Guestwords: Brave Brazilians

By Jonas Hagen

    Last week, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest all that is wrong in their enormous country. This leaves me with two feelings: hope and pride. Hope that the longstanding ills of the South American giant can be addressed, and proud of its people, who are finally taking it upon themselves to be the force of change that is so badly needed.
    Originally from Sag Harbor, I was living in New York City when I got a job in Brazil with an international nongovernmental organization. From 2007 to 2012, I was able to experience the country’s virtues and vices firsthand, first in Sao Paulo, then in Rio de Janeiro.
    A seething metropolis of about 20 million people, Sao Paulo is one of the largest, dirtiest, and most aggressive cities I have experienced. The economic engine of South America, the city is a frenetic hub of all imaginable kinds of activities. Paulistanos (residents of the city) are used to polluted air, putrid rivers, sitting in traffic for hours on end, and numerous motorcyclists who speed between the stopped cars, terrorizing motorists and pedestrians with constantly beeping horns. If you don’t toughen up quickly, you won’t survive in Sao Paulo.
    The city also has a vibrant arts scene, high-quality museums, and world-acclaimed restaurants. It is Brazil’s most multicultural city, with large immigrant communities, including Leban­ese, Japanese, and Italians.
    After a year in Sao Paulo, living three blocks from the beach in Rio de Janeiro seemed like paradise. With a mere 10 million people in the metropolitan area, Rio seemed like a manageable place in comparison. Like so many other foreigners, I was dazzled by Rio’s breathtaking landscape of jungle-covered mountains next to ribbons of white beaches and the easygoing sociality of the cariocas (residents of Rio). I spent four happy years there.
    Life in Brazil often lives up to the standard associated imagery — soccer, luscious tropical landscapes, tanned beauties in skimpy bikinis, and a euphoric party atmosphere. However, like the majority of Brazilian cities, both Rio and Sao Paulo have serious problems with poverty and violence. Informal settlements (slums, or favelas) abound, and the wealthy isolate themselves from this reality as much as possible, often guarding their homes with barbed-wire-topped fences and private security. One can never drop one’s guard in Brazilian cities, as the danger from crime caused by the social imbalance is always present.
    Corruption is endemic, and every few months there is a new scandal in the headlines, involving politicians or businesspeople, and often both. The Brazilians I knew had witnessed so many of these scandals that they became numb to them.
    The lower and middle classes commute for hours in uncomfortable, infrequent, and crowded buses and trains to earn meager salaries, while the wealthy frequently travel by helicopter. The average public school teacher in Brazil earned about $13,000 a year in 2009. Doctors recently told the current president, Dilma Rousseff, that the quality of service in public hospitals is so bad that patients’ human rights are regularly violated.
    With so much to be depressed about, it is no wonder that Brazilians often prefer to concentrate on sports or novelas (soap operas) rather than face the country’s enormous challenges.
    Last week, Brazilians finally decided that enough is enough. The first protests, held in Sao Paulo, focused on an impending 9-percent increase in public transport fare. With the Confederations Cup (a warm-up to the soccer World Cup) under way, the protests made national headlines, and soon thousands of others joined the fray, with a reported peak of 1.4 million people attending 120 protests throughout the country last Thursday.
    The protesters’ stated motivations have gone beyond the price of public transportation to include many other issues. Most of these center around corruption, inequality, and anger at the country’s ability to spend billions on stadiums and other projects related to the World Cup, while education, health, and other basic services remain dismal. One protester’s poster I saw on the Internet read, “There are so many things wrong that they don’t fit on one poster.”
    The main reaction of the political class, bewilderment, underscores Brazil’s problems. Completely out of touch with reality, most politicians cannot understand why citizens would feel the need to protest. The soccer legends Pelé and Ronaldo, long shielded from everyday problems by their wealth, urged the protesters to stop complaining and support the national team. Both were ridiculed on the Internet, and Ronaldo has since changed his stance to support the protesters.
    Municipal governments responded to the first wave of protests by lowering public transport fares, and the federal government is now proposing broader projects in health, education, transportation, fiscal responsibility, and political reform. If anyone is in a moral position to respond to the protesters’ demands, it is Ms. Rousseff, who was a political radical herself in the 1970s and was incarcerated and tortured by the military dictatorship. She has previously shown willingness to take on corruption by letting politicians in her coalition accused of graft fend for themselves, rather than defending them.
    Most of the protesters are in their 20s, an age group better known for engaging in social media than fighting for justice. “We left Facebook, and took it to the streets” read one poster. A wide age range has also joined the mass; I saw interviews with protesters in their 60s and 70s, embracing the moment of national catharsis.
    I am proud of these brave Brazilians who chose to forgo the nightly episode of their soap opera or a game by the national soccer team to fight for a more just country. The headlines are now international, and their voices are heard around the world; this forces local leaders to listen.
    Change will not come overnight, but in increments, and there will surely be much disappointment after the present euphoria passes. With the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2016, however, this movement can have an important impact for decades to come. Let us hope that this time will be remembered as the moment that Brazilians realized that they could be an important force for positive change in their country.

    Jonas Hagen is a Ph.D. student in urban planning at Columbia University.