Patrick Carvalho is the former Head of the Economic Studies Division at the Federation of Industries of Rio de Janeiro and co-author of Great Southern Lands: Building Ties Between Australia and Brazil.
Is Brazil next? Following the Arab uprisings, and most recently the Turkish one, protests in Brazil are in the international media spotlight. Will they jeopardise Brazil's hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup? Should the upheaval impact the inflow of foreign direct investment and commercial confidence in Brazil?
For better or for worse, the answer is 'no': Brazil's recent protests will not likely have any significant impact in the medium and long term.
Ceci n'est pas une Arab uprising!
Unlike the counterpart movements in the Arab world and Turkey, Brazil's protests cannot (yet) be labelled as 'anti-government' riots. There is no concrete consensus for toppling the incumbent regime or serious risk to the stability of national institutions.
Crisis? What crisis?
After ten years in power, the national government led by Brazil's Workers' Party (PT) is doing its best to dissociate itself from being part of the problem. President Dilma Roussef, who during her youth participated in armed guerrilla action against the dictatorship, knows that the best way to tackle protests in a democracy is to pretend to embrace them.
With time, and with a few isolated incidents of vandalism perpetrated by extremists, the legitimacy of the protest movement evaporates while public opinion turns against the protesters. No wonder in the first days of riots, no police force (or politicians) were to be seen, while the masses easily and poetically invaded the National Congress environs. A few days later, after the sense of anarchy had spooked the middle class, a brutish and unprepared police force came into play, trying to dissipate even the peaceful protests, which were the vast majority.
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.
If the riots are not explicitly designed to topple the incumbent government, what are they for?
Briefly, the protests are a long overdue outcry against the widespread sentiment of corruption and inefficient public services. According to Transparency International, Brazil ranked 69th in the Corruption Perception Index in 2012, behind Ghana and Cuba. In 2003, the year the PT came to power, Brazil ranked better at 54th.
Many political incidents help explain public outrage at perceived corruption, the key one being the legislative vote-buying scandal during the reign of former President Lula (Dilma Roussef's mentor and political godfather).
Furthermore, Brazil taxes like a Scandinavian country while providing public services like a sub-Saharan one. With a tax burden reaching over a third of the national income (Australia's tax-to-GDP ratio is currently around a quarter) and a paltry 130th position in the World Bank's Doing Business index, Brazilians are fed up with paying so much for so little.
The problem with the current upheaval is that too many divided voices and conflicting demands hinder any real positive outcome. The risk here is that, like the 2011 Occupy protests in several Western cities, vague leadership and a lack of clear demands will compromise the effectiveness of the protests. In short, the winds of change are present and strong, but the sails are not properly unfurled.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… and all that jazz
The anarchy in the Brazilian protests is linked, as The Economist points out, to new technologies such as smartphones and social media. According to SocialBakers, a social media consultancy, the number of Facebook users in Brazil has doubled in the past eighteen months, achieving almost 70 million users — second only to the US. Not surprisingly, Facebook groups linked to protests in Brazil went viral, accumulating members by the thousands. But although Generation Y is more connected and (hyper) active than ever, it has a chronic deficit in attention to detail and procedure.
The problem in any revolution is the letter r.
As described in our recent Lowy Institute report Great Southern Lands, Brazil has established itself on a new and improved development course. The yesteryears of high inflation, uncontrolled public finances and external debt defaults are buried. Nonetheless, in order to move forward and fulfil the 'country of the future' prophecy, Brazilian society has to move beyond demanding better services and less corruption.
Instead, the focus should be on how to achieve these goals in the long term. It needs to be understood that social media has its own limits. Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags are a great way to mobilise collective wants, but are not sufficient to deliver the desired changes.
In a democracy, there are better and more effective ways of achieving social and political improvements. A mature and evolved debate is imperative if any lasting outcome is to be expected from the current wave of protests. Brazil does not need a revolution; an incremental evolution would do for now.
Photo by Flickr user Semilla Luz.