Preocupado, sim. Surpreendido, não.
Worried, yes. Surprised, no.
That’s how most Brazilians in South Florida are reacting to the sudden and sometimes violent outburst of protests sweeping their home country this week. While they’re obviously concerned to see hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in Brazil’s major cities, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, they’ve long seen the frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the nation’s waning economic boom.
And they’re expressing that disquiet here themselves: On June 18, more than 200 Brazilian-Americans gathered at Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami to echo calls for government and business reform that are emanating so loudly right now from Latin America’s largest country.
“Brazilians pay extremely high taxes,” says Carlos Mariaca, president of Miami’s Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, who attended the Bayside event. “But they’re not seeing a return for it -- schools, security, hospitals, transit infrastructure, many Brazilians feel those issues have gotten worse over the past 10 years despite the economic boom.”
Mariaca, who was born in São Paulo and is a managing partner at the Center Group consulting firm, stresses that he’s not speaking for the Brazilian-American Chamber. But virtually every Brazilian-American I’ve spoken with here this week makes the same point: While they are happy that Brazil became an emerging economic power in the 2000s -- it is now the sixth largest economy in the world and added 40 million people to its once negligible middle class -- they are just as vexed by Brazil's inability to fix the systemic flaws that keep thwarting its development.
As so often happens, Brazil’s unrest was sparked last week by a seemingly trivial matter: a ten-cent hike in public bus fares. Cities like São Paulo have rescinded those fare hikes in response. But what Brazilian leaders don’t seem to understand is that the fare issue was simply a tipping point for outrage over the larger dysfunction of the country’s political and economic systems, starting with the burdensome taxation and high cost of living that Mariaca points out.
Brazilians are upset, for example, that the government can lavish so much money on preparations for next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro -- and yet despite the nation’s new economic clout, they say it can’t seem to improve what they call its woefully deficient education; its appalling public corruption; its frightening level of violent crime; its threadbare infrastructure; its impossibly bloated and astonishingly overpaid public bureaucracy, especially an out-of-control Congress that is actually set to vote soon on a constitutional amendment that would make Brazil’s Supreme Court decisions subject to congressional approval.
And the list goes on -- which is why Brazilians’ demonstrations look set to continue as well, both there and here. New protests are being called for today across Brazil, while Miami’s Brazilian-American community leaders say they’re planning a gathering soon at the Brazilian consulate.
“A lot of things have just been accumulating for too long,” says Dulce Jorge, a Rio de Janeiro native who owns the Fashion Brazil shop in Miami. “Brazilians do have more money to buy stuff today, but they’re finding out it doesn’t mean as much if so many other things in their society there are broken.”
It’s one big reason, Jorge adds, that so many Brazilians in recent years have brought their new wealth to South Florida, where their condo purchases have helped save Miami’s depressed real estate market.
Rose Max, another carioca (Rio native) and a Brazilian jazz singer in Miami, agrees.
“The last time Brazilians took to the streets like this was when we impeached [then] President [Fernando] Collor de Mello” on corruption charges in 1992, Max recalls. “That’s why it angers us so much to see corruption is still such a plague there,” especially the recent mensalão scandal, in which high-ranking figures including a former chief of staff of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who presided over the boom from 2002 to 2010, were convicted in a multi-million-dollar vote-buying scheme.
“These are things that Lula never addressed,” Max adds. “But Brazilians aren’t stupid. We’re going to stick together on this.”
Time will tell if Lula’s successor, current President Dilma Rousseff, can convince protesters that she’s serious about reform. Since taking office on Jan. 1, 2011, Rousseff has actually been more pro-active than Lula about confronting problems like corruption (she’s forced several of her cabinet ministers to resign under suspicions of malfeasance) and education (via her ambitious new Science Without Borders program).
But Jorge notes how ironic it is that Rousseff, who started her political career as a leftist urban guerrilla during Brazil’s military dictatorship decades ago, heads the country’s Workers Party (PT). “No one expected a party with those kinds of roots to be facing these kinds of protests.”
Mariaca emphasizes that those protests have so far been largely non-violent. And if they’re aimed at rooting out the worst of Brazil, the Brazilian-American community is smartly bringing out the best of Brazil to attract people to events like Tuesday night’s Bayside rally -- where such popular local Brazilian musicians as Paulo Gualano and his samba group performed.
Who said a convocation can’t have a little carnaval?