The Brazilian Spring: An Explainer

PHOTO:  Guy Fawkes masks are seen displayed for sale during a demonstration near the house of Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On June 20, more than a million Brazilians swarmed the streets across 400 cities to protest government policies, social inequality, and the exorbitant costs of the World Cup and the Confederations Cup.

Here’s everything you need to know about this headline-grabbing story:

Why is this a big deal?

Brazil’s is one of the world’s eight leading economies and a country that, for nearly a decade, was hailed as an economic role model for Latin America and the rest of the globe. The demonstrations echo economic and social protest movements that the world has seen recently in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, the U.S. and Turkey. Though the reasons for protesting vary in each location, they share a set of concerns and methods that some have linked to millennials, and others to our emerging globalized culture.

Abstract ideas aside, the protests have the potential of affecting the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, two pivotal global sporting events. For now, the international soccer authority, FIFA, has said that the competitions are safe and cancelling them is not an option.

Nevertheless, there is growing concern among soccer fans, especially after many renowned Brazilian soccer players came out in favor of protesters.

So what sparked this whole thing?

This round of protests began in Sao Paulo more than two weeks ago. At that time, they had a single objective – reversing a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares that had gone into effect on June 1. They were also largely led by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), a national organization founded in 2004 that advocates free public transportation. As the days went by, the demonstrations grew and, with media attention, they started attracting various political groups with other complaints.

What were the other complaints?

There are at least five basic reasons why Brazilians are protesting. The initial trigger was that rise in public transportation costs, but that issue was resolved after the governments of both cities agreed to end the price hike.

The exorbitant cost of hosting the World Cup and the Confederations Cup – the work needed just for the stadiums has a price tag of nearly $3.68 billion– is now a major source of anger. Demonstrators argue that the government shouldn't have spent such large amounts of money on controversial construction and renovations when Brazil still has significant health, education, and financial problems. This photo on Instagram sums things up pretty well.

Government corruption is another point of contention for people in the streets. Brazilians are wondering who is profiting from the World Cup costs, and they are also mad at historically light penalties for corrupt officials in the country. (See this video from the #ChangeBrazil for more information.)

Protesters have also stood up against the police’s violent response to the demonstrations. The Brazilian government, the U.N., and human rights organizations have criticized the authorities’ actions, alleging excessive force against protesters and journalists. At least three people have died and hundreds have been injured.

More broadly, a recent economic downturn in Brazil underlies the protests. The annual inflation rate is at 6.5 percent, income inequality has risen at the same time GDP growth has slowed down, and economists offer dim forecasts for the coming years. In the past decade, Brazil’s economic growth substantially reduced poverty and strengthened the middle class. But, as analyst Moisés Naím has pointed out, the demand for public services in countries where economic growth is leading to rapid change –i.e., countries like Brazil, Chile, and Tunisia—grows faster than the ability of governments to meet that demand.

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