Brazil 2014: More than just the World Cup (The Christian Science Monitor)

From elections to transportation fare increases and potentially renewed protests, 2014 promises big stories to watch across Brazil.

By Rachel Glickhouse, Guest blogger / January 2, 2014

People watch fireworks exploding over Copacabana beach during New Year celebrations at the Pavao Pavaozinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, January 1, 2014. Pilar Olivares/Reuters

While 2013 [was] an incredibly interesting year forBrazil, 2014 promises to be even more fascinating. Beyond the World Cup, which promises to occupy much of the year’s headlines, here are some of the big issues to watch.

Transportation fare increases: Governments throughout Brazil backed down on raising bus and subway fares in 2013 after those increases helped spursome of the largest protests seen since redemocratization. Nevertheless, a fare increase could be coming in Rio as early as January.

Inflation and cost of living: In 2013, food prices rose over 9 percent and were the major cause of inflation this year. Overall, inflation this year is estimated at under 6 percent, while some estimates put next year’s inflation at a little over 6 percentSão Paulo and Rio in particular continue to see a rising cost of living.

Consumer debt: With more Brazilians gaining access to the banking system and credit, consumer debt has been a growing problem to keep an eye on. Over the past 12 months, the number of Brazilian families in debt has fluctuated between 60 and 65 percent. Around 20 percent of Brazilians are behind on their bills. Over three-quarters of Brazilians in debt point to credit cardsas the source of their debt; credit card interest rates in Brazil continue to be sky-high, reaching up to 500 percent a year.

Security: While in the past decade, the overall trend for homicides has been an increase in the Northeast and a drop in the Southeast, crimes like robberies andmuggings are rising in cities like Rio and São Paulo. Rio in particular has faced problems with crime this year after a period of seeming improvements.

Pacification in Rio: Though initial results were promising, this year has seen some cracks in Rio’s pacification strategy, such as outbreaks of violence in pacified favelas and revelations of police abuses, the most serious being the torture and murder of favela residents. One of the most important things revealed this year are statistics showing disappearances in pacified favelas rising as murders fall. We’ll see what happens with this trend next year. Fundamentally, the biggest problem with the strategy is the police force itself, as some police have traditionally been criminals themselves, either working directly with drug traffickers or operating in militias when off-duty. Without a major police reform, the strategy could see similar challenges next year.

Health and education policies: One of the major complaints of protesters [last] year was that the government is investing in the World Cup but not enough in hospitals and schools. In 2013, the government began importing Cuban doctors in a bid to bring medical services to underserved areas, which initially was met with controversy that has petered out a bit. Much more remains to be done though, so [this year] it will be interesting to see how the program goes. There were also big teachers’ strikes this year which could potentially happen again in 2014.

Corruption scandals: One of the most important things that happened in 2013 was when a group of defendants in the country’s biggest corruption case went to jail. Parts of the trial are going to drag on next year as some defendants get appeals, but a new corruption scandal would feed another one of the protesters’ complaints.

Protests: While it seems likely that there will be some demonstrations around the World Cup, it remains to be seen whether there will be a repeat of the 2013 protests. That will depend on all of the factors above.

Elections: Brazil will hold presidential and legislative elections in October, which means that federal policies will potentially be designed to appease voters as President Dilma Rousseff seeks reelection. It may not be a year to experiment with reforms or to raise taxes, but it could be a year of bread and circuses.

Infrastructure: While a lot of focus will be on finishing stadiums in time for the games, it remains to be seen how many transportation infrastructure projects, ranging from new highways to airport renovations, will be completed before June. In addition, it will be important to see which major infrastructure projects are moving in an election year, like the Belo Monte dam or the São Francisco water project.

– Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog