Cause and Effect in Brazil's Protests

Where they come from—and where they may be going.

At first, the protests that have rocked Brazil were almost comically misrepresented. “Right now, the same game is being played in Brazil,” said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Saturday. “The symbols are the same, the posters are the same. Same Twitter, same Facebook, same international media. They are being controlled by the same center.”

Who can blame him for being glib? Coincidental protests in Brazil have allowed Erdogan to shirk, if temporarily, more fitting comparisons between the protests in Turkey and the Arab Spring. But if not a game, what has impelled over a million people to swarm the streets of cities across Brazil?

Much of the substantive analysis has focused on the country’s level of corruption. For sure, graft is rampant in Brazilian politics. Last year Brazil’s largest corruption trial began: the “big monthly paycheck” scandal was an elaborate vote-buying scheme that allegedly included thirty-seven former congressmen, judges and a high-level advisor to the president.

For many Brazilians, the upcoming FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 summer Olympics have amplified the malady of corruption. And while FIFA was quick to defend the Brazilian government for its World Cup preparations, one result of the protests will likely be an unspoken coordination between the world’s two most powerful sporting organizations so that no country can simultaneously prepare to host both events in the foreseeable future.

In Brazil, though, evidence of corruption has rarely met with such outrage. The running joke that likens public office to a “joy train” of bribes and kickbacks is decades old. The ongoing corruption trial is based on newspaper revelations made in 2005. And, anecdotes aside, Brazil is actually becoming a cleaner country: Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Brazil 69 out of 176 countries surveyed. That’s middling performance, no doubt, but it’s an improvement over Brazil’s 2008 ranking of 80. It’s also much better than Mexico, which ranked 105 in 2012.

Perhaps in the past the joy train was more tolerable because the economy was chugging along. In 2010, Brazil’s economy grew by a torrid 7.5 percent. But last year the economy eked out less than 1 percent growth.

During the slowdown, Brazil’s leaders opted for excuses instead of reform. Brazil’s finance minister, Guido Mantega, tried to blame a “global currency war”—in which Washington, Beijing and Tokyo supported their own currencies in a way that drove up the value of Brazil’s currency—for hurting exports and aggravating inflation. President Dilma Rousseff bought into this view, and made it a key point of discussion in her high-profile trip to China and President Obama’s visit to Brasilia in 2011.

Yet cheaper currency doesn’t show signs of curing any ills. The real’s downward slide in 2013 came to a bottom last week, when the currency hit a four-year low against the dollar. Meanwhile the value of exports continues to swoon, the rate of inflation gallops ahead of economic growth, and S&P recently downgraded its outlook on Brazil’s credit rating. Mantega, better known for his volubility, has gone mute. Economic stagnation, and the government’s evident lack of a plan on how to restore growth, is as much a cause of the protests as corruption.

Reform, Not Populism

After a week of slack-jawed bewilderment, Rousseff has met with protest leaders and, curiously, gotten ahead of their demands by calling for a constitutional assembly. But injecting more democracy into the process is unlikely to turn out well. Politicians of all stripes were quick to criticize the move, some of them reminding Rousseff that what starts out as a plebiscite can quickly get out of control. Part of their sniping stems from self-preservation, for sure. Yet there are practical reasons to back away from the pledge of a plebiscite, not least of which is that it will surely interfere with next year’s presidential elections.

Still, more worrying is the regional trend. Where constitutional changes were enacted elsewhere in Latin America over the past decade, the result has in almost every case been consolidation of power in the hands of the president. Rousseff almost certainly doesn’t intend to launch a power grab, but such an outcome might be hard to avoid given the enormous gulf between her impressive popularity and the tawdry image of Brazil’s congress, including the rank-and-file of her own Worker’s Party. Her calls for constitutional change, whether born of naiveté or narcissism, are not the answer.

If the regional context serves as a warning about Rousseff’s proposed remedy, it should also allay concerns about the ultimate aims of the protestors. Chile endured massive protests calling for free university education in 2011, 2012 and May 2013. Also in May, one million Argentines thronged the streets of Buenos Aires in protest of President Cristina Fernandez’s economic mismanagement. Protests in the Southern Cone are middle class affairs that can wane, in wait of reform, before waxing anew if unaddressed.

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