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Brazil, football and protests

June 11, 2014

PARIS

The FIFA World Cup opens in Sao Paulo on Jun. 12 and comes to a close on Jul. 13 in Rio de Janeiro. And there is concern that the current protests could escalate during the global sports event.

Opposition to Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup has been expressed in demonstrations and protests since June 2013, when it all began with the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Why so much opposition to the biggest global celebration of football in the country considered the sport’s Mecca?

For the past year, sociologists and political scientists have been trying to answer that question, especially given the fact that in the last 11 years – in other words, since the Workers’ Party (PT) started to govern the country – the living standards of Brazilians have improved considerably.

Successive minimum wage hikes have managed to significantly boost the incomes of the poor. Thanks to programmes like ‘Bolsa Familia’ (Family Grant) or ‘Brasil Sem Miséria’ (Brazil Without Poverty), the quality of life of the lowest-income segments has improved. Twenty million people have left poverty behind.

The middle classes have also progressed. But Brazil still has a long way to go to become a less unequal country that offers decent material conditions for all, because the inequality remains abysmal.

Since the PT does not have a majority in either house of Congress, its maneuvering room has been very limited. To move towards more equal distribution of income, PT leaders – former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva first and foremost – had no choice but to forge alliances with conservative parties.

This created a vacuum of representation and political paralysis in the sense that the PT, in exchange, had to promise to put a damper on the protests.

That led the demonstrators to question the functioning of Brazil’s democracy. Especially when the government’s social policies began to show their limits. Because at the same time, society was experiencing a “crisis of maturity”.

When they were lifted out of poverty, many Brazilians moved on from “quantitative” demands (more jobs, more schools, more hospitals) to “qualitative” ones (better jobs, better schools, better care in hospitals).

In the 2013 wave of protests, the demonstrators were often young people from lower-income segments of society who had benefited from the social programmes implemented by the administrations of Lula and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

Young people in that category number in the millions, and earn low wages. But they have access to the Internet now and are connected enough online to find out about the new global forms of protests. In this new Brazil, they also want to “get on board”.

But then they find out that society is not very willing to change and to accept them. As a result, they feel frustrated, and are expressing their discontent.

The catalyst for that anger was the World Cup. Obviously, the protests aren’t against football, but against some shady practices that have emerged in the organisation of the event.

The World Cup has involved an enormous investment estimated at 8.2 billion euros. Brazilians believe that, with that budget, more and better schools, more and better housing, and more and better hospitals could have been built for the people.

The World Cup has also revealed less than transparent ways of doing business with public funds. For example, in the construction of the stadiums alone, the final cost went 300 percent over budget.

Demonstrators are protesting the cost overruns paid at the detriment to the already poorly functioning public services offered in areas like education, health and public transport.

Protesters are also demonstrating, in several of the 12 cities that will host the World Cup matches, against the eviction of thousands of families from their neighbourhoods to free up the property for the construction and expansion of airports, freeways and stadiums. An estimated 250,000 people have been evicted from their homes in this country of nearly 200 million people.

Others are protesting the commercial exploitation of football, which FIFA fuels.

Several protest movements express five demands (for the five World Cups won by Brazil): housing, public health, public transport, education and justice (an end to state violence in the favelas or shantytowns and a demilitarisation of the military police).

The social movements that are leading the demonstrations are divided into two broad groups. A radical fraction, under the slogan “no rights, no World Cup”, has struck up alliances with the most violent sectors, even the Black Block with its extreme tactics.

The other group, organised in “World Cup people’s committees”, protest the sporting event but do not take part in violent demonstrations.

Nevertheless, the current protests do not seem to be taking on the magnitude of the June 2013 demonstrations. The radical groups have helped fragment the movements, which have no single unified leadership.

The result: according to a recent survey, two-thirds of Brazilians are opposed to protests being held during the World Cup. And they especially disapprove of violent protests.

What will the political cost of all this be for the Rousseff administration? Last year’s protests dealt a major blow to the president, who, in the first three weeks after they broke out, saw her popularity drop more than 25 percent.

Later, she said she was “listening to the voices from the streets” and proposed political reforms in Congress. That vigorous response enabled her to recover some of her lost popularity.

This time, the challenge will be at the polls, because the presidential elections are scheduled for Oct. 5.

Dilma – as she is popularly referred to in Brazil – is the favourite. But she will be facing an opposition grouped in two alliances: the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), whose candidate is Aécio Neves, and the much more worrisome social democratic Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), made up of the union between Eduardo Campos (a former science and technology minister under Lula) and environmental activist Marina Silva (a former environment minister under Lula).

For these elections, which will be decisive not only for Brazil but for all of Latin America, what happens this month during the World Cup could be critical.

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