Brazil: more sombre than samba

Will Hodges explains the protests in Brazil and the part young people are playing in them

There's a running joke among economists: Brazil is the country of the future and always will be. For much of the modern era this has rung true - for all its size, population and natural resources, South America's largest state has amounted to relatively little on the world stage.

And then something changed. During the 2000s, a period of stable government coupled with a flourishing trade partnership with China saw the country enjoy a sustained period of strong economic growth.

Unemployment shrank and, as income levels rose, Brazil's middle class expanded, lifting 30 million people out of poverty in the process.

Flush with cash, the government seized the chance to show off the country's new-found prosperity, securing the right to host the two most important global sporting events - the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Suddenly the joke didn't seem so funny.

Protests in paradise

Fast forward to June 2013, however, and the progress of the past decade seemed to be unraveling with alarming speed.

What started on 6 June in São Paulo as a protest over an 8p rise in bus fares quickly escalated into the biggest nationwide street demonstrations Brazil has witnessed since 1992, when Brazilians took to the streets to demand the impeachment of then president, Fernando Collor de Mello.

Usually renowned for their obsessive love of football, Brazilians have switched off their TV sets to protest in their thousands outside football stadiums hosting the Confederations Cup.

Their demands were varied: banners held by protesters denounced government, corruption, soaring prices, and the poor standard of the country's schools and hospitals. Poor public services could no longer be reconciled with tax rates and a cost of living comparable with those found in most western European nations.

As with the Arab Spring uprisings and, more recently, the unrest taking place across Turkey, many of the protesters have been young, educated and middle class. Demonstrations were often organised through social media, with details of marches posted on Facebook.

Lauren Holmes, a freelance journalist who has been living in Rio de Janeiro for the past four years, is one of many members of the Brazil's foreign community welcoming the protests.

"There is a growing feeling of disgust and mistrust as to where public money is being spent," she explains.

"While these problems are nothing new, what I would say has changed is that a collective will has arisen to fight back and to take a stand against the government and system. This has been fuelled in large part by the younger, more educated members of society for whom social media has played a key role.

"One of the most powerful common expressions and hashtags used throughout the demonstrations has been "O gigante acordou" - the sleeping giant of the Brazilian people has finally woken up to take a stand."

All the president's men?

In contrast to leaders in Turkey and the Arab world, Brazil's female president Dilma Rousseff has chosen to side with the protesters, telling reporters that Brazil's young generation "want more, and have the right to more" than their predecessors.

Yet her appeasement of the rebels may not be enough to save her from criticism. While Rousseff continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the Brazilian electorate, her popularity rating has fallen by about 5 per cent since the protests began.

With the start of the 2014 World Cup now just 11 months away, global admiration for Brazil has turned to concern, with suggestions that FIFA may be forced to locate an alternative host for the championships. The economists might have the last laugh after all.