Rio de Janeiro: Sitting in his 11th-floor apartment looking out towards Rio de Janeiro’s Sugar Loaf mountain, Gaspar Giacomini appears to have little in his life to trouble him.
A business analyst with the country’s national development bank, he catches up with the latest on Brazil’s recent wave of street protests on a modern widescreen TV, with an Apple MacBook and iPad nearby.
But despite his well-paid job and smart flat in Rio’s affluent Botafogo neighbourhood, the 30-year-old graduate has been an enthusiastic participant in the demonstrations, the biggest displays of public discontent the country has witnessed in decades.
Originally incited by a heavy-handed police crackdown on a protest against a plan to raise public bus fares by 20 centavos, the rallies rapidly turned into a wider show of anger against the government, spreading to more than 100 cities across Brazil.
Yet for Giacomini and many others who have benefited from Brazil’s new economic dynamism, the anger is not because he cannot spare the extra centavos for a bus ride.
Instead, it is because as an educated, tax-paying member of the country’s rapidly expanding new middle class, he simply expects better of his government.
“I was surprised by the positive energy in the protests,” Giacomini, who has a masters degree in business administration, told The Sunday Telegraph. “Most of the people were not complaining about the 20 centavos. Most of them were complaining about corruption. The next day, you could see a turnaround in the workplace. Everybody started to talk about politics, and people haven’t really been talking about politics for the last 10 years.” In the past few days, that new-found political energy showed little sign of ebbing, with more demonstrations planned, despite outbreaks of violence and looting.
Two people have already been killed and hundreds more injured, with riot police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets against crowds totalling up to a million people.
The disturbances have already prompted questions about Brazil’s ability to safely host next year’s World Cup, forcing President Dilma Rousseff, who had been accused of ignoring protesters’ demands, to appear on national television to admit that they had a point.
“I’m going to meet with the leaders of the peaceful protests,” said Rousseff, 65, after an urgent meeting with ministers in the capital Brasilia, where protesters had danced on the roof of the national congress.
“I want institutions that are more transparent, more resistant to wrongdoing.”
The feisty Rousseff, who was a Marxist anti-government guerrilla during the Seventies when Brazil was a military dictatorship, can afford to sound sympathetic. Despite the protests, she still remains a popular leader - not least because of nearly two decades of rapid growth that began in the early 1990s, when Brazil abandoned its old state-planned economic strategies, taming inflation and opening up to foreign investment.
Under the government of her predecessor, the former trade unionist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, some 30 million Brazilians are estimated to have escaped poverty. More than half the country’s 190 million population are now deemed to be middle class, with many of them travelling abroad for the first time for both work and holidays.
But those very improvements that have broadened their horizons have also made them realise that Brazil still has a long way to go - be it in fixing its terrible public services, combating soaring inflation rates, or doing more for the vast numbers still living in favelas, the crime-ridden shanty towns that spread across the hillsides of cities like Rio.
“Brazilians are travelling overseas a lot now,” said Giacomini, who lives with his wife Raquel, a trainee civil servant. “All of the middle class has bought their tickets to New York, to Miami, and they see what it’s like there. They talk to friends about the amount of tax they pay here, and how little they get back for it. It’s like a domino effect.”
Indeed, at 36 per cent of gross domestic product, Brazilians pay one of the highest tax rates in the developing world. Yet while some of that money has financed important social programmes for the poor, such as universal primary schooling and minimum wage schemes, rather less has been spent on improving public services available to all.
As a result, Brazil now has its own, hard-pressed version of Britain’s “squeezed middle class”, for whom complaints about “Third World” standards in schools and hospitals are reality, not rhetoric. It was no surprise, for example, that the protests initially focused on a proposed rise in fares for buses, which, in the general absence of decent railway networks, are the main option for many commuters in Rio and other cities.
The city’s single-deck buses, which should carry no more than 50 people, routinely travel while dangerously overloaded, with sweating passengers not only crowding the aisle but wedged into any visible gap. Crashes are common, and heavy traffic can make a 25-mile trip from Copacabana to Barra da Tijuca, the neighbourhood where the 2016 Olympic Park will be, take three hours. “Our politicians have drivers and all sorts of other comforts, but everyone who takes public transport knows it’s horrible,” said Viviane Jophilis, 27, a student in Rio.
