You may have heard there’s been a bit of bother in Brazil, with crowds of people taking to the streets to air their grievances. The protests became international news, prompting a series of articles in the British press. In the Times, one journalist took it upon himself to have a little dig at the Brazilian middle classes who formed the major part of the demonstrating hordes. Hang on a minute, he said, the middle class in Brazil has “never had it so good”. So, he implied, they should count their blessings and stop moaning. What blessings?
Well, first of all, they don’t have to suffer the evils of rampant inflation anymore. The first time I caught a bus in Rio, in 1992, I paid around 30 cruzeiros. A few weeks later I was paying 300. Before long I needed a sackful of money just to get to work. One of the catastrophic consequences of runaway inflation is chronic instability in the banking system. In other words, no credit cards, no personal loans. In the old days, you kept your dollars under the mattress. Now, following the currency stabilising ‘Plano Real’ in 1994, credit is freely available. So much so that Brazil is swamped with new cars that the middle classes have been able to buy on the “never never”. It’s the same with property. Now you can get finance for a new apartment, something virtually unheard of 20 years ago.
Let’s face it, having a mortgage and a car are pretty basic when it comes to quality of life. So what else is there to be thankful for if you’re a bourgeois Brazilian? Well, there’s more choice of products to buy, domestic or imported. Although Brazil operates a strict import tax system, there are now plenty of goodies in the stores if you can afford it. But there’s the rub…if you can afford it.
Unbeknownst to that Times journalist, the prices in Brazil are nothing short of astronomical. In fact, the middle classes are expected to pay through the nose for the kind of things that in England are well within most people’s budget. Cars, for instance, are more than double the price. And it’s not only luxury goods – even food prices have rocketed in recent months. The professional, corporate class is also being squeezed in their pay-packets with high levels of income tax. No wonder they feel caught between a rock and a hard place. And for the poor, it’s even worse.
The rumpus started when public bus fares went up. Paying $1.25 to catch a bus doesn’t sound much, but when you’re a cleaner and have to catch six buses a day (all packed like sardine cans) to get to the wealthy suburbs it soon mounts up, especially when your salary is less than $500 a month.
And what does the government do with all the income tax? Spend it on new football stadiums, of course. Brazil has to look slick and sophisticated when Johnny Foreigner comes over next year for the World Cup. It’s a good job the Brazilian government didn’t bother to ask the people if they minded about the R$7.6 billion reais (nearly $3.5 billion) it was investing in state-of-the-art stadiums . If they had, Fifa would have been sent packing. That money would have seriously improved Brazil’s dire public school system, a shamefully underfunded education sector which forces the vast majority of middle-class parents to go private (another tight squeeze on the monthly budget).
To say nothing of the embarrassing public health system, where hospitals can look like war zones and seeing a doctor can take forever. So what do the middle classes have to do? You guessed it – go private.
All these upbeat reports about the booming Brazilian economy ignore the fact that the middle classes have been sucked into the credit trap, over-stretching themselves by buying all the glittering goods in the swish shopping malls. And that’s on top of their monthly mortgage payments, bills for private schools and hefty health plans. As we have seen throughout Europe, there is nothing more treacherous than living beyond your means.
The price of living in Brazil is so high, only the wealthy can enjoy the fruits of economic growth. And those in power who have the wealth have built citadels to protect themselves from the mob, employing family members and other cronies in a corrupt mafia-style system of back-scratching and money-syphoning.
So when the hard-working middle-class doctors and teachers take to the streets to protest about corruption, lack of investment in public services, blatant over-spending on the World Cup and ridiculously high prices, they have a very valid point. A social revolution it may not be just yet, but it’s satisfying to imagine the greedy, shame-faced politicians retreating into their gilded lairs as the Brazilian people shout out loud that they just won’t take it anymore.