In the summer if 2013 the world stood in shock as Brazilian protesters allegedly motivated by rising public transportation costs took to the streets to protest on a mass scale. Though in the first instance the world press reported this as a student protest, over the course of a few days, the details started to become clearer.

Though the government did initially recognize the legitimacy of the complaints the press was essentially served a gag order and the 3 major media agencies only interviewed the organizers of the “Free pass” movement lobbying for the reduction of bus fares. This led to public outrage and across the nation as citizens from all walks of life and different political views staged the largest mass protests seen for over 20 years. In this article I will try to explain the underlying reasons for the mass uprising in Brazil and the implications for Latin America as a whole.


Thousands of protesters descended on the newly built football stadiums in opposition of the skyrocketing costs of construction and infrastructure related to the world cup and upcoming Olympic games to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro and other cities across Brazil. Football is almost a national religion in Brazil. The passion for the game runs very deep and is a binding agent in a fragmented national culture so the protests against the stadiums construction costs came as a surprise to the government and the nation as a whole. What started as a demonstration against high bus fares quickly became a more complex. Protester demands became a wash list of grievances ranging from the poor state of education and healthcare to the lack of public security, high cost of public transportation, land reform and probably most important, rampant political corruption. Limitations on private individuals to freely engage in commerce has taken a toll on the economy in recent years. For an individual to engage in the buying and selling of products they must be registered as a business. One would be forgiven for thinking that this is a policy of a socialist regime but the opposite is true. These were measures taken by the military regime and never changed. This is just one example of the lack of reforms that lead to social unrest. Many laws created during the military dictatorship are still in effect and little evidence that the justice ministry will do something change that. I will walk you through the main points that bother Brazilians the most.


The state of public education in Brazil is a problem that has refused to go away. Every government from the military dictatorship to the four democratically elected regimes promised change but rarely delivered. Problems range from overcrowding of classrooms, lack of books and resources, nonexistent computer and science labs, lack of well trained teachers and lack of public school busses to transport students the long distances. Primary and secondary education consists of a 4 hour school day covering the very basic subjects. Once graduated from secondary education, students must take a complex entrance exam in order to enter universities. Universities have the added problem of not having enough qualified professors with a masters or higher level degree (Ph.D.). Even is a student dos pass there are major problems finding a spot in a university either state or private due to overcrowding. If you are lucky enough to get a spot and graduate with a Master’s degree there is a big chance that you would be getting your doctorate abroad, This complicates the issue further. Recent studies show that if major reforms were to take place today, it would cost billions of dollars and decades to fix the education problem in Brazil. For this reason, each new government puts it off for the next government. Recently the Dilma Roussef government made a surprise move to freeze hiring of new university professors and imposing new restrictions on foreign professors teaching in Brazil. In many ways it’s a catch 22, lack of university educated professionals hinders new teachers coming into the education system and leaves an untrained workforce behind.

Health care

Brazil has a unique healthcare system that incorporates a public and private sector. All Brazilians have the right to basic health care and there is a network of primary health care clinics that provide basic services. These institutions are rarely well equipped and unable to deal with serious health issues due to a lack of doctors (see education). Patients are most often sent for specialized care at state hospitals where the problem gets worse. Overcrowding, lack of qualified personnel, lack of medical supplies are the norm and 1000’s die needlessly each year. For the rural areas the situation gets worse. Up to now foreign doctors lured by the high salaries paid in Brazil have attended the rural communities but new legislation and protest from Brazilian doctors feeling left out will change this, most likely for the worse.

