O povo acordou: Brazil takes to the streets

Signs at protests across the country proclaim that “O povo acordou“:
The people have awakened.
Tens of thousands take to the streets of São Paulo, the business capital of Brazil

Tens of thousands take to the streets of São Paulo, the business capital of Brazil

What has happened?  What began on June 6th as a small group opposing a 20-centavo (8.5 US cents) increase in bus fares has grown exponentially in both size and scope.  On June 20th alone, at least 1.5 million Brazilians took to the streets in over 100 cities across the country.  It is a peaceful movement, although there are looters on the fringes who steal and vandalize at some large demonstrations.  Protesters have occasionally clashed with police but law enforcement seems to have learned that the protest will stay peaceful as long as they accompany marches without trying to disperse them.

This is the first major protest movement here in over 20 years, since millions took to the streets in 1992 to demand President Collor´s impeachment for corruption.  The demonstrations have shattered the image of Brazilians as apathetic and unengaged citizens willing to put up with poor results.  A social media-obsessed youth are using Facebook and other sites to organize and galvanize; signs read “Saimos do Facebook (We’ve Left Facebook)” and a popular Twitter hashtag is “#VemPraRua (#ComeToTheStreet).”  The whole country is riveted.  The main newspaper for Salvador dedicated all but two pages of its news coverage to the protests, although soccer still got an almost equal number of pages.  Politicians are bewildered and terrified.

Why are they protesting?  The first gathering sought to prevent an increase in bus fares; one of the movement’s coordinating groups is the Movimento Passe Livre or Free Fare Movement.  Over the next week the motivations diversified: weak public transport in general, outrage at police brutality, disgust with massive spending for the World Cup and Olympics (one sign said, “If your child is sick, take her to the stadium”), low-quality public education, low-quality public healthcare and expensive private healthcare, and really unbelievable corruption in a country: almost 200 sitting congressmen have been charged with crimes from siphoning funds to contracting hit men.  Not “accused of.”  Charged in court by the government.  Understandably, trust in government in 2012 was at a pitiful 33%, low even for the developing world.

Protesters breached security and surged on top of the Brazilian Congress on June 17th.  They reportedly sang the national anthem from the roof of congress

Protesters breached security and surged on top of the Brazilian Congress on June 17th. They reportedly sang the national anthem from the roof of congress

A Folha de São Paulo survey provided good data on the June 17th protests in that city.   The most popular reasons people gave for demonstrating: the bus fare increase (56%), corruption (40%), police violence/repression (31%), for better transport (27%), and against politicians in general (24%).  (Respondents could give multiple answers, so this doesn’t total to 100%.)  Over the past two weeks the focus on bus fares has diminished to focus more on education and health.

Brazil's tax burden compared to Latin America overall.  Remember that the US's taxes make up about 15% of GDP

Brazil’s tax burden compared to Latin America overall. Remember that the US’s taxes make up about 15% of GDP

People resent their massive tax bills when they see unpaved roads (only 14% are paved nationally), overcrowded hospitals, and exclusive public universities.  The tax burden here is impressive: as Brazilians say, you have to work 4 months of the year just to pay the government.  Taxes and government revenue account for over 37.5% of GDP.  In the US, with its massive military spending and ballooning safety net costs, that number is 15.1%.  Latin America’s other large economy keeps it to 23.8% despite a war on drug trafficking organizations and serious social expenditures.  Even Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez led a vast expansion of the state, still only takes in 34% of GDP in taxes.  People feel that they’re being robbed by corrupt politicians, and I can see why.  As The Economist put it, Brazilians

pay the highest taxes of any country outside the developed world (36% of GDP) and get appalling public services in return. Violent crime is endemic; crack cocaine is sold and consumed openly in every big city centre. A minimum-wage worker in São Paulo’s centre whose employer does not cover transport costs (an obligation for formal employees) will spend a fifth of gross pay to spend hours a day on hot, overcrowded buses that trundle in from the city’s periphery. But this is nothing new in a country of gaping inequality—and in fact economic growth in the past decade has brought the biggest gains to those at the bottom of the heap.

