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A portrait of a protesting Brazilian family
Friday - 6/28/2013, 5:40am EDT
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.