For years, crime, classism and old habits have kept Brazil’s well-to-do away from the messy reality of the country’s streets. But the World Cup, and now, anger at the government, have brought them back onto the scene.
By James Young
“Go downtown?* Are you crazy! It’s far too dangerous!” (*Or “Go to the football” or “Take the bus”).
The refrain, usually uttered by upper middle class Brazilians, is familiar to many foreigners coming to live in the country. Worried by eye-popping murder rates (according to WHO figures, there were over 64,000 homicides in Brazil in 2012) and alarmed at the thought of a naïve gringo or gringa ending up in a darkened alley, such over-protectiveness on the part of the locals was arguably understandable.
Yet an additional subtext lay behind such fears. For years, driven indoors by the levels of violence of the society that surrounds them, Brazil’s upper classes have hidden from public life, seeking refuge in gated communities and behind the high walls of luxury apartment buildings, in shopping malls and expensive restaurants. The result was that with some exceptions (the beaches of Leblon or Ipanema, or the metro system of São Paulo, for example) the country’s public spaces – the streets, public transport networks, football stadiums, even large parts of the carnaval celebrations of a number of cities, became the near-exclusive redoubt of less well-off Brazilians.
Now, however, things may be changing. Brazil’s upper social classes appear to be stirring.
The long-established polarization of Brazilian society came to the fore recently amidst the toxic atmosphere that surrounded the presidential elections, notably in the form of frustrated PSDB supporters attacking PT voters for being “ill-informed” and dependent on welfare programs such as bolsa familia. Although the fault lines were in fact blurred, many chose to see the contest between Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves as a straight poor Brazil vs. rich Brazil battle.
But as this blog explored previously, Brazil’s class divisions are more complex, not helped by the bewildering array of definitions and terms used to describe social class. According to figures released by the government’s Strategic Matters Department in 2012, the country can be divided into eight social classes – three of which are described as poor or vulnerable, three of which are defined as middle class, and two of which are upper class.
Such definitions reflect the rise of Brazil’s so-called nova classe media (“new middle class”), who, according to the government, earn between R$291 (currently U$90) and R$1019 (U$317) per capita a month and represent over 50% of the population, their numbers boosted by those moving out of poverty as a result of (now stalled) economic growth, an increased minimum wage and social benefit programs.
In recent years the nova classe media has been touted as Brazil’s rising demographic and economic star. The newfound spending power of its members boosted the economy, and suddenly Brazil’s new middle classes were everywhere – from the country’s airports (traditionally another upper class fortresses) to its TV screens. Brazil’s novelas (soap operas) had always been dominated by characters drawn from the wealthy of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with the occasional token storyline given over to poorer Brazilians, and usually played for laughs. That changed in 2012 with Avenida Brasil, described by many as a “Classe C novela”.
At the same time, much of the nova classe media is far from any middle class that northern European or North American readers would recognize. A family of four in the middle of the government’s scale would have an income of around R$2,600 (U$850) per month, perhaps enough to buy a flat screen TV, smart phone or small car on a lengthy purchase plan, but hardly sufficient to move into an upmarket part of town. Plenty of Classe C (another term used for the nova classe media) neighborhoods in the periferias of Brazil’s major cities, particularly in the nordeste of the country, are unsafe, lack basic sanitation services and have unpaved roads.
Now, it seems, it’s again time for Brazil’s upper classes to grab the spotlight, and the coming out party of the classes altas was last summer’s World Cup. Whereas Brazil’s run-down football stadiums had previously been seen by many better off Brazilians as dangerous no-go areas, ruled over by the notorious torcidas organizadas (there have been at least 234 football related deaths in Brazil in the last 25 years), the expensive tickets and safe, comfortable World Cup arenas, meant that the Copa, in terms of Brazilian fans at least, became a very upper middle class affair. Throughout the tournament the stadium jumbotron TV screens showed images of shiny-toothed, wealthy looking fans beaming into the cameras, and a Datafolha survey of the crowd during Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation against Germany found that 90% were from Brazil’s upper classes, and only 9% were Classe C.
And then there is carnaval. While the profile of foliões (“revelers”) varies from city to city (“carnaval has always been about the people in the street and the rich on their verandas” MPB legend Gilberto Gil has said of the festivities in Salvador), two of the most notable developments of recent carnaval celebrations have been the popularity of blocos da rua (“street parties”) in São Paulo, particularly in the upper middle class neighborhood of Vila Madalena, and the growth of the festival in Belo Horizonte. For years the main carnaval in Brazil’s third biggest city took place in a grotty outer suburb, but this year over a million people celebrated across the city, with many blocos attracting crowds of wealthier Brazilians.
Brazil’s largest upper class explosion came just two weeks ago, however, when anywhere from a few hundred thousand to 1.7 million (estimates vary wildly) people took to the streets to protest against political corruption and president Dilma Rousseff’s government. There had been similarly large scale demonstrations during the Confederations Cup in 2013, but the profile of the crowd then (young and middle class), was markedly different to those that took to the streets this month.
At the protest in Belo Horizonte’s leafy Praça Liberdade, for example, the vast majority of the 25,000 or so demonstrators seemed to be drawn from the city’s upper social classes. Most were wearing Brazil football shirts and sunglasses, and chatted happily as they waved placards calling for the impeachment of Rousseff. There were plenty of family groups, and several residents of the expensive apartment buildings nearby had brought their Pekingeses or Shih-Tzus along for a walk. Afterwards, the bars and restaurants of the entertainment district of Savassi were filled with people tucking into hearty lunches after a tough morning’s protesting. As at least one site has noted, it was sometimes hard to tell if it was a political protest or a World Cup match. Meanwhile a survey of the 100,000-strong demonstration in the southern city of Porto Alegre found that over 70% of the crowd earned more than six times the minimum monthly wage.
At the same time, the surprisingly large scale of events means that disparagingly classifying the protests as solely the raging of Brazil’s burguês (“bourgeois”) or elite branca (“white elite”) is unlikely to tell the whole story – frustration with the country’s governing classes runs far deeper than that.
The debate over the return of Brazil’s upper classes to the streets and football stadiums, like the rise in visibility of Classe C before it, has once more brought to the surface the simmering class tensions that underlie the country’s society. Class boundaries in Brazil may be blurring, but its social divisions, and the fear and loathing that surrounds them, are as marked as ever.