Who is protesting?   The same Folha survey of the São Paulo marchers on June 17th gives a picture of who has taken to the streets.  They are young: 53% were under 25.  They are educated: 77% attended college, compared to 24% of all Brazilians.  They are middle class: the country´s poor have greatly benefitted under the past decade of Workers´ Party governments, and the wealthy have done well thanks to a strong economy.  The middle class feel maligned and they are demanding action from politicians.  Most importantly, they do not support any political party: 84% said they were unaffiliated, versus 47% of the general population.  This is a movement largely of the young, the educated, the middle class, and the politically unaffiliated.  But they have the support of the general population, much like the Occupy movement did in the US: “[p]olls suggest that three-quarters of Brazilians back the protests.”

Has anything changed?   Mayors have scrambled to meet with the movement’s leaders–to the extent that there are any actual leaders.  Several big cities have canceled bus fare increases or proactively reduced bus fares.  In Salvador, my city, the mayor received a letter with demands yesterday.  He said an actual free fare is impossible but that 24-hour service might be feasible; he also demanded that bus companies submit their budgets for government review.  (The bus companies are privately owned–surprising in a country where many banks and the only oil company are all state-owned.)

Dilma meets with student leaders from the Movimento Passe Livre

Dilma meets with student leaders from the Movimento Passe Livre

The national Congress voted to dedicate 100% of oil revenues to education and health.  President Dilma Rousseff, known to all by her first name, has spoken to the nation on TV, convened emergency meetings of governors and mayors, and met with student leaders.  She’s reminded them that she herself was a protest leader and tortured prisoner during the military dictatorship that only ended in 1985.  On Tuesday, she proposed five “pactosto address protesters’ demands.  They include new investments in education, health, and transportation as well as a commitment to desperately needed political reform.

So what now?  I think the demonstrations will fizzle out in the first week of July, after the FIFA Confederations Cup ends.  Smaller groups will continue to take to the streets but there will not be the massive occupations of city centers that we have seen.  But the genie has come out of the bottle.  I think the month of protests has spurred some immediate changes–lower bus fares, dedicated spending on education and health.  It has also undeniably freaked out FIFA and the outside world that is waiting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.  FIFA is demanding that Brazil revamp security plans for next year and even whispers threats about moving the World Cup if things don’t get better.  But the most important effect is long-term.  I believe the protests have shifted the discourse in Brazil.  Politicians will pay more attention to the middle class, to health and education and transportation, to the young.  My generation of Brazilians just might stay active in politics–and the nation will never be the same.

A treat for anyone who’s stuck with me this far: this New York Times interactive graphic shows and translates protest signs that range from angry to inspiring to ironic.

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Personal Update: Projects at work and a weekend adventure

I’m about to write a post about the ongoing protest movement in Brazil, but I want to tell family and friends what I’m doing before trying to explain what the country is doing.

DukeEngage has sponsored me to come here and engage in immersive, relational, and effective service/civic engagement.  My mentor reminded me that while I won’t change anyone’s life in two months, I can help an organization that does change lives; I am here to help an NGO whose mission is to help small and often poor entrepreneurs advance their own businesses.  I don’t have a lot of expertise, but I have time and energy to offer.  It’s definitely indirect service but I feel like Duke’s investment was worth it as long as I provide some value to the organization.

I’m working on projects that my boss and I decided on.  First, he had me research ways to earn new clients and enter new markets for microfinance.  It felt like business consulting that I’m entirely unqualified for, but I came up with a few ideas that he seemed to like (leveraging word-of-mouth, using social media, using behavioral economics to design incentives for new borrowers).  This week I created a massive spreadsheet that compares my microfinance organization with regional benchmarks and  other Brazilian agencies of similar size, drawing data from http://www.mixmarket.org.  Next I am supposed to create some video client testimonials; I’ll pick some long-term clients whose stories show how the organization can help people, interview them on camera, and use my as-yet-nonexistent video editing skills to create some promotional videos that might attract new clients through social media.  Through my work I’m learning a TON about microfinance and about business in general.  I’ve also picked up some very specialized vocabulary like “working capital,”
merchandise in stock,” and the various government agencies who regulate credit… if you ever need to negotiate a loan in Portuguese, just call me up.