“I take the Metro and the bus every day, and both are so crowded that sometimes I have to wait for 45 minutes to finally be able to get on.” Standards of education also vary wildly. In many schools in poorer areas, facilities are rudimentary and teaching is largely a matter of crowd control - assuming the teachers, who earn less than pounds 250 per month, turn up for work in the first place.
Private schools, which are considered the only option for those ambitious for their children, can be two years ahead in the curriculum compared to their public sector counterparts. “My nephew is 12, and the whole family scrapes money together so we can pay for a private school for him, but it shouldn’t have to be like that,” said Thiago de Oliveiro Albino, 26, a radiology technician. A similar gulf exists in Brazil’s hospitals, where patients sometimes lack even beds, and where last year, rats and cockroaches were found in the kitchen of a state clinic in Sao Paulo that treats leprosy. On the law and order front, meanwhile, taxpayers fund a police force that is considered to be not just brutal and corrupt, but inept. Despite the police’s fearsome reputation, many of Brazil’s cities remain dangerous after dark, and in downtown areas, crack dealing is still carried out openly. Adding to the pressure on taxpayer’s wallets has been rising inflation levels, caused partly, say critics, by the growth-led policies that Rousseff has introduced to fend off the effects of the global recession. A modest Toyota model, for example, costs as much as pounds 25,000 in Brazil, nearly twice as much as in the US.
And the iPad2 and other gadgets, which protesters have been using to organise rallies typically cost around £100 more than in the UK. When the average wage is still just £377 per month, that is a big difference. But the other main factor that has helped nurture public discontent is yet another outward benchmark of Brazil’s recent success - its hosting of both next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
The government has already spent three times what South Africa spent in 2012 on preparations for the World Cup. Despite official claims that the two flagship sporting events will net Brazil an overall profit in terms of tourist business, many believe that right now, there are more pressing infrastructure projects. As one demonstrator’s placard put it last week: “First-world stadiums; third-world schools and hospitals.”
Last week even saw calls from some protesters for a boycott of next year’s World Cup, a move previously unthinkable in a nation with such a deep love of football. Brazil’s former star player, Pele, who is still a national hero, also drew rare criticism when he urged people to “forget the protests” and concentrate on the football. Among those under fire is Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, who was handed the Olympic flag from his London counterpart, Boris Johnson, after the London games last year. His preparations have already run into controversy in places like Morro da Providencia, one of Rio’s oldest favelas, much of which is to be demolished to make way for a new cable car system.
Some local residents only learnt that their homes were to be destroyed when they returned from work to find spray paint on the doors earmarking them for demolition. And while the government has promised that the redevelopment of Morro will bring benefits, experiences in other favela neighbourhoods are not encouraging. Another cable car route, over the Complexo do Alemao favelas, was built specifically with residents’ use in mind.
Today, though, it is used more by tourists seeking a gritty alternative to the famous ride up Sugar Loaf mountain, for whom it offers a chance to observe Rio’s grinding poverty from a safe distance. Perhaps aware of the threat to public order if the urban poor begin protesting in large numbers alongside the middle class, Rio’s mayor last week appealed for calm. Brazil was now a democracy, Paes pointed out, and there was “no need to destroy property to reinforce your opinion”.
Rousseff, meanwhile, has gone a step further, claiming solidarity with the protesters as a former radical herself. “The voices from the streets want more citizenship, more health, more education, more transport, more opportunities,” she said on Friday night.
“I want to guarantee to you that my government also wants more and that we are going to do more for our country and our people.” The package of measures she offered included a new national plan for public transport in cities, more doctors, more spending on schools, and a crackdown on corruption. But there has been little firm detail so far, and many believe that the kind of radical transformations that are needed go well beyond her immediate gift. Besides, as far as the likes of Giacomini are concerned, the president’s pledges are now just the start, not the end, of the conversation. “People will be showing up on the streets for the next year, they won’t stop now,” he said. “We can turn disappointment into action.”