By Simon Romero
To fulfil his dream of watching Colombia play in the World Cup, Marco Triana Lozada, an engineer from Bogotá, cobbled together savings to travel to Brazil this month. But to avoid spending money on hotels, he and his friends have traversed the country at night on buses to watch Colombia play, even opting to stay in tents at campsites. “Ten years ago, this kind of thing wouldn’t have been possible for someone like me,” said Triana Lozada, 24, emphasising that he could only pay for the trip thanks to a credit line from his bank. He is skipping meals to keep costs down, but has not let that get in the way of having fun. “During the day we are only buying caipirinhas,” he said, referring to Brazil’s signature cocktail, made from cachaça, sugar and lime. Fans like Triana Lozada are sleeping on buses, staying in hotels or on cruise ships, or simply bedding down in vehicles near Rio de Janeiro’s beaches. And the arrival in Brazil this year of more than 200,000 Spanish-speaking fans from large nations like Mexico and Colombia and smaller ones like Costa Rica and Uruguay exemplifies one of Latin America’s most profound shifts since the start of the century: the rise of the middle class.
As the United States grapples with growing inequality and poverty rates that remain higher than in the 1970s, Latin America’s middle class has grown 60.3 per cent since 2003, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. During that period, the population living in poverty declined by 34 per cent. Altogether, the World Bank puts the middle class at about 30 per cent of Latin America’s population. The criteria for determining who is middle class in Latin America are remarkably elastic across the region, in some cases including people earning as little as $10 a day. But while defining the middle class remains a subject of fierce debate, rising incomes in country after country have come into sharp relief as Latin American soccer fans follow their teams around Brazil. Scholars attribute the expansion of Latin America’s middle class to an array of factors including rising education levels; social welfare programmes that provide monthly stipends to millions of families; and per capita incomes that climbed 5.1 per cent a year from 2003 to 2012, a period when various countries benefitted from robust global demand for commodities.
During the World Cup in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, which has experienced its own huge growth of a middle class, the arrival of tens of thousands of neighbours from Spanish-speaking countries is producing a level of face-to-face interaction with few precedents in recent history. Excluding Brazil, the tournament’s host and by far the top source of demand for tickets, four Latin American countries — Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Mexico — rank among the top 10 countries where tickets for World Cup games were purchased, according to FIFA, the organisation overseeing the event. Together, more than 208,000 game tickets were purchased in Latin America outside Brazil, surpassing the estimated 200,000 tickets sold in the United States, the country with the second largest number of ticket buyers, and Germany, the biggest source of ticket purchasers in Europe, with almost 60,000.
Some of this demand boils down to a historic love of soccer in the region and proximity to Brazil. Even so, travelling to Brazil and from one host city to another in Latin America’s largest country involves lodging, transportation and food costs which are far in excess of a budget vacation, reflecting newfound purchasing power for many people in the region. Progress remains uneven, with some countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras experiencing a decline of their middle class since 2000. Brazil, with a population of more than 200 million, boasts the region’s largest middle class, though it still grapples with high levels of inequality. And though living standards have improved for millions in Brazil over the last decade, some here contend that grouping so many into the middle class is misleading. But whether they are inside Brazil’s new stadiums or at the celebrations on the streets, many of the Brazilians and their neighbours visiting here for the World Cup are displaying how Latin America’s fortunes are changing.