SAO PAULO — On a gray winter’s morning the rain is pouring down on Capão Redondo — a slum on the edge of São Paulo’s massive urban sprawl. Despite the weather, several hundred local people have gathered for a morning march that will further snarl up the city’s already chronic traffic jams.
In one of the latest demonstrations of the discontent sweeping across Brazil, these protesters are braving the elements to demand better schools for their children and hospitals for the sick.
Last time the rest of the world paid much attention to Brazil the news was all positive – millions of people being lifted out of poverty amid falling inequality in a booming country eager to take its place among the front rank of nations.
Then in June came images of millions taking to the country’s streets in a popular revolt against political leaders, all sparked by a rise in bus fares in the city of São Paulo of just $0.09.
It is still too early to say exactly why this small rise provoked such a widespread response among broad swathes of Brazilian society. After all, unemployment at 5.8 percent is lower than in the US and Europe and though growth has slowed, the economy is still expanding.
But part of the reason for the discontent can be found here in Capão Redondo. It traditionally votes for the ruling left-wing Workers Party and is the sort of poor neighborhood that is supposed to have benefitted most from the party’s decade in power.
But the statistics on narrowing social inequality hailed by the United Nations and World Bank obscures the continuing daily struggle for most of Capão Redondo’s residents, people such as Edson Rodrigues.
He has come straight from his night shift as a doorman at a luxury apartment building in a distant well-off neighborhood, but despite creeping exhaustion he is determined to march.
“They say things are better but here life remains hard,” he says. “I work but of my 1,000 reais ($450) a month, 600 reais ($270) goes just on rent. I have a wife and two children and after rent we have to survive on 100 reais ($45) a week at a time when everything is more expensive in the supermarket.”
Such harsh realities illustrate how much work Brazil still needs to do in order to overcome five centuries of social injustice. Even though by 2011 the country achieved its lowest levels of inequality in 30 years, it still finds itself among the world’s most unequal nations.
This explains why though in São Paulo the middle class has dominated the big marches, discontent is far more widespread.
“More people here would protest but most are too tired after long days struggling to make ends meet,” says Rodrigues.
And while the country’s poor may have more money in their pocket they remain dependent on typically substandard public services.
“I cannot afford a private school for my kids so what can I do? I have to leave them in our local school but then they come home and say they had no classes because there were no teachers. How are they going to get an education there?” asks Lidia Gomes, who has taken a day off work as a cleaner in a middle class home in order to protest.
“People here keep being told things have got better for us in recent years but you can see the reality is more complex,” says Wilassan Carlos, a local rapper, the music of street protest in Capão Redondo.
“Things are not the same as ten years ago. Now people can buy a small car. But we still lack so much in health and education. Here we feel like we have managed to walk 100 meters while the rest of the world has run a kilometer.”
For the organizers of the march last week, such complaints shows up the limits of the government's focus over the last decade of stimulating consumption by providing access to cheaper credit for poorer Brazilians.
“There have been advances but it is relative,” says Guilherme Simões of the group Periferia Ativa. “The government has incentivized consumption that allowed families here buy things they could not before like cars and computers. But now many are in debt. It was big companies that benefitted from the growth of this new consumer class while public services such as the local hospital have not improved at all.”
President Dilma Rousseff is now scrambling to show she has got the message and is refocusing her government’s priorities from propping up consumer spending to improvements in public services.
This week she announced a $22.5 billion investment plan in transport and the country’s congress voted to pour the money raised from oil production into the health and education budgets.
In Capão Redondo, which voted overwhelmingly for her in 2010, there is guarded optimism that change might be about to come.
“The president now has a historic chance to change things,” says Simões of Periferia Ativa. “She can stop investing in banks and big companies and start investing in the people who sustain her government. But until she does we will stay on the streets.”