Dave Zirin: Brazil's poor rise up against World Cup austerity

Protest against public transport fee rise, Belem, Para State, June 17.
Thursday, June 20, 2013

I travelled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound.

Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage.

Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security, and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people.

Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor.

What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.

Most said the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed 30 years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Workers' Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country's slogan, “Order and progress”.

Others said statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido told me: “Statistics are like a mankini (a Brazilian speedo that men wear). They show so much but they hide the most important part.”

That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.

The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least 10 cities in recent days. The financial capital of Sao Paolo was brought to a standstill. In the political capital, Brasilia, protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress.

In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracana Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings outside.

Sports journalists recorded the action on the field, but reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted.

This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising”, after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It's also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.

There are many factors driving people into the streets, but the backbreaking piece of straw that crystallised all discontent was a 20-cent fare hike for public transportation.

The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.

As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio's Federal Fluminense University, told me: “Big shit happening downtown Rio … with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well.

“It is linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and health care atrocious ... And this [is the state of services] for the middle class!

“People are realizing that the [US]$50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by 20 cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa [World Cup].

“This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn't think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don't think they did either. But they do and it's massive.”

The Free Fare Movement (MPL), after protesting fare hikes for a decade and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found themselves with a mass audience.

But moving comfortably among their throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media is reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters reading: “We don't need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”.

People have gathered outside Fortaleza, where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying, with signs reading: “[Cup ogranisers] FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!”

A protester in Sao Paolo was quoted as saying: “We shouldn't be spending public money on stadiums. We don't want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”

The right wing is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the streets is a formation called “Wake up Brazil”.

Yuseph Katiya, who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, wrote on his Facebook wall: “This is a mixed bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption.

“Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country's problems. I don't think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”

Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice amongst the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. More than 300 people marched in New York City on June 17 with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about A$320 a month] Do you still think it's about 20 cents?”

This isn't a movement against sports. It's against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It's a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It's a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.

[First published at The Nation]