Trouble for the 'Brazilian Miracle'

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a leading sociologist, was President of Brazil from 1995 to 2000. WorldPost asked him examine the eruption of middle class discontent in Brazil.

On the causes of social unrest. The slowing down of the Brazilian economy is not due only to external factors, such as the reduction of demand from China and Europe.

Internal factors also do play a role. After a positive initial reaction to anti-cyclical governmental policies with the expansion of credit and consumption, there was an overreliance on the capacity of these policies to promote growth coupled with a lack of timely investments in infrastructure.

There was also an excessive propaganda about the emergence of the 'new middle classes' and too much public fiscal incentives to promote consumption. The small but persistent inflation at the annual rate of 6% and the ensuing restrictions on credit with the rise of interest rates produced a shift in the overall economic climate from unbridled optimism to concern with low growth and increasing cost of living.

Linked to and prompted by the strong public reaction against widespread corruption, this change in people's expectations explains how quickly the wave of protests spread virally through the Internet and led to massive protests in the streets.

World Cup as a symbol of waste.The wave of protests was sparked by the waste of public funds in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. But they express a more profound feeling of discontent. People are fed up with corruption and impunity. They want better public services, especially in health, education and public transportation. They also want to participate and are calling for institutional reforms. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. However a small but vocal and aggressive minority of radical groups, as the so-called Black Block with its anarchist symbols and destructive behavior, have resorted to the systematic use of violence as the means to discredit any and all public institutions.

Rising middle class wants accountability. There is certainly a cognitive dissonance between the rosy reality proclaimed by government and daily life as experienced by the groups whose income has increased. As a consequence people are asking for more participation and better quality of life. It is true that this gives rise to a crisis of legitimacy of the political institutions but democracy is not at all in question or at risk. Quite the opposite. People are calling for more freedom and equality, all essential democratic values.

Brazil indeed has democratic institutions and fair elections but we can hardly say that public institutions are really accountable. Besides pervasive corruption the proportional system for electing Congress is unfit to the reality of contemporary urban Brazil and actually widens the gap between voters and representatives.

Between demos and res publica. Our challenge is to bridge the gap between demos and res publica, between people and the public interest. Either the democratic institutions allow for more substantive participation in the deliberative process, enabling the political representation to regain legitimacy by listening to and interacting with citizens and voters, or the crisis will persist and institutions will lose legitimacy and efficiency. Hence the challenge to all of us, political leaders, artists, innovators, scientists, ordinary citizens who care for freedom, to reweave the institutional threads that may reconnect the political system with the demands of an informed and participatory society.