Dave Zirin: Protests erupting amid Cup are driven by real grievances

June 13, 2014
Brazil has been hit by widespread protests against spending priorities and repression in the lead up the World Cup that began th

It is understandable that Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff has come out swinging.

Given that strikes, land occupations and protests are ripping out across the country in advance of the World Cup; given that a Pew Research Poll found 67% of the country is dissatisfied with her handling of the tournament organising; and given that Rousseff faces an election later this year, she is fed up and ready to play the conspiracy card about the turmoil gripping the country.

AFP said on June 5: “Rousseff charged Friday that there was a 'systematic campaign' against the World Cup and her government ahead of October 5 elections in which she is seeking re-election.

“A leftist political prisoner during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, she said that even in the darkest days of regime abuses, 'we did not confuse the World Cup with politics.'”

It is certainly true that every political force in Brazil is trying to benefit from the anger that has erupted around the country. For example, the transport strike in Sao Paulo is being led by a union allied with center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

It is also true that all the establishment political parties running against Dilma this October want to steer discontent over disastrous World Cup planning against her Workers Party, with rhetoric about “fighting corruption” in government and the unions.

They also want people to ignore the fact that they have the backing of many of the big building firms benefiting from the World Cup stadium boondoggles, infrastructure money-pits and displacements.

On the left, groups such as the trade union federation Central Sindical e Popular (CSP) are calling for more strikes and occupations. The CSP asked why “huge sums” are spent on the Cup while there is a “lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport”.

It pointed to a recent poll where “55% of the Brazilian population believes that the World Cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for the working people”.

Every political group with a pulse is seizing this moment in Brazil, and frankly, they should be sued for political malpractice if they aren't.

But “systematic political campaigns” are not the cause of dissatisfaction in Brazil. The spending, corruption, displacement and militarisation surrounding the World Cup does that.

“Outside agitators” is not a charge that will stick, not when malnutrition and inequality plague the country, while stadiums are built in the middle of the Amazon.

Yet her statement that during the days of dictatorship, “we did not confuse the World Cup with politics”, crosses the line from shameless to craven. This is simply not true.

The examples are legion of Brazil's dictators clutching onto soccer success like a talisman to ward off revolt from below.

I wrote in my book Brazil's Dance with the Devil: “After Brazil's victory in the 1970 World Cup, the military dictatorship pulled out all the stops to use the national team to solve what journalist David Goldblatt calls 'the problem of securing popular legitimacy.'

“Addressing the nation, military dictator of the moment Emilio Garrastazu Medici said: 'I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development ... Above all, our players won because they know how to ... play for the collective good.'

“Medici was so ham-handed in his efforts to ride the popularity of Brazil's team that many on Brazil's left rooted for the country's opponents. Medici repeatedly attempted to use the team as a way to symbolize Brazil's economic miracle.

“Even as his government rounded up political dissidents, it also produced a giant poster of Pele straining to head the ball through the goal, accompanied by the slogan 'Ninguem mais segura este pais' ('Nobody can stop this country now').”

During the “darkest days of the dictatorship”, when Dilma herself was subject to torture by the regime, the World Cup was the autocracy's most effective political tool.

Perhaps Dilma and the Workers Party are just angered that the World Cup is still a political tool, but in 2014, it is not their tool alone.

So it is perfectly understandable why Brazil's president has come out swinging. Unfortunately, in taking on the masses of Brazil armed with nothing but historical revisionism, she is fighting blind.

[Abridged from The Nation.]

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