Analysis: Brazil's protests: Not quite a 'Tropical Spring'

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s blossoming protest movement is a coming-of-age for what had been one of Latin America’s most politically disengaged youth populations, but does not appear to constitute a major threat to governability or established political parties.

The protests, which gathered steam last week and saw some 200,000 Brazilians demonstrate in a dozen cities on Monday, are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Their broad rallying cry, which includes opposition to corruption and recent bus fare increases, has appealed to virtually any Brazilian with a grievance - and there are plenty of problems to go around.

Yet, at least for now, the movement appears to be far more “Occupy Wall Street” than “Arab Spring” in terms of its motives, demographics and likely outcome.

That is, the protests are a noisy sign of discontent among a swath of the population that is on average richer and better educated than average Brazilians. A survey of demonstrators in Sao Paulo on Monday by polling firm Datafolha indicated they were three times more likely to have a university degree than the rest of the population.

The protests have spread quickly, and generated perhaps outsized buzz, in a country that has one of the world’s highest usage rates of social media - 81 percent of respondents told Datafolha they heard about Monday’s protest via Facebook.

Their novelty has also been important, as Brazil does not have the recent tradition of political protest seen in Argentina, Venezuela or even Chile. The use of teargas and rubber bullets by police inexperienced in crowd control has added to the shock value and pushed even more sympathizers into the streets.

As such, the protests have become a nationwide phenomenon and could lead President Dilma Rousseff and other politicians to make limited concessions on relatively small issues, such as bus fares, and bigger ones, such as the quality of public spending.

They may continue to grow in numbers and disrupt daily life in Brazilian cities - perhaps for months to come. The protests also add to the sensation that Brazil, after a decade in which seemingly everything went right, has become bogged down in rising inflation, crime and social unrest.

But the movement is just as notable for what it is not.

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Unlike the unrest that swept the Arab world earlier this decade and Turkey more recently, the protesters are not targeted at a specific leader - or even the federal government.

Just a quarter of demonstrators told Datafolha they were protesting against politicians - behind bus fares (56 percent), corruption (40 percent) and police repression (31 percent).

Brazil is a vibrant democracy with a variety of parties, most of them left of center. The country’s current leaders - many of whom cut their teeth protesting a military government in the 1970s and 1980s - appear eager to compromise with the protesters and, eventually, try to co-opt them.

Rousseff, herself a former guerrilla, made a carefully crafted statement this week praising the protesters for their “greatness.” One senior official in Sao Paulo told Reuters on Wednesday: “We have to learn from this. We’d be stupid not to listen to what these people are saying.”


But the numbers have not been as large as they may seem to outsiders, considering Brazil’s huge size.

To use one comparison, Monday’s total nationwide turnout, the biggest so far, amounted to about 0.1 percent of Brazil’s population of nearly 200 million people. Tuesday’s follow-up protest in Sao Paulo rallied about 50,000 people in a metropolitan area of some 20 million.

The movement is also not a sign of massive, European- or Arab-style discontent with the economy. Unlike countries where protests or alternative social movements grew big enough to deeply shake the established order, Brazil does not have a problem with unemployment among youths or the population at large.

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In fact, Brazil’s problem is the opposite: Near-full employment and rising wages are driving inflation of about 6.5 percent a year, which is the root cause behind the bus fare increases that originally triggered protesters’ ire.

If Brazil’s recent economic boom is responsible for creating the bottlenecks that have enraged so many of the demonstrators, it will also likely limit their movement’s appeal.

A nationwide poll released on Wednesday showed Rousseff’s popularity, while down sharply from March, remained very high by global standards. Fifty-five percent of respondents rated her government as “good/great,” while 32 percent rated it as “average.” Just 13 percent said it was “bad/terrible.”

Recent polls have shown similar results.

Financial stability and innovative social programs helped pull some 35 million Brazilians, or about 17 percent of the population, out of poverty during the past decade. Brazil was one of the only countries in the world that matched high economic growth with falling inequality during that period.

Perhaps for that reason, the rising lower-middle class has so far shown few signs of participating in the protests - even if its members support some of the motives, particularly the cry for better public transport.

There are several wild cards that could transform the movement into something more threatening to the status quo.

One of them is violence. Although the marches have been mostly peaceful, clashes between police and protesters have injured more than 100 people, and isolated looting broke out in Sao Paulo on Tuesday. A confrontation that resulted in deaths would likely bring many more Brazilians out onto the streets in support.

The other is the economy. Brazil’s currency has slid sharply in recent weeks, and its stock market is down 20 percent this year, reflecting rising pessimism among investors. That could, in turn, result in greater unemployment - in which case, the popular unrest would likely build.

Reporting by Brian Winter; Editing by Todd Benson and Peter Cooney