure seems likely to continue. Two years after this summer’s world cup, Brazil will host the 2016 Summer Olympics. This tournament will require an even larger investment of public finances for preparation, as demonstrated by the record $51 billion Russia has spent to host the Sochi Winter Olympic Games this year.
In order to temper the sentiments of her constituents, Rousseff will have to balance this large public investment with a greater concern for her people’s immediate demands. In June 2013, after the initial string of protests, Rousseff popularity plummeted both throughout the country and in her political base within the governing Workers Party.
This fall in popularity echoes the dissatisfaction of the Brazilian people and reaffirms the need to address the large-scale poverty in Brazil. A concerted effort to improve public services in healthcare, education, and public transportation will help calm the anxieties of Brazilians and stabilize domestic tensions.
– Martin Levy
Sources: BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, WorldBank, UPI, New York Times, Real Clear World, Business Week
Photo: Jurandir Lima