My boss is the overall director of the 27-person agency; he’s patient with my spoken Portuguese (and impressed by my written Portuguese, miraculously) and seems to enjoy talking about big-picture things with me. My program coordinator explained that he values the cultural exchange aspect and the chance to engage with someone intellectually.  My coworkers are super friendly.  They love to ask whether I’ve been dancing the typical forró and trying Bahian foods like acarajé, a shrimp and bean fritter that is kind of like a giant hush puppy with shrimp.  (The answer is yes to both, although I wish I didn’t have two left feet for dancing.)

This past weekend I had a great adventure.  My homestay friend and two Germans I recently met went to Lençóis, a beautiful and touristy town just outside of an amazing national park, the Chapada Diamantina.  The town was PACKED because of the festival of São João.  Everyone who lives in the big coastal cities of Bahia heads to the interior of the state for a weekend full of parties and dancing.  It’s kind of a get-back-to-your-rurual-roots party: everyone wears jeans, plaid shirts, and straw hats, throws back a few traditional genipapo drinks, and dances forró.  The parties in the plaza were fun, but the highlight for me was the hikes and adventures we had in the national park.  I’ll sign off with a few pictures from those sights: a 300-foot-long natural waterslide and the view from the beautiful Pai do Inacio mountain.

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Language struggles, microcredit lessons, and some adventures

PORTUGUESE IS SO HARD!  I don´t feel like a student of a foreign language.  I feel like a chimpanzee trying to learn a human language.  My colegas (work colleagues) are patient and take time to explain things, but the language barrier is still frustrating.  I wish I could outsource the language centers of my brain to Google Translate.  Portuguese shares a lot in common with Spanish, which I´m more comfortable speaking, but the differences are subtle and tricky and seemingly infinite.  My friend who shares my homestay speaks both English and Spanish fluently as well as French, but she never took any Portuguese before arriving. We make a good team: she understands more than I do, and I can speak more than she can.  It’s still pretty depressing how much effort it takes us to communicate.  BUT.  The challenges mean that I’m learning and being ‘stretched.’  With language learning, what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.  I think I’ll come home in August metaphorically buff.

Over the past week I’ve learned TONS about microcredit.  I did site visits with the organization’s three credit agents on Friday.  We visited three different groups, each of which included three small business owners.  The first group represents the ideal borrowing unit.  The three clients are men in their 40s who live within a stone’s throw of each other.  They’ve each owned their own businesses for at least 20 years.  The group’s leader, who runs a recycling outfit that amasses recyclables from aluminum soda cans to washing machines, is applying for his 18th—EIGHTEENTH—loan from my organization.  That’s great news.  We love loan renewals; they indicate reliable borrowers whose businesses are growing, producing income, and generating employment.  He’ll borrow US$5,000, the maximum amount we loan.

The recycler took us to his partners’ enterprises, partly to show the way but mostly because any stranger is in danger in his favela (a poor neighborhood or slum, often without any public services). His compatriots own a restaurant and a convenience/beer store.  The will jointly guarantee each other’s loans, which total US$11,000.  Part of the loan evaluation process (in which I participated today) involves character assessment.  The credit agents, smart and knowledgable women who have taught me everything I know, pointed out that the three have been friends and neighbors for 20 years.  That close friendship earned them points on the evaluation.  It seems that my organization, and perhaps group-based microcredit in general, both relies on and fosters trust, cooperation, and interdependence.

Anywho, social life here has been fun.  I’ve seen capoeira, learned some forró (a traditional dance of Brazil’s Northeast), gone to a big reggae-samba-pop concert, and hung out on the street with the neighbors.  Here’s a picture at the local church’s forró party with Luana, my lively 12-year-old neighbor; me; Yamira, my friend who shares my homestay; and Julyanna, a Brazilian from the interior of the state who lives at our homestay.

forro foto

We live 10 minutes from the cultural heart of the city, called the Pelourinho.  “Pelourinho” literally means pillory or whipping post; the area’s main plaza was the site of countless slave auctions and horrible abuse.  Today guidebooks cite the area as the heart of Afro-Brazilian art and culture.  Traditional music, poetry, dance, and food abound.  Yamira and I are leaving right now for a open-mic poetry night at an African bar called Sankofa.  Keep me updated on how y’all are doing, and thanks for reading!

