Corruption and Graft Brazil Rushes Headlong into Popular Revolt

Brazil has experienced an economic awakening in recent years, but democracy has had to race to catch up. With political corruption widespread, protests have spread across the country, exposing an enraged middle class.

Felipe Dana / AP / DPA

By Matthias Matussek in Rio de Janeiro


The Brazilian democracy was born in the days when Brazilian football was dying. It makes for a tempting lead, but it's only half true. The Seleção, Brazil's national team, actually played better than expected in the Confederation Cup, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. But Brazilian football also has an easier time of it than democracy. It has rules it has to comply with, and the results are clear. Democracy, on the other hand, is an endless series of trial-and-error, and the rules are constantly changing.

One rule stands out above all others at the moment in Leblon-Ipanema, the most expensive piece of real estate in Rio de Janeiro if not in all of Brazil. Protesters have set up their tents in front of the governor's mansion and they are being asked to stick to the allotted speaking time, a Brazilian version of the Occupy movement. Three minutes, says Bruno, who runs the stopwatch. But then he promptly ignores it.

Over the cliffs, at the end of the bay, the lights of Favela Vidigal are scattered like stardust and a soft breeze is blowing in from the sea. The pungent smell of churrasco wafts over from a food stand. But in front of the tents, people are deeply engaged in heated debates -- just as they are across the country. Brazil has awakened, and the people are demanding to be heard.

In this particular case, the people consist of a few art students, a handful of housewives and some retirees. Luiza, for example, is a jazz singer who lives in the nouveau-riche Barra neighborhood, Bárbara writes poetry and her parents are professors, and Jair, a Rasta from Bahia, swears he will "die for the cause." Everyone applauds enthusiastically, and yet no one knows yet what exactly they are demanding. Formulating those demands is the objective of this group, which they call "Aquárius."

Everyone is given a chance. Young fireman Álvaro, for example, was confined for a few days during the protests, which began in earnest in mid-June, to the Bangu 1 maximum-security prison along with 13 other firefighters. He is demanding to be rehired. He also wants better pay and training for the military police.

'You Can't Educate All of Humanity'

What? The others are astonished. Álvaro explains his remark, saying that better education makes for better people.

"But you can't educate all of humanity. That would take years," Sylvia, a housewife, interjects.

There is a heated argument before the group continues to the next item. Rodrigo says that something ought to be done about the recurring floods in the interior. Lúcio wants the homeless to be allowed to return to the empty buildings from which they were expelled. Retiree Rentao is mainly interested in eating bananas and takes a third while old Lourdes from Vidigal wants her house to be repaired, because the neighbor damaged an exterior wall during a renovation project.

Most of all, though, they want the governor to finally explain why the government is spending so much money to renovate Maracanã Stadium. Officials had initially promised that not a single real of taxpayer money would be spent. By now, though, the government has pumped hundreds of millions into the project.

As the grievances add up, one thing becomes exceedingly clear: Democracy is difficult. But the people gathered do agree on one thing: Football is the opium of the people, a sign of immaturity. "If the Seleção stops by in their bus, don't allow yourselves to be distracted," says Bruno sarcastically.

It is not without irony that the popular uprising is taking advantage of a Brazilian football festival. Certainly it also has something to do with the arrogance of FIFA officials, who enjoy themselves around the shimmering pool at the Copacabana Palace. It is enough to remind one of everything that is bad about football: corruption, waste and cynicism.

Vast and Angry

But spending billions for stadiums that no one needs, just to make Brazil look good? Equally questionable is the construction of a stadium in Manaus, deep in the Amazon rain forest, a city without a first-division football club and a place where it is so hot that asphalt melts. The administration of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva decided that almost every Brazilian state should have its own stadium, and the government provided generous funding for the effort -- instead of spending the money on schools, roads and hospitals.

The protests this summer, vast and angry, is the Brazilian parallel to the 2011 Arab spring. It is a leaderless movement organized through social networks, which is its strength. It may not be able to shape politics, but it can certainly exert pressure. It can mobilize the street.

It began in São Paulo on June 6 with a march of only 500 people protesting against an increase in bus fares. Since then, however, it has grown into a conflagration of discontent. On June 17, 200,000 people protested in Rio de Janeiro, Belém and about 20 other cities, and by June 20 some 1.4 million protesters had taken to the streets in more than 120 cities. Protesters danced on the roof of the congress building in the capital Brasília, creating images that have since been broadcast around the world. They are the tour dates of a popular uprising that newspapers are presenting as proudly as they do the victories of the Seleção. The people are agitated, and the political world is afraid.

President Dilma Rousseff has felt that ire directly; she was booed during the opening of the Confed Cup in mid-June and her approval rating has plunged by 27 percentage points. In a hastily arranged televised address, she promised reforms and held out the prospect of a referendum. The bus fare increases were reversed, as was a scandalous draft law that would have given corrupt lawmakers immunity from prosecution. Some €19 billion ($26 billion) in new funding for public transportation was suddenly approved. And now the first corrupt lawmaker, who had managed to delay his trial by three years, has been arrested. The government has been literally tripping over itself recently in its hurry to answer to the people.

Out of Touch

On the other hand, almost 200 members of the National Congress are under investigation. One lawmaker, who is accused of murder, allegedly dismembered his political rival with a chainsaw. Another moved $10 million earmarked for a road construction project to an overseas bank account. A third politician is thought to have ordered the abduction of three priests who had campaigned on behalf of the landless.

Today the Congress is probably the most despised institution in Brazil. The magazine Veja depicts it perched on the edge of a cliff, with lawmakers who look like rats falling into the abyss while demonstrators force their way into the building from the other side. "Brazil has perhaps never before been under the command of people who were quite as arrogant as Lula, Dilma Rousseff and the barons of the PT," writes Veja, in reference to Rousseff's party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or "Workers' Party."

In fact, the PT seems to be completely out of touch with reality. The bloated government bureaucracy, with its 39 ministries, consumes €100 billion a year. Rousseff spends €214 each time she visits the hairdresser. Why, people want to know? Has her hair turned to gold since she became president?

At a posh dinner party in the hills of the Jardim Botânico, constitutional law expert Carlos Bolonha bends over his crystal glass and explains how unfeasible the referendum announced by Rousseff is -- and how it would be tantamount to a top-down coup d'état. Venezuela's former left-wing populist president, Hugo Chavez, often used referendums to solidify his power.

These are hard times for the PT. It is in a glass house and cannot be throwing stones. Although the left, the traditional voice of the people, is in power, this traditional alliance has been shattered and trust gambled away since the Lula administration was involved in a bribery scandal. And trust was always its greatest asset.

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spon-facebook-523613003 07/12/2013
1. optional
It's an awful mix of present and past notes about Brazil. I do not agree with this article.
nilvo.silva 07/12/2013
2.
There are lots of interesting things going on in Brazil, but they are far more nuanced than the article portrays. The use of sources like Revista Veja is very politically charged. This magazine is more of a political party than real journalism. Please, Spiegel needs to listen to a more diverse range of actors in Brazil.
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