Social Inequality in Brazil: The People, Politics and the World Cup


This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

On May 20, bus drivers in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, went on strike, closing 11 major terminals and leaving many people stranded. The newspaper A Folha ran a headline that stated: “Protest Hurts the People and Not the Big Shots.” After all, the people take the bus, while the political class and the rich do not. In Brazil, the divide between these classes is always visible.

Social Divisions

São Paulo, which will be hosting the opening game of the FIFA World Cup on June 12, is the wealthiest state in Brazil and has attracted migrants from other parts of the country, particularly from the poorer north, a region that has generally been ignored by politicians. Of the people who moved to São Paulo, some of them were happy to settle there, while others strived to save enough money to return home. Despite projects starting during the administration of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to invest in the northeast, Brazil’s wealth is still concentrated in the south.

In addition to significant cultural differences between Brazil’s states, the regions differ economically to such a degree that the country resists stereotyping. Even within São Paulo, the sharp divisions between social classes make it difficult to represent the state — or the city of the same name — in one-dimensional terms.

For a certain class of workers in the city of São Paulo, living here means long and sometimes dangerous commutes to and from work. At a restaurant in the affluent neighborhood of Pinheiros, a waiter told me that many of his coworkers take great risks just going home from work every night. They leave the restaurant late, he explained, and since buses run infrequently at that hour, they have to walk long distances, alone, through rough neighborhoods that are only minimally patrolled by an underpaid and ineffective police force.

Another group of Paulistanos — as the people from this city are called — live closer to work, in more central neighborhoods, often in apartment buildings with double-lock gates, security guards and amenities such as gyms and small reception halls. This upper-middle class, who generally never go into the poorer neighborhoods and certainly never into the favelas, can afford to spend an outrageous 30 reais ($13.50) for a sandwich and a coffee at one of the fancier cafés on their way back from work. This class shops at US-style malls, or they fly to New York City or Miami, avoiding high prices in Brazil. However, most of the middle-class — like schoolteachers who earn on average 890 reais ($390) per month — simply do not have access to that lifestyle.

Despite the divisions between them, one thing that all classes of Brazilians — except for the elite political class — seem to share is the feeling of being cheated. 

São Paulo, therefore, is a markedly different city for distinct economic classes. The vast majority of Brazilians do not go into the shopping malls frequented by the middle-class. This disparity has given rise to protests such as rolezinhos — excursions organized through social media that bring young people from poor neighborhoods en masse into the shopping centers. Some observers have interpreted this movement as a form of protest against the disparity that exists here, while a great number, including a significant percentage of the Brazilian middle-class, believe these excursions are not ideologically motivated and that young people from the periphery are simply looking to have fun in a rather destructive way. Whatever the impetus for the movement, the rolezinhos are a reflection of a divided country.

Poor Returns

Despite the divisions between them, one thing that all classes of Brazilians — except for the elite political class — seem to share is the feeling of being cheated. The prices for food, clothes and other basic needs are exorbitant, partly due to tax, which can add 80% to the total price of the product. For all they pay, Brazilians feel like they receive few benefits. In a study conducted by the Brazilian Institute for Tax Planning that compared the returns people saw for their taxes in 30 different countries, Brazil ranked lowest on the list.

A recent Pew Research poll found that, in addition to their concerns about the high cost of living, the majority of Brazilians are unhappy with the school systems and find health care severely lacking. According to Brazil’s Indicator of Functional Illiteracy, 27% of adults between the ages of 15 and 64 have only rudimentary reading and writing skills. They can read only basic texts like advertisements or short letters and handle only elementary mathematical operations such as simple monetary transactions. Some students who have graduated from public schools enter universities (usually private) and are still functionally illiterate. Underpaid and overworked university professors then face the problem of trying to teach students who cannot write a well-formed paragraph despite having finished high school.

Public hospitals are also in poor shape. Brazil’s General Accounting Office recently audited 116 hospitals and found that 64% were operating over capacity. Other problems included poor infrastructure, a shortage of doctors and nurses, and equipment so poorly maintained that it is unusable. At a hospital in the state of Piauí in April, one patient died while being treated on the floor because there were not enough beds.

The Pew Research poll also noted that almost all Brazilians (83%) say that crime is a serious problem. Many Brazilians respond to the constant threat of crime by avoiding large public events, such as the recent Virada Cultural, an all-night festival in the center of São Paulo that featured theater, concerts, dancing and other shows. Despite the presence of over 5,000 guards and military police in the center of the city that night, at least two people were shot and another two stabbed during the event. The army will be policing the streets in Rio and São Paulo during the World Cup.

Security forces face perpetual danger and are poorly paid. The civil police force recently discussed organizing strikes in 13 states. Teachers also feel they are not fairly compensated and have been staging protests. Professors at Brazil’s most prestigious university, the Universidade de São Paulo, organized a strike after their salaries were not adjusted for inflation due to lack of funds.

Watching their government invest heavily in new stadiums and aesthetic improvements to infrastructure in advance of the World Cup has aggravated the sense many people have that the state is robbing them of basic necessities: health care, security and education. Groups whose services can immediately affect Brazil’s capacity to host a large international event have timed their protests carefully. Metro employees in São Paulo, for example, have shut down the metro just a week before the opening game. A group of military police staged a protest outside Itaquerão stadium on June 4. These groups and others that offer essential services believe the government will more likely cede to their demands now, in order to avoid problems during the World Cup.

World Cup: Cooperate with FIFA

Since Brazil is now enjoying — or suffering from — greater visibility in global media due to the World Cup and because presidential elections are approaching, many groups are taking advantage of the heightened attention to announce their grievances to the world. “Não vai ter Copa” (there will not be a World Cup), some groups threaten, but most know there will be games. They simply want the world to see what is happening.

In April, Mikkel Jensen, an independent Danish journalist, posted an article on his Facebook page saying he was horrified by the human rights violations in Brazil and that, although his dream had been to cover the World Cup, he was leaving the country early. He wrote that poor children were disappearing from the streets of Fortaleza in the government’s efforts to clean things up in advance of the tournament.

It is true that people have been evicted from their homes to clear the way for new infrastructure, and there have been numerous reports of human rights abuses in Brazil, particularly in regard to the campaign to pacify the country’s favelas. Jensen, however, was unable to cite any reliable sources. Brazilian journalist Luiz Caversan even called the piece farcical.

Despite the problems with Jensen’s report, including his decision to leave the country rather than follow up on the story, the piece went viral in Brazil. The number of times it was enthusiastically reposted reflects the desire of many Brazilians to show the world a reality that their government and FIFA would rather hide. Brazilians, however, do not need to rely on Facebook posts to communicate their message. The metro employees standing near the turnstiles carrying giant, threatening batons and wearing all-black uniforms with white writing saying “Cooperate with FIFA” send a clear message.

Brazilians are divided in their attitudes toward the World Cup. Some view the event as an opportunity to announce their frustration to the global media and to their own government. Others are frustrated and saddened by the constant protests, which they see as rooted in petty political games more than as a genuine movement on the part of the people. Others are afraid.

Very few support the World Cup, and some people are even hoping the Brazilian team loses because they feel that victory in soccer would mean a victory for President Dilma Rousseff this October. The current mood is one of apprehension and frustration. It is difficult to predict whether the climate will change when the games begin on June 12, but one thing is certain: The world will see an image of Brazil that is far more complex than beaches and soccer fans.


This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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