Public transportation

Public transportation varies from city to city the common denominator is the high prices for fares. Recent rises in gas prices led to an increase of fares.  Bus fares saw an 80% or higher increase as did metro fares. Brazil has a public regulated private mass transport system where private companies licensed by the state operate fixed routes. As there are multiple companies involved a transfer system does not exist. Passengers requiring multiple busses must pay each time they take a new bus. Fares were set to rise to close to 2$ (US) meaning if you need to take 2 busses to get to where you are going you can spend 8$ a day. In a country where the minimum wage is about 350$ a month there is not allot of room left to pay for food, rent, and some of the highest electric prices in the world. The government did intervene and a nationwide reduction was implemented but many of the bus companies may be operating at a loss if further subsidies are not implemented soon.
Public Security

Crime is one of the country’s worst problems. According to the UNODC Brazil has the second highest number of homicides in the world estimated at 42,923 according to latest data.

The motives behind the high crime rate are complex and varied but drugs/alcohol, poverty and an ever increasing gang presence are the core issues. Organized gangs that were once locally based have found nationwide syndication. The most famous one in recent times is PCC (First Commandos of the Capital) once Sao Paulo based has spread to every corner of Brazil. Cocaine sales are responsible for the rapid increase in gang expansions. Brazil has the highest user rates for cocaine in the world. The lack of economic opportunities for the urban youth combined with poor state of education and hyperinflation, play into the hands of gang recruiters offering large sums of cash for criminal activities. Ineffective and often heavy handed policing have their part to play in the story as well. Reports of police corruption, assassinations of “suspected drug dealers”, extortion, rape and racketeering are common place and often go unpunished by the justice ministry.

The 2010 military invasion of “Complexo do Alamao” in Rio de Janeiro was hailed by the federal and state authorities as a victory over crime but many of its residents feel otherwise. Complaints range from police corruption, exclusion of community leaders from the pacification process and lack of basic infrastructure promised but not delivered. Other critics claim that it has just pushed the drug trade to other areas or underground. Police argue that low pay, lack of proper training facilities, lack of personnel and border patrols make their job impossible. They too took to the streets and staged a general strike in recent days.

Land reform and housing rights

Three consecutive governments have promised to deliver on land reform. In reality very little has been changed legally. Rural workers that have been on their land in some cases for generations and still have no land titles. This has led to illegal land occupations that in most cases have been organized by municipal political candidates in a ploy to gain votes. Masses of people are even shipped in from other states and promptly registered to gain votes. The result is that after the elections are over a new population is left with little to no resources and infrastructure i.e. schools, health care, basic sanitation or agricultural engineering support.

In the urban scenario the situation becomes more critical. For generations shanty towns called “Favelas” can be found in nearly every Brazilian city. Rio de Janeiro has the most famous favelas where millions live without basic sanitation, public transport and effective policing. Every government since the end of the military regime has promised and failed to tackle the almost insurmountable task of providing a solution for the millions of inhabitants. The latest program started by the Lula government and carried on by the Rouseff government called “My house, My life” is providing low cost publicly funded housing and mirrors similar programs instituted in Mexico, Columbia, Nicaragua to name a few. Though this has led to a great improvement in living standards for thousands, the project is riddled with problems. Recent studies have shown that the majority of applicants for these houses are middle class Brazilians earning over 3 times the national minimum wage. The program allows applicants with up to 10 times the minimum wage to participate. Many of these projects are gated communities that impose a high HOH tariff that excludes lower income families from participating. So in the long term it looks like this is a program that benefits the lower and upper middle class and not the majority of residents of favelas that are most in need of proper housing.

What the governments have not done is to issue the current residents a housing title “titulo definitivo”. This is a program that was very successful in Columbia, Peru and Venezuela. The political differences of these three countries are massive but all had adopted the same policy. Studies show that once a property receives a housing title, legal business licenses can also be issued and small properties can be sold, financed or in some cases consolidated which results in improved living conditions and a boost to local economies.

All in all it seems that Brazilians have something to complain about. Though the issues stated here are more pronounced in Brazil they are not unique to greater Latin America. As I write this similar demonstration and movements for change are popping up all over South America. With the advent of social media, propaganda campaigns by weak governments are becoming less and less effective as people voice their discontent.

QR Code
QR Code brazil (generated for current page)