What’s at stake in Brazil

2014-06-16 08:00

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Douglas Foster witnessed protests ahead of SA 2010, but finds something much bigger happening in the land of football

Search for “copa” and “desastre”, and more than five?million entries pop up in an online search. Replace the year and dateline – to 2010 and South Africa, for instance – and prepare for déjà vu.

Every four years, journalism’s equivalent of deathbed beetles scurry around in early anticipation of the corpse. Even the headlines look the same: unfinished stadiums, unruly protests, unready teams, fixed games, runaway public costs, concerns about crime and sex trafficking.

Yet the last World Cup ultimately proved, on balance, to be a glitch-free and inspiring affair. When the competition was over, political leaders across the spectrum credited the event as a nation-building exercise that had stitched South Africans together across racial and class lines.

This time around, the upheaval surrounding the World Cup could have a far more profound impact on the host of the tournament. Back when South Africa was wrapping up its tournament, officials at Fifa, the world soccer federation, had high hopes for this year’s contest.

Brazil had hosted its first World Cup back in 1950, after all, and its national team had won the Cup five times since then.

The country was already an emerging power with one of the world’s largest economies.

Its population, four times larger than South Africa’s, is one of the most soccer-obsessed on the planet.

(Ask a child on the street in Rio to explain the Maracanaço – the national team’s crushing loss to Uruguay when Brazil last hosted the tournament – and you’ll receive an earful about the wounds inflicted by that blow to national pride and the certainty the country will redeem itself this year.)

But the mass antigovernment protests that erupted in Brazil last year have stung the nation’s leaders and stunned Fifa officials.

The World Cup kicked off at a time when the country’s long economic boom had given way to a skid, fuelling demonstrations against government corruption and shoddy public services.

Protest organisers have managed to shift the country’s political discourse, while demanding that the more than $11?billion (R118?billion) budgeted for the tournament be spent instead on the nation’s highly stressed schools, infrastructure and healthcare systems.

In a country where a majority of the populace now opposes the government’s decision to host the competition, a chant has emerged among demonstrators: “There will be no World Cup!” There will be, of course, but Brazilian politics may emerge from it transformed.

A decade ago, there were misgivings about holding the World Cup in South Africa given its HIV/Aids epidemic, persistent poverty, high unemployment rate and violent crime.

But critics were largely drowned out through a well-orchestrated campaign by business, labour, pop culture and even religious leaders – spearheaded by then president Thabo Mbeki and former president Nelson Mandela. And once the tournament began, the power of spectacle took over.

Besides strikes by security guards, there were few logistical hiccups. Even when the South African team was knocked out of the competition early, fans simply shifted their loyalties, in pan-African solidarity, to Ghana.

Public schools were let out for the duration of the tournament, college dormitories were turned over for the use of athletes and a sense of collective mission prevailed.

The promised post-World Cup tourism boom never materialised and South Africa only earned back an estimated $1?billion of the $4?billion it had spent on the showpiece.

As the South African writer and soccer fan Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya wrote in a Facebook post last week: “Honest South Africans will accept that spending the amounts of money on a month-long festival that only the wealthy can afford is unjustifiable in a country with huge and immediate social needs.”

Many Brazilians seem to agree – and they’ve arrived at this conclusion before the tournament rather than afterward.

In their bid for the World Cup, “South Africans needed more self-esteem”, Marcio Aith, a top adviser to the governor of Sao Paulo, recently told me. “Here, we’re drunk with self-esteem.”

Earlier this year, shortly after I arrived in Sao Paulo on a reporting trip to Brazil, a mass demonstration broke out near Praça da Republica.

Based on the images I’d seen on the news of grimacing, bandana-wearing teenagers opposite club-happy military police, I had the mistaken impression that young Brazilians were behind much of the country’s unrest.

Here, though, were parents with young kids, an aged Asian couple hoisting a poster about the country’s tattered public healthcare system, and middle-aged professionals complaining about lack of access to higher education for their children.

They were surrounded (and outnumbered) by layers of tense, heavily armed security forces, and they also glanced warily at a phalanx of masked, antigovernment Black Bloc militants.

Protesters held signs that read “Não à ditadura!” (No to dictatorship!), in reference not only to decades of military rule but also to proposed legislation for controlling crowds under the guise of antiterrorism measures.

For a political demonstration, the atmosphere was remarkably nonpartisan.

There were no party slogans or banners, no buttons in support of candidates and no mention of the presidential election this autumn.

What was clear, from interviews and surveys, was that Brazilians had turned sharply against their own political elite. Four years ago, 75% of them credited national government as a force for good, according to a Pew Research Center study. Now only 47% do.

