Special Report: Why Brazil’s new middle class is seething – by Paulo Prada (Reuters U.S. – July 3, 2013)


SÃO GONÇALO, Brazil (Reuters) – André Tamandaré isn’t supposed to be so angry. Over the past decade, the 33-year-old high-school dropout has moved into his own house, got a steady job and earned enough income with his longtime girlfriend, Rosimeire de Souza, to lead their two kids into Brazil’s fast-rising middle class.

Now a public health worker in a sprawling suburb east of Rio de Janeiro, Tamandaré is the kind of citizen that Brazil’s government thought was fulfilled. Instead, he is one of the more than one million people across Latin America’s biggest country who have hit the streets in a wave of mass protests.

Brazilians are railing against poor public schools, hospitals and transport. They are protesting soaring prices, crime and corruption. They are lambasting a political class so self-satisfied that it failed to see, much less address, the mounting dissatisfaction that led to the protests.

Combined, the concerns reflect growing unease among Brazil’s nearly 200 million people that the country’s long-promised leap into the developed world has fallen short once again.

“All you need to do is walk around a little to see how undeveloped we still are,” Tamandaré says, smoking a cigarette on a plastic stool next to his small square kitchen table. “Take a bus, go to the health clinic – it’s all shabby, slow, dangerous and infuriating.”

The demonstrations, sparked by protests against a rise in public transport fares, at first drew mostly educated youth from Brazil’s traditional middle class, a minority that historically has had more in common with a wealthy elite than the nearly 100 million Brazilians who until recently formed the ranks of the poor.

The demonstrations took off, though, when Brazil’s “new” middle class joined the fray. “This is the discontent of people for whom having enough rice and beans on the table no longer comes as a surprise,” says Rodrigo Dutra, a documentary filmmaker in Duque de Caxias, another working-class Rio suburb, who is studying the differences between these protests and rioting that followed a 1962 food shortage.

Much has been made in recent years about Brazil’s emerging middle class – most of all by the leftist Workers’ Party, in power since 2003.

Booming commodity exports, a consumer binge and ambitious social welfare programs together fueled a decade of steady economic growth that lifted 35 million Brazilians from poverty. But now, as the economy cools, many among the new middle class say their much-vaunted ascent leaves a lot to be desired.

“It’s all relative,” says Dione Brandão, a schoolteacher, after a recent march along Avenida Atlântica, an oceanside promenade in Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood. “What good is more consumer spending when security and education are worse?”


Approval ratings are plunging for President Dilma Rousseff, who until recently enjoyed some of the highest poll numbers of any elected leader worldwide. Since the protests began, her public-support rating has sunk 27 percentage points, settling at 30 percent of those surveyed by the pollster Datafolha

Middle-class Brazilians are expressing some of the same frustrations fueling unrest in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. The demands vary by country, but reflect a common struggle by the governments of many developing nations to meet rising expectations.

The very notion of middle class in Brazil is quite different from the standards of North America and Western Europe.

No tree-lined suburbs and Volvos for the newly empowered masses here.

Instead, the term is used broadly to include almost anyone able to pay rent, put food on the table and perhaps pay a monthly installment on the refrigerator, microwave or television that Brazil’s government often touts as a sign of their emergence. The so-called “Classe C,” the bottom rung of Brazil’s middle class, earns as little as 1730 reais a month, about $790, and, unlike the much-smaller upper middle class, relies largely on public transportation, health services and schools.

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