A fellow Mission Intern contacted me on Facebook about the protests that have occurred here over the last few months. She wanted to get my take on them. I had wanted to do a blog post about them so I used our conversation to gather my thoughts. What I thought would only be one small post has quickly expanded into a multipart series entitled, “Brasil is Speaking”. Below is part I.
For those who haven’t been paying much attention, or have been too distracted by Egypt and Turkey, there have been mass protests all over Brasil over the last month. hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in mostly peaceful protests. The protests began when the government announced a hike in the bus fares (10-20 cents) all over the country. This is the symbolic issue that galvanized people because it captures much of what Brazilians have been angry about for a long time: Corruption, nepotism, substandard public goods. Buses in Brazil are run by private countries who contracted by the government. It is commonly suspected that politicians get kickbacks from the bus companies to secure these contracts.
The buses are almost 4 realis (approx $2 USD) in many places. This doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that the minimum salary in Brazil is 622realis (approx $311 USD). If you have to take the bus to get to work (or anywhere) 4 realis adds up really fast. What does 4 realis get you? It will buy you a one way ticket on dirty, overcrowded bus, that is probably not running on time. That is IF the bus even shows up.
A large part of the population has no choice but to use the buses because private transportation is simply a luxury that is out of their reach. There is a law in Brazil that forces employers to pay for the transportation of their workers to and from work. This helps but people use the bus for other than commuting. For the lower classes, even if their travel to and from work is paid for, personal trips become huge financial burdens.
I would also like to explain that there are HUGE class differences here. My rough and dirty indicator for the size of a class gulf is how common domestic help is in the middle class. What the middle class earns here is on par with what the middle class in America or Europe earns. However, most middle class households here have some domestic help at least part of the week. Thinking about what my parents make, it would not be a terrible stretch for them to afford domestic help if it only cost $311 a month.
Under the past two presidents, even if this gulf hadn’t gotten any smaller, the standard of living for the poor has risen significantly. This is part of what you are seeing in the protests: Brazilian’s awareness of this gulf and their higher standard of living. I think for many Brazilians (at least poor Brazilians) there is a real awareness that it is no longer enough to have food, (some) education, and (some) healthcare. They want the ability to rise freely in society and to have the same things as middle and upper class people. Good education, decent transportation, good healthcare; things that they pay for.