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Interview: Brazilian Political Expert Says Frustrated Middle Class Fueling Protests

A riot policeman fires his weapon while confronting stone-throwing demonstrators during an antigovernment protest in Belem, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River, on June 20.
A riot policeman fires his weapon while confronting stone-throwing demonstrators during an antigovernment protest in Belem, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River, on June 20.
Antigovernment protests in Brazil are entering their second week, with frustration over corruption, public transportation costs, shoddy public services, and massive spending on international sporting events continuing to boil over. Paulo Sotero, director of the Wilson Center's Brazil Institute, spoke by phone from Sao Paulo to RFE/RL Washington bureau chief Heather Maher about what's going on. Sotero began his career as a journalist in Brazil in 1968 and was the Washington correspondent for
"Estado de S.Paulo," a leading Brazilian daily newspaper, from 1989 until 2006.

RFE/RL: These protests started small and were originally about a proposed hike in bus fares. Was there a trigger that caused them to explode and become more wide ranging against the government?

Paulo Sotero: Yes, police violence against peaceful protests in the city of Sao Paulo. That was what really galvanized people to go out in the streets and do a big civil rights demonstration [and say], "Yes we can protest peacefully, we have grievances." The bus-fare issue is an important one, but then I think other grievances, other frustrations that stem from, I believe, the fact that in this country we have had an emerging middle class.

About 40 million people -- formerly poor people -- that have joined this growing middle class have tasted the goods of a consumer market; but in the past 2 1/2 years the economy has sort of stalled, inflation has reappeared, and I think people are very frustrated with that. They’re also very frustrated with a series of events involving political corruption, involving arrogance from people in power about what their duties and their roles are; sort of a disconnection between politicians -- the political class -- and society, and I think it's that frustration over those things that erupted in the streets of Brazil this week.

RFE/RL: How much has the massive public spending on sports facilities for the Confederations Cup and World Cup and upcoming Olympics exacerbated people's anger?

Sotero: The World Cup business is very interesting. This is the country of soccer -- we like it very much, we’re very proud of what we have achieved there. But I think there has been a growing awareness of excessive expenditures on lavish soccer stadiums that is not accompanied by public works -- especially mass transportation, as it was promised -- delays, cost overruns on everything. At the same time, the government kept putting a good face on this and saying, "We're going to do this, this is important." I think people see their own situation -- they have to endure two to three hours of commuting each way to go to work, home and back, and I think this is a clear example of [a frustration].

RFE/RL: President Dilma Rousseff is a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured by Brazil’s military dictatorship. Is it surprising to you that her government has provoked so much anger on the streets?

Sotero: There has been almost a disdain by political leaders for the aspirations of the people. The fact that this comes from a leadership of the left, I think, contributed to this. People I think felt represented by governments in Brazil, especially during the Lula [da Silva] government [in 2003-11] -- the first "man of the people" of a very historically unjust society to go to federal power and to govern reasonably well.

But in the past 2 1/2 years or so what has been revealed about that time, and the fact that there is this anxiety about the economy -- [it's] almost as if we had seen this promised land of prosperity with more equity, and now people are fearful that we won’t get there. But they want to get there because they really enjoyed what they had until now, which is more participation, which is better salaries, etc.

RFE/RL: To the outside world, this public discontent is at odds with how Brazil has appeared on the world stage in recent years -- as a rising, stable, wealthy country. What will happen, if anything, as a result of these demonstrations?

Sotero: I take the positive view -- I think that the country will take a lesson from this and will respond to those challenges because the alternative would be to condemn the nation itself to a very mediocre position, to very negative outcomes that would continue to produce more violence in the streets, that would not respond to the challenges of improving education, improving health services, public transportation. The demands of this rising middle class in Brazil -- this has been clear in poll after poll -- are on issues that affect directly their quality of life, the quality of life of their children. They want more and better of everything they have received in this period of relative prosperity that helped to transform the image of Brazil abroad into this sort of more promising nation.

But this is what could come out of this, I think this is what inspired most of the protesters, that inspired this movement to go out and demand more participation, better outcomes, and politicians that act on behalf of the people. In that sense, I think it’s a very promising and positive movement.

RFE/RL: We've seen similar protests in other countries -- obviously, the Occupy movement in the United States and, most recently, the protests in Turkey. Is what's happening in Brazil the same strain of antiestablishment anger?

Sotero: I think it's unique in the sense that this is coming on a scale that was not expected. This is a country that has been run by progressive forces for the better part of the last 20 years. The Workers' Party, the only party in Brazil that came from the bottom up, from the people, has been governing here, has been in power here, for more than 10 years. So they are absolutely shocked that this has happened, because they consider themselves to be "the people" in power, right? So the people are [now] telling them, "Not really. You are not performing the way you are supposed to and we are going to keep asking you to behave better, to produce better outcomes." I think this is frustration. I think there is a real possibility here for the country to read this correctly, tackle the challenges -- they’re not easy -- because the alternative is too awful to consider.

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