Steps and missteps: Starting work and falling into a routine

I started work yesterday!  For the next nine weeks I’m interning at a microfinance organization that provides small loans of USD$150 up to $1000 for individual micro-business owners.  (The Ecumenical Center for Economic Development, CEADe by its Portuguese initials.  http://www.ceade.org.br.)  The main office, which I work in, has about 12 employees.  They include the director, Adelmo, and an accountant, administrator, and three credit agents.  On Friday I will head out into the city with one of the credit agents to see what the microfinance process looks like on the ground.  Here’s an example of how I THINK CEADe works in an ideal world: A credit agent meets a woman who informally sells homemade lunches on a street in the commercial district.  The vendor (aka micro-entrepreneur) applies for a loan of $150 to buy a new stove.  She turns to CEADe because traditional banks won’t make loans that small or to people who lack enough money/property to put up as collateral in case they can’t pay it back.  With the new stove, she makes more money and gradually pays the loan back over 2 years with a 2.5% interest rate.  With the rest of her additional profits she pays school fees for her children.  She can renew her loan for higher amounts to further expand the business and maybe hire an employee.

Adelmo, the director, seems to have some lofty expectations for me.  On my first day he outlined two main projects he wants me to research.  I think he sees me as an economic/management consultant who can evaluate the organization and make suggestions.  I earnestly tried to persuade him that I don’t know anything about anything but he seems genuinely interested in hearing an outsider’s perspective on their operations, even though I’ve emphasized that I’m just a university student interested in learning about microfinance and how poor people use it.  My first task is to research and generate ideas for expanding CEADe’s client base.  He was asking: How can we recruit clients in new neighborhoods?  How can we most effectively advertise?  One of my first products will be a ‘best practices’ list of how to recruit new clients.  I’m doing a fair amount of English-language research from good sources online, but most of the info will come from the credit agents themselves.  I might be able to help them create a more concrete list of strategies that can inform new credit agents in the future or maybe I’ll find some new ideas through the research.  I feel a bit like a business consultant who has zero expertise and zero experience, but I’ll see what I can do.  (Feel free to email me with suggestions: Andrew.Kragie@duke.edu.)

Aside from work, I’m starting to adjust to the city and my routine in it.  I am seriously lucky with my homestay.  Dora is about 65 years old and seems like the queen of the neighborhood; everyone knows her and shows deference to her.  She seems to enjoy hosting foreign volunteers and is determined that we WILL speak like Brazilians by August.  Living with her is kind of like an extended visit at grandma’s house (but unfortunately without any card games).  Her food is wonderful and really varied.  She made okra with carrots, a combo I could see my dad cooking.  Brazilians eat their main meal around noon and a light meal about 7.  I’m usually ravenous at dinner, though—it might be time to start a secret snack collection to make up for the small meal.

I’m enjoying the Portuguese classes that I take along with two fellow ProWorld volunteers three mornings a week.  I expected my Portuguese to be ridiculously inadequate—and I was right.  My flashcards will run out depressingly fast.  Spoken Portuguese seems like a wholly different language than written Portuguese, so it’s been tough to keep up with conversations.  This is just week one, though, and I’m already starting to understand the novela that we watch every night at my homestay.  I’m already starting to recognize the funny mistakes I make.  For example, I went through three semesters of Portuguese mishearing my profesoras and thinking that Andréia is the equivalent of Andrew.  Apparently, Andréia means Andrea.  André means Andrew.  I learned this because a ProWorld employee from Oregon is conveniently named Andrea/Andréia.  Now I’ll never forget…

One thing I can’t quite adjust to is the weather!  The temperature itself is not that bad—highs around 85 or 90 degrees F.  It’s the humidity.  I thought North Carolina in July was uncomfortable—that’s nothing!  Especially when air conditioning is a rare luxury.  The 15 minute walk to work leaves me drenched in sweat.  I went for a run yesterday evening; I probably did 12 minute miles and was still panting. 

