Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Economist's Notebook: The World Cup and its Discontents

Here in Brazil, folks are taking a host of grievances to the street.  The popular unrest is growing quickly and, save for some young hooligans who seem to delight in taking advantage of a good protest to smash and burn things, it is largely a peaceful and thoughtful protest.

In São Paulo it started with a ten cent increase in the cost of a bus or metro ride.  Small change to be sure but the contrast between the working class being asked for a little more in an incredibly expensive city while at the same time the government seems to have almost endless capacity to build stadiums for the world cup is stark.  At first the protests were small and filled with vandalism.  Subsequent protests were violently cracked down upon by police who were told to prevent vandalism.  Now the protests have grown from just a complaint about the bus fare and people are joining in with a litany of complaints: health care and education being the top two as far as I can tell.  The protest last night swelled and became massive but mostly peaceful.

Protests in other cities, most notably Rio, were less peaceful.

The timing of the protests are a combination of the timing of the transit fare increase in SP and the start of the FIFA Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm up.  The anger at the amount of money spent building and rebuilding stadia and other related projects for a one-month event while poverty, inequality and serious deficiencies in social services has come to a head with this event.  Smart protesters know also that their protests will get world attention while the Confed. Cup is going on which will put more pressure on the government to respond.

My wife, Kristina, a teacher, was able to go to a São Paulo public school in a good neighborhood.  One of the first things that struck here was that the neighborhood is wealthy so those kids all go to private school and the kids who attend the local public school are the kids of the domestic employees of the neighborhood.  Weird and totally Brazilian. But the other thing that she learned was the predictably bad infrastructure, overworked teachers, and lack of support.  Teachers in SP have to work two jobs to make ends meet.  Education is delivered twice a day here: there is a morning and afternoon session so that they can get more out of the already inadequate infrastructure.  Most teachers Kristina met were talented, enthusiastic and dedicated, but totally worn out by having two jobs (usually in different schools so that they have to dash from one to the other).  So it is natural then that people are asking about government priorities when there seems to be an endless supply of funds.

Another big theme of the protestors is contra-corruption which goes hand-in-hand with football, the CBF,  big construction projects, government...all of the key World Cup talking points.  People here don't trust the government and are skeptical that a ten cent increase is necessary when there is so much corruption and graft.

So it will be interesting to see, over the next week or two, how these protests evolve and whether they return for the World Cup.  It is also a bit of a cautionary tale to any country that accepts ever greater inequality in its midst - Brazil in this regard has come a long way but there is clearly a lot of work still to be done.

No comments: