The End of a Success Story? The FIFA World Cup and Protests in Brazil

The sign says: "If your child is sick, take her/him to a stadium"

What are the legacies of a World Cup? The answer depends on another question: For whom is it played? For residents who have been evicted, the FIFA World Cup means the loss of their homes and, usually, also the economic basis for survival. Their homes – mostly substandard housing – had to make way for new streets, new stadiums, new apartment buildings, and malls for the wealthiest people. In very few cases did those responsible for it respect international standards for forced removals, such as providing information in a timely manner, guaranteeing participation of the people affected, providing appropriate compensation or equivalent homes – near the old houses when possible. Brazilian law also recognizes these rules. According to the National Movement of the Popular Committees of the Cup, the total number of people affected is about 170,000.

The public is also questioning the general balance of gains. The government promised there would be positive direct and indirect effects on economic growth and the occupancy rate, but economists doubt or refute these facts. The World Cup in Germany in 2006 cost about 3 billion euros; in South African in 2010 it cost 4 billion euros. In Brazil, the official estimate is 8.5 billion euros, from which 80 percent is coming from public funds. The stadiums themselves will consume 3 billion euros. The chances for utilizing these stadiums for generating revenues after the World Cup are minimal, or even zero, for at least half of them. FIFA is winning the Cup (and expected to earn 4 billion euros in Brazil, tax-exempt), as are large construction companies. There are serious doubts as to whether the tourism sector will generate profits or not.

In the best-case scenario, the Cup will provide positive images that can be used by Brazil in the medium term. It is customary to point to the "summer fairytale" from Germany's World Cup in 2006. According to official media, even South Africa managed to present itself to the world as a modern and tolerant "rainbow nation" in 2010. Brazilians do not need to prove to the world that they like to party and that they are hospitable people. However, it is precisely with regard to this image that the government of President Dilma Rousseff fears scoring a goal against itself. After all, it is highly likely that the images from June 2013 – with clouds of teargas, burning barricades, and police acting with brutality against protesters – will appear again. Security forces face Brazilian men and women who criticize the World Cup in their own country with batons and rubber bullets. This is not because they do not like soccer or do not cheer for the national soccer team, but because the success story – as told repeatedly by the government and the media, including foreigner media – has less to do with the daily lives of most Brazilians, who live in major cities.

"We demand schools and hospitals with FIFA standards"

On June 21, 2013 – one day after more than 1 million people took to the streets across the entire country – Rousseff said: "Those who were on the streets yesterday sent a direct message to society, especially to leaders at all levels. This direct message from the streets is to ask for citizenship, for better schools, better hospitals, health centers, for the right to participate, for public transport of high quality and at a fair price … This message is for the right to influence decisions of the government, from the legislative and the judiciary … It is the rejection of corruption and misuse of public money." With this interpretation, the president got as close to the motives of the protesters as other analysts who analyzed it as a general crisis of political legitimacy.

In fact, the reasons are complex. Protests started due to the increase in bus fares. Mobilized by the Free Pass Movement, active since 2005, many Brazilians were finally fed up with crowded buses, long waits, long journeys to work, and the daily chaos of traffic in urban areas. At the same time, the government was boasting that Brazil had become the sixth largest economy in the world and was now a middle-class society. However, average Brazilians – especially those who cannot afford private schools and health plans – observe in the public schools and hospitals they go to that economic growth alone does not produce development. Moreover, the economy has stopped growing, and, in 2012, advanced only 0.9 percent.

"We demand schools and hospitals with FIFA standards" was one of the favorite slogans hand-painted on posters during street demonstrations. The corruption and the enrichment of the political class threw more fuel on the bonfire of discontent. In her first year of government, President Rousseff fired seven ministers, including six charged with corruption. The relationships of the major construction companies with politicians are an open secret, and the news of congressmen traveling for free with the Brazilian Air Force to watch the Confederations Cup with their families worsens the picture. Thus, all parties and politicians went quiet for a few weeks, declaring themselves to be in solidarity with the protesters, because they all knew they were in the spotlight.

The protests were a mixed movement, formed by those who suddenly discovered the street as a public and democratic space: students from the traditional middle class; their colleagues from the "new middle class," many of them the first in their families to attend university. The people mobilized via Facebook, with many wearing masks. In form and symbolism, the demonstrations reflected the movements of Tunis and Wall Street, and they are touched by a militant and provocative nationalism: "Proudly Brazilian." As they shouted these slogans and sang the national anthem, the national flag became a best-seller in stores and a new form of clothing. Violent right-wing groups participated, attacking trade unionists and leftists. Many police officers tried to put illegal projectiles in the backpacks of the protesters to get them arrested.

Governments and politicians reacted with surprising speed in an attempt to face the movement. Several municipal governments immediately cancelled bus fare increases. The federal government promised a referendum on "political reform." The discussions were to also revolve around issues such as the financing of campaigns, majority or proportional voting, and the question of whether a Senator needs to have two substitutes.

Repression and criminalization of the protest

Almost a year later, no one is speaking about that plebiscite. Brazil urgently needs political reform, but many protesters questioned the "party" format itself. Rousseff reacted by forming a coalition of 14 parties – the rest of the parties do not even form a real opposition. Everyone is "on the inside of the system," as Mark Noble, professor of philosophy at Unicamp University, said. To the young protesters, politicians linked to parties as well as traditional social movements such as trade unions and NGOs have stopped working as mediators of political content. The crisis of representation is a conflict of generations.

After July 2013, the protests thinned but gained in breadth and diversity, as well as in militancy. Neighbours began to meet in the squares to discuss problems such as noise pollution and waste. Meanwhile, others occupied the legislature and camped in front of Governor Sergio Cabral's house. Taxi drivers went on strike, as did teachers. Many had to learn what it means to confront a brutal police force, trained to use violence and repression in an almost lethal way: teargas, rubber bullets, batons, mounted cavalry – even in residential neighbourhoods with restaurants and shops. The criticism of the police – long overdue – began to get louder, it seems, because the police are frequently beating journalists, too. Nevertheless, the more the radical groups determined the image of the protests, the less that police behavior was discussed. Moreover, there is a certain generalization: protesters turned into "vandals," and slum dwellers are seen as drug dealers.

According to a survey of the Independent Media Center of Rio de Janeiro, at least 13 people died during the protests because of teargas or trying to flee the police. People were injured, in most cases, by rubber bullets. Four days after large protests on the streets, the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais killed 10 people in the Complexo da Maré in reaction to a series of robberies. Outside of the slum, the massacre was almost not noticed – it is normal for the police not to use rubber bullet there but real ones. Violence permeates the public space and leads to permanent tensions. The cases of people taking the law into their own hands have grown, most of them against poor criminals. Recently, an African-American boy who had stolen a mobile phone was chained to a lamp post, naked, with a bike lock around his neck.

News actors of the protest movement: "ninja" and "black blocs"

The protests generated two new actors in Brazil: the "ninja" and the "black blocs." Ninja (an acronym that designates the media phenomenon "Independent Narratives, journalism and action") reports on what happens in the middle of the movement. It uses social networks, and its subsidiary "post-tv" broadcasts live images. Ninja media is on the side of the demonstrators, as the traditional media is on the side of the old order. However, without Ninja, the student Bruno Teles would have gone to prison; images from Ninja proved that he did not throw a Molotov cocktail, as vouched by the police. Ninja records arbitrary arrests. In a matter of minutes, the users gather in front of the police station, protecting the prisoners while drawing public attention.

The black blocs react to brutality and arbitrary actions. As in Germany, the concept of resistance of the anarchic groups is confined to symbolic violence against signs of repression – a constraint that younger participants did not know or did not want to know. A few months ago, the black blocs dominated the protests in the country's two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with two effects: the violent altercations with the police turned into scheduled events, which prevented other people, the ones less prone to violence, from going onto the streets. In addition, it provided the government with the welcomed justification to act against protesters. In a rally in Rio de Janeiro in February 2014, after another increase in bus fares, a camera operator was hit in the head by an artifact and died. The Globo media group began a unique campaign by saying that the rallies were criminal and terrorist manifestations. The news went so far as to denounce people from public life who sympathized with the protests as terrorists. State Representative Marcelo Freixo, who had visited the German branch of Amnesty International as a human rights activist, initiated an inquiry against militias in Rio de Janeiro.

The most recent urgent action of Amnesty International in Brazil has been to stop the widespread criminalization of protests. Brazil has a new antiterrorism legislation and seeks to define terrorism and determine punishment. According to Amnesty International, the definitions are "extremely vague and could be used to limit human rights." It seeks to punish "clutter" in public spaces, criminalizing participants from public demonstrations, even when they are not directly involved in illegal acts. This law aims to prohibit the use of masks. The demonstrations need to be approved at least 48 hours in advance, and there is punishment for damage to equipment and objects that are in the streets. Looting and the use of artifacts for fire (which any soccer fan can use all year) will become tougher. State- and municipal-level politicians are voting for tougher laws on material and physical losses and plan to authorize protests only if they do not disturb the traffic flow.

Recently, President Rousseff appointed a new minister of communications, who will explain to the population as soon as possible why the Cup can be a good thing. A Twitter account was even created: #VaiTerCopa.