In 1984, the South American sleeping giant of Brazil was stirring and straining against the ropes of a cruelly repressive military regime that had kept the country under neocolonial power relations for 20 years. That year marked the moment when the aging and divided military leadership recognized that it had lost control not only of the Brazilian economy but also of the population, the institutions of government, and even of its own puppet leadership in the Congress. It would take another 18 years of economic chaos and crisis, political and ideological reversals, and a painful maturation of Brazil’s nascent democracy until, in 2002, with the election of President Lula da Silva, Brazil set its sails decisively against the prevailing winds of neoliberalism.

At the outset of Brazil’s new democracy, income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient stood at around 60 points, among the highest levels of inequality in the world. The end of the dictatorship in 1984–85 saw a brief drop in the Gini to 58, only to be followed by five years of rapidly rising inequality during the worst period of Brazil’s decade of hyperinflation, that is from 1985 to 1990. From 1990 inequality barely drifted lower. It was only after the election of Lula in 2002 that the country saw the Gini trend downward and break through the levels seen in 1984.

Under the governments of Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff, Brazil made significant strides to address the dire need of the very poorest in Brazilian society. From 2002 to 2012, Brazil’s Gini coefficient (measuring inequality in per capita income) fell from 58 to 52, and expectations ran high that this decline would continue apace. Working-class Brazilians held very high hopes of the new politicians of the left, and disillusionment was bound to follow. Indeed, Lula arguably made disillusionment inevitable when he signed Brazil on to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

In promising “FIFA-quality” stadiums and other grandiose games-related infrastructure projects while basic government services remained seriously underfunded and inadequate, the Brazilian government guaranteed cynicism and protest from those who most depend on Brazil’s shaky public services. Add to the disillusionment a resurgence of police violence, particularly in the flashpoints of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and the tinderbox of Brazilian society appeared ready to ignite unless policy could begin to meet public expectations.

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