IRAJA, Brazil (AP) — On paper, the Cavalcantes are a Brazilian success story, a solidly middle class Rio de Janeiro family with a car, a four-bedroom, four-bath house and a full schedule of extracurriculars for the kids.
But like millions of others who have taken to the streets over the past weeks to protest woeful government services and rampant corruption here, the Cavalcantes say they’re struggling to keep their heads above water.
There are months when the generous family income can’t be stretched to cover their basic expenses, which include not only the ever-rising cost of food, transport and electricity, but also expensive private alternatives to Brazil’s poor public schools and health services.
“We’re among the fortunate ones and we’re suffering,” said 49-year-old Paulo Cavalcante, a public servant with Rio’s City Hall. “We’ve been completely abandoned by our government.”
The family lives far from the glitz and glamour of Rio’s showcase beachfront neighborhoods in the distant suburb of Iraja, where festering piles of uncollected trash dot the uneven sidewalks and the staccato of gunfire from nearby “favela” slums is so familiar the children can identify the weapons.
Here, Paulo and Adela, his wife of 16 years, their 15-year-old daughter Maria and 10-year-old son Antonio live all but cloistered in their cozy but spartan 340 square meter (3,700 square foot) house. With the specter of stray bullets ever-present, the children aren’t allowed to ride bikes in the neighborhood, and because there’s little policing, the family avoids leaving home after dark.
They can’t drink the tap water, must elbow their way onto packed public transit every morning and drill the children on how to react in case of a carjacking or armed robbery because, Paulo figures, “it’s only a matter of time before the violence that’s all around us comes knocking on our door.”
The protests began several weeks ago over a 10-cent hike in metro and subway fares in the economic capital, Sao Paulo, and mushroomed into a massive, nationwide movement unlike anything seen in Brazil since mass demonstrations helped lead to the 1992 impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor. Though protesters continue to hit the streets in record numbers to push for a broad swath of demands, their core complaint boils down to the disconnect between the high taxes people pay and the poor services they receive in return.
“We’re killing ourselves to provide our kids with what the government doesn’t,” said Paulo, who campaigned for President Dilma Rousseff but now says he’s disillusioned with the governing leftist Workers’ Party.
The past decade of galloping economic growth, fueled largely by China’s appetite for Brazilian natural resources, was kind to the Cavalcantes. They are among the estimated 40 million Brazilians lifted out of poverty during the boom — and now watching many of their hard-earned gains wither away under the weight of inept government and a cripplingly high cost of living.
The family moved out of Vigario Geral, the slum where Paulo and Adela were raised and which gained nationwide notoriety after a 1993 massacre. They moved into a cramped apartment in Iraja, and then traded up for their current home, a two-story cinder-block house protected by a towering wrought-iron fence.
A flat-screen television presides over their tidy living room kitted out with two overstuffed leather couches. Upstairs, the three bedrooms are similarly neat, and only the rec room, where impish Antonio wiles away afternoons playing with toys and videogames, is anything less than spotless. A rooftop terrace is covered with the saplings that Paulo grows from seed and looks out over three nearby “favelas,” all as yet untouched by the government’s pacification program, which has seen police take over dozens of slums ahead of next year’s World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.
The Cavalcantes bought the house five years ago, just before Rio’s real estate market went into overdrive, sending property prices here soaring by around 170 percent. The monthly payment on their 20-year mortgage is just $670.
But despite their low housing cost, Paulo’s enviable public servant salary barely sustains the family’s modest lifestyle. (Adela, a former elementary school teacher, quit when Maria was born because it would have cost more than her salary to put the baby in day care.)
First, there’s the $2,000 in income taxes and social security contributions that are deducted each month from Paulo’s paycheck — among the highest tax burdens in the world.
Then comes the $670 they pay for health insurance, so they can steer clear of Brazil’s beleaguered public hospitals and clinics, which are known for their chronic shortage of doctors, medicines, beds and even sheets. The insurance allows the Cavalcantes to see private doctors who routinely charge around $250 per consultation. But their plan excludes dental care, anesthesia and a host of other procedures. They shell out another $530 a month in hospital insurance for Paulo’s aging parents.
“I wish we could rely on the public health system, but people literally die in the emergency room waiting to see a doctor,” said Adela. “So obviously that’s not a realistic option.”
The family budgets around $700 a month for food, a category that’s been hit hard by Brazil’s 6.67 percent inflation.
“Each month the bill gets bigger and our cart gets smaller,” said Adela, who shops at a wholesale produce market and clips coupons. She’s stopped buying tomatoes, which more than doubled in price over the past year, provoking an online consumer backlash that was a harbinger for this month’s Facebook-organized protests.
Then there’s the $220 the Cavalcantes spend on transportation each month — not including gas because the traffic in greater Rio has gotten so bad they rarely take their Volkswagen hatchback out of the garage. For Paulo, who takes the subway to his job in downtown Rio, public transit is the lesser of two evils, despite a rush-hour crush so tight commuters sometimes faint. The hot buses are no better, he says.
“I’d rather spend 20 minutes packed in the subway like a sardine than nearly two hours each way in the inferno that is gridlock traffic,” Paulo said. It does give him pause to walk past the drug dealers standing sentry at a slum on his way to the subway, the police stand across the street always empty.
There’s also the $1,550 in monthly fees for the kids’ private school and twice-weekly English lessons — the single bill the Cavalcante parents say they “pay with a smile.”
“When you’re born poor in Brazil, you know the only way out is to rob or to get an education,” said Paulo, who overcame his “worthless” elementary and secondary education to earn two bachelor’s degrees and is currently in law school part time.
“I’m such a shy person that I knew I couldn’t rob,” he said with a straight face, “so I’ve really applied myself to getting an education.”
Tack on the phone and electricity bills, property taxes, shoes, clothing, school supplies and incidentals and there’s literally nothing left at the end of the month, Paulo said, adding they’ve occasionally had to take out short-term loans.
“We have to cut costs, but where?” asked Adela. “We almost never go to the movies, almost never travel, and pizza is only once a month.”
Even the maid, long a fixture in middle class household, has been scrapped. She quit three years ago after they couldn’t meet her demand for a raise, and they never replaced her.
Though Paulo took Maria to a demonstration last Thursday that brought an estimated 300,000 people into downtown Rio and plans to keep protesting, he’s cynical about the prospects for the kind of systemic changes people are calling for.
“I’m completely jaded, but as a father I can’t pass on my dark vision of things to my kids,” he said, shaking his head. “I have no hope, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
“We’re a persistent family. We never give up. But in this system, no matter how persistent you are and how hard you work, you can’t get ahead.”