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Brazil, protest and the World Cup

A year of social turbulence preceded Brazil's hosting of football's World Cup, with the competition itself a symbolic target of many protests. What do Brazilians think now? Arthur Ituassu, in Rio, reflects.

Arthur Ituassu
13 June 2014

This World Cup definitely feels very different to its predecessors. One sign of this is the streets of Rio de Janeiro. In the past, this competition has always been a big party for we Brazilians. People painted the streets with green and yellow decorations, the country's flag was spread all over the city, and many people wore the national team's shirt. In the days before the competition, a walk in Rio revealed a completely different mood, far more subdued.

As the competition approached on 9-10 June, some flags appeared, but very few. I met some American students who spoke of a feeling of tension in the air, the sense that anything could happen at this World Cup. It could be a great mess or the usual smooth process, but you really don't know, especially in the major cities. And this above all is, in my view, a consequence of the protests of June 2013.

Many things, good and very bad, came from these demonstrations. A particularly dangerous result was the emergence of a kind of new Brazilian far right, not only conservative but also undemocratic. This new right-wing spirit was, again in my view, a product of the protests and is here to stay. Its adherents condemn left-wing policies as "communism" (the term is back!), condemn homosexuality, the decriminalisation of abortion and drugs; say that Brazil is on the path of Cuba and Venezuela; speak sometimes in a racist manner and display strong social prejudices.

This is linked to the political rise of religious groups and to the interpretations made of some speeches at the June 2013 protests. These said in effect, "if you say that we pay a lot of taxes and don't have public benefits" there are two options: either "let's have better public benefits" (which is actually my personal view) or "let's get rid of the government" / "let's not pay such high taxes" (the conservative interpretation).

But other trends came with the protests. This agenda concerning public benefits finally may have entered Brazilian political debate; this is something several of us have been arguing for over the last decade. Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government was very important in bringing stability to Brazil's economy, and in fighting inflation, which mainly harms the poor. In turn Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government was very important in including the social agenda in its policies. But there was still no real reform in the new republic since the military regime fell, in areas concerning public benefits and equal opportunities in Brazilian society.

This was a major agenda in the June 2013 protests. Economic improvements and social benefits cannot substitute for basic public needs in the areas of education, healthcare, security, universal access to justice, and transport (a major issue during the protests). And I do think that June 2013 has the potential to be a turning-point in these matters - and this could be a major factor influencing the mood in relation to the World Cup (see "Brazil, a crisis of representation", 20 June 2013).

A logic, a cultural-political phenomenon, is at work here. Brazil has the biggest public investment bank in the world (BNDES), a very rich market and economy, and can even host the World Cup and the Olympic games - but we don't have the basics. Even the Folha de Sao Paulo printed a story calculating that the costs of the World Cup are equivalent to what Brazil spends on education in one month, meaning that after all they are not that large. But the feeling persists, especially among the middle classes of the major Brazilian cities, that government is spending money on a business event for rich people to go to, while education, health, and security are not working. And this is a source of tension.

At the same time, we must be careful. All this does not mean that the protests seen on the eve of the World Cup are equivalent to those in June 2013. This is not the case. The current protests are being staged by professional groups that legitimately feel this is a propitious moment for them to gain some benefits for themselves. So, if you see them, they are people working in terrible conditions in the public-transport system, in public security, public education. They are being pressed hard, yet they do not have even the minimum conditions to work properly; in their action is a mixture of political strategy and protest against these low conditions. The recent protests also include some aimed against politicians, for example the PSDB governonr of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin. So the driver of all this is very different to what happened in June 2013, which were more spontaneous, "public" or popular manifestations (see "Brazil in 2013: a historic adventure", 27 December 2013).

Football vs business

Another issue that is influencing the Brazilian mood towards the tournament is the perception - which was not so clear before - that the World Cup is a major business event. This can be explained by the tensions present in the relations between culture and capitalism. Football was always a major cultural phenomenon in Brazil; Brazilian kids, especially boys, "breathe" football; when they play and follow football, it is generally in a very passionate way. But in recent decades, football has become - and the media has a big role here, but also the World Cup itself - a big-business thing.

Going to a stadium is not a cheap event anymore, as it used to be, especially after our stadiums were transformed to meet FiFA's exigencies; the salaries of players and coaches have gone beyond Brazilian reality; the best players no longer play in Brazil; players have become media celebrities. One way to see the tensions is through the clubs. Football was always a community event in Brazil, and the clubs were always the place where the community could practice sport. The clubs (our teams) were also always communitarian, they always had a role within the community.

What happens when football becomes such a giant business? The clubs don't have the professional culture, profile and also skills to manage themselves in this environment, by placing themselves between the community and the business. They are all broken inside, while our best players are playing outside; one current member of the national team plays in Ukraine! This idea of business, which is very strong with the hosting of the World Cup, in my view also - along with the public-spending issue and the terrible state of public benefits - feeds the dubious feeling about the tournament here.

If you look for example at what FIFA did in the case of Alzirão, which was solved afterwards (thank god) you can see this tension clearly. I may say that FIFA is in 2014 what the IMF was in Brazil during the 1980s, after the debt crisis. Also, you may look at the behaviour of the Brazilian citizen concerning the October 2014 election here. We have never had, since the new republic, so many people at this time before the election saying that they will vote for no one or that they do not know who to vote for (30% of the electorate, according to Datafolha).

After the party

It may be that now the games have started, Brazilians will put these concerns behind them.  Brazilians are big fans of football, and will be happy that the team won its opening match against Croatia. But one thing that has not happened since 1970 is happening now: some people are saying that will not cheer for the national team or will actually cheer for other teams. There was a famous campaign like this in 1970 when the military regime of the time was trying to profit from the exploits of Pelé, Tostão, Jairzinho and other star players. 

It's too early to say how the World Cup will affect Brazil's politics. The previous president, Lula, is still very popular in Brazil, but there is a widespread feeling against the institutions of politics, including political parties and politicians themselves. But this may also be interpreted as a sign of the maturity of our democratic regime, since these feelings are very common among democracies, aren't they? And as we have already discussed, including in many openDemocracy articles, democracy is costly, slow, inefficient, but in the end it is where our freedom is based.

The current president, Dilma Rousseff, is surviving. The election in October will be hard for her, but the bad mood around politics causes problems for every politician in Brazil. If you look at the polls, they show around 70% saying that they want change, but no candidate from the opposition has so far profited from that. What seems to be certain is that there will be  a second round in the presidential vote.

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