This is Salvador: First Impressions

350px-Pelourinho_Salvador

This is Salvador.  The city looks HUGE from the airplane window!  Coming from the DC area, I thought I knew urban sprawl; but the suburbs of northern Virginia can’t compare to the way Salvador sprawls.  Skyscrapers and endless apartment buildings and equally endless favelas (Brazilian slum neighborhoods, often on hillsides) stretch out around the Baía de Todos os Santos bay like a long-limbed Brazilian tanning on the beach.  You wouldn’t be surprised  by the square kilometers that the city covers (maybe 20 km2 or 8 mi2) or the number of people that live in the city (about 3 million).  You would be surprised by the way the city never seems to end: I see the tall downtown and expect to see apartment buildings near them that quickly peter out into distinct suburbs.  Instead of a city and suburbs, Salvador and the surrounding state of Bahia seem to be divided into city and countryside without the intermediate step that my American mind expects.

Also new for me is the way the city hugs to the beautiful shoreline.   Life seems to revolve around the beaches and the ocean; families, teenagers on dates, and older people all flock to the beaches and to the countless seafood restaurants nearby.  The style of life is more casual, more prone to spontaneously burst into a party.  One friend who took me and two other ProWorld volunteers around the city explained how parties start: you park your car, turn the stereo loud to play pagode (pop music from Rio de Janeiro), buy a few beers, and call a friend or two.  Next thing you know, you’ve got a street party.  People join in as they wonder by; the lines between stranger and acquaintance and friend seem to blend together here.

This is Salvador.  The 200-year-old colonial church Igreja do Santo Antônio is packed with worshipers on a Saturday night.  It’s the first day of the feast of Santo Antônio.  My host mother, Dora, plans to attend services every night—that’s a kind of dedication this Episcopalian doesn’t quite understand.  The church’s wide doors and many windows open up onto the main plaza of this old, old neighborhood.  Through the windows drifts loud hip-hop music from the bar next door; that, too, is packed with people.  And the square itself teems with Brazilian life.  Children play soccer better than I ever will, a couple gets cozy on a bench in a dark corner, teenagers float freely from the back of the church out to the plaza.  I stroll with Yamira, a fun and adventurous Cornell senior who’s also volunteering with ProWorld and sharing my homestay, and Giuliana, a young bahiana who lives with Dora and has helped orient me and Yamira.

This is Salvador.  Yamira, Giuliana, and I duck into the ancient fort that once defended Salvador from Dutch invaders and British pirates.  Inside the whitewashed walls, a capoeira school is practicing.  Capoeira is a blend of martial art and dance; it comes from the time when sugar plantation owners would kill any slaves they saw training to fight.  Slaves needed to practice martial arts both to prepare for uprisings and to feel a sense of power.  They disguised their practice as a dance to survive the overseers’ violence.  Capoeira still runs strong in Salvador, the capital of Afro-Brazilian culture and tradition.

The capoeira company that we saw included men, women, and children of all skin colors.  Looking around on the street, you see a more continuous color spectrum than in the US.  Race often defies categorization in Brazil—and in much of Latin America—because of the centuries of mistura between Iberian colonizers, indigenous peoples, and African slaves.  Brazil’s heritage is particularly diverse: 40% of all African slaves shipped to the Americas went to the Portuguese territory, many indigenous peoples survived conquest (about 300,000 remain today), and waves of voluntary immigrants came from Italy, Japan, Germany, and elsewhere (credit to Lonely Planet for the details).  Brazil is mind-blowingly diverse.  But it is definitely not the idealized “democracia racial” that some claim.  The same friend who took the other volunteers and me on a tour talked with me about race’s role in Brazil.  (He’s studied for two years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the historically black college at which MLK studied, so he had a unique perspective.)  He said that discrimination still keeps many darker-skinned people from jobs—perhaps not that different from the US.  Most national politicians and celebrities seem to be light-skinned.  Again, not so different.  But in a country where almost everyone is a little bit of everything, it’s surprising to see how race still matters.

This is Salvador.  I have a lot to learn, a lot to see, and a lot to experience.  Thanks for reading!