What happened next at the demonstration has become something of a ritual in the country’s mass protests over the past year. Winding their way through downtown streets, marchers neared the baroque Theatro Municipal. In the middle of the block, a tussle broke out between police and Black Bloc members. Soon, rubber bullets were flying and tear gas canisters were exploding.

Jetting around the corner of the nearest building to stay out of the line of fire, I hustled down a long, stone staircase. At the bottom, I found a large crowd, about the size of the one on the streets above.

People were gathered under an overpass to samba and celebrate the beginning of Carnival, oblivious to the bloodshed taking place directly above them. The percussive sound of explosions and gunshots blended into the music – a backbeat for the drums.

It seemed like a preview of how things would unfold over the next month, as fans from across the world, including millions of Brazilians, celebrate soccer at its finest while their neighbours and relatives, occupants of a parallel universe of protest, shout slogans behind barriers outside the stadiums.

After the fracas, I returned to the plaza to speak to a key organiser of the demonstration, a health worker in his 20s who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his public sector job. “This is not about the World Cup at all,” he murmured.

“It’s about democracy and participation.” By that, he didn’t mean the upcoming election but rather the kind of decentralised, broad-based, bottom-up politics of the fledgling movement he had helped initiate.

The Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, had tried to buy people’s loyalty by turning the population into a nation of consumers, he argued. “But we want to be full citizens.”

Glancing in the direction of a friend with an eye patch who’d lost his eye to a rubber bullet in an earlier demonstration, he expressed concern that outbreaks of violence would intimidate Brazilians from expressing their views.

“My mother told me what it was like living under a dictatorship,” the organiser went on.

“If we stay at home now, nothing will ever change. So, our hope is these protests just get bigger.”

On the streets, in newsrooms and in the offices of powerful government officials, there wasn’t much argument about the underlying cause of the protests.

Sérgio Dávila, the executive editor of the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, called them “an uprising by those on the outskirts” – meaning millions of bus drivers, nurses, teachers and construction workers who’d moved into the middle class until economic growth slowed, and who were worried about falling back into poverty.

At first, “the protests seemed like a paradox because Brazil is the land of soccer”, Marco Aurélio Garcia told me when I paid him a visit in March.

He’s a white-haired, white-bearded radical – a former university professor and longtime foreign-policy adviser to Da Silva, who now serves Rousseff. We met one rainy afternoon in a conference room at the Palácio do Planalto, a complex of executive branch offices on the edge of Brasilia.

When the first demonstrations broke out a year ago, over a public transport fare increase in Sao Paulo, he figured they were growing because of the way protesters were “absurdly repressed” by the military police.

“But there’s only fire when there is something to burn,” he continued. It was a long way from the president’s office in Brasilia to the tiled praça in Sao Paulo, but his analysis aligned closely with that of the protest organisers.

“The problem is people’s wages have improved, and they can buy more things. But transportation is still really bad. Public health is still really bad, too. Education is highly unsatisfactory and there’s clearly a lack of faith in the country’s political system,” said Garcia.

When I mentioned that protest organisers had explicitly prohibited partisan expressions at their rallies, he seemed perplexed and a little worried. “The problem with the demonstrations is they must seek an institutional form because, if they don’t, they’ll keep circling themselves,” he said. “They’ll either wear out the political system or dissipate energy and fade away.”

Across town, I met with Marina Silva, a former environment minister in Da Silva’s administration who’d since broken with the Workers’ Party. “This moment is creating a new form of leadership in the country” that could determine the outcome of the elections, Silva told me. She’d lost to Rousseff in the 2010 elections, and is currently campaigning as a vice-presidential candidate on an opposition ticket.

Silva had decided not to join the demonstrations herself because she thought her presence would seem opportunistic and also because she “did not feel represented by violence”.

Still, she believed something fundamental had changed in Brazilian political culture because of the protests. “There is a plasticity in the ways to lead,” she said. “Sometimes you lead, sometimes you are led. It’s like an arrow: sometimes you’re the bow that pushes the arrow; other times you’re the arrow being launched.”

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Rousseff attempted to counter allegations that the government had neglected its duties to its people in pursuing the World Cup.

She claimed the government had spent hundreds of times more on education and health than on building stadiums. The protests the country had witnessed, she said, were the fruits of free expression in a young, dynamic democracy shadowed by the history of dictatorship. “A World Cup lasts only for a month,” she added.

But “the benefits remain for a lifetime”. One of those benefits? Brazilians are now engaged in a furious debate about social justice – and the whole world is watching.

It’s time to rethink all those overheated warnings linking the World Cup to catastrophe. Surely, this was no proper definition of the word.

Foster is the author of After Mandela. He is an associate professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. A longer version of this article appeared on June 12 on theatlantic.com

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