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Latin America's growing middle classes are restless

Latin America's growing middle classes are restless

Posted by Juan Gavasa on October 18, 2014

"Juan Middle Class" may be a cartoon, but the problems he faces -- expensive schools, crummy healthcare, ballooning grocery bills -- are all too real for millions of newly middle-class Latin Americans.

The Uruguayan cartoon character speaks to the frustrations of more than 50 million Latin Americans who made a mass exodus from poverty during the region's so-called "golden decade" but are now feeling the pain of overstretched public services and an economic slowdown.

Created in the run-up to Uruguay's October 26 elections by a fringe political party, the centrist Independent Party, Juan Clase media lays out the woes of the region's newly burgeoning middle class in online videos and on his own Twitter account. "He sends his kids to public school, but it's still expensive. He waits three months to see a specialist at the clinic and still pays a lot of money. Every Sunday he pays more at the supermarket and, to make matters worse, he risks getting mugged at any moment," says one cartoon.

The World Bank, which defines "middle class" as individual income of $10 to $50 a day, estimates that just over 30 percent of Latin Americans now fall in that bracket, after a world commodities boom brought the region a windfall in the 2000s.

The signs of the transformation are omnipresent, from the hike in motor scooter sales in northeast Brazil to the rage for online English classes in Venezuela to the proliferation of refrigerators, TVs, cars, Internet access and smartphones across the region.

But new money has also brought new frustrations.

"Purchasing power has advanced faster than the quality of public services," said Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank's chief economist for the region.

"Our lives have gotten better, of course. But public health care, for example, is terrible," said Cida Alves, a 46-year-old housewife, as she browsed at the giant Itaquera Shopping Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital.

In June last year, a million Brazilians took to the streets demanding better public services, a surge of discontent that threatens to unseat leftist President Dilma Rousseff in a tight runoff election on October 26.

Protests have erupted elsewhere, too. In Chile and Colombia, the anger was focused on expensive university tuition. In Venezuela, on crime.

- Fragile gains -

"The members of the middle class are becoming demanding citizens," said Gabriel Kessler, a sociologist at Argentina's National University of La Plata.

"Collective goods like education, healthcare, public transport, haven't improved as much as access to consumption." Because of that, he said, "there's mounting criticism in the region that there's too much emphasis on consumption and not enough on improving infrastructure and public goods."

The economic slowdown is adding to the malaise.

Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, is in recession, and the International Monetary Fund is predicting regional growth of 1.3 percent this year, the worst since 2009. That is putting the fragile middle class at risk, said Olivier Dabene, a Latin America specialist at Sciences Po in Paris.

"This group isn't what we'd call middle-class in Europe," he said.

"They're still in a vulnerable situation and could quickly fall back into poverty if they lose their jobs." And they are feeling the pinch of their recent consumption boom, he said.

"We've seen a lot of reports on people who can suddenly afford to buy a fridge or a moped. But what gets talked about less is that they sign up to pay it off in 12 monthly installments, and sometimes by the time the 10th rolls around they have to take the merchandise back because they can't pay anymore," he said.

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