“The word ‘FIFA’ is about as popular here as ‘FEMA’ in New Orleans after Katrina,” Dylan Stillwood, a young journalist living in Brazil, told me as protests, strikes and other direct actions engulfed the country a month before the June 12 start of the 2014 World Cup. For people just tuning in, the idea that Brazilians would be protesting the Cup makes about as much sense as New Yorkers rebelling against pizza. And yet here we are, on the eve of the Cup, and protesters across the country brandish signs with the slogan #NãoVaiTerCopa (There Will Be No Cup). This demonstrates with cutting clarity that Brazil’s mass uprising of 2013 was not a flash in the pan, and that Brazilians would not be intimidated by harsh new legislation criminalizing dissent.
Last summer, a million people took to the streets in the first mass demonstrations the country had seen since its dictatorship ended three decades ago. Every major city, and even several small towns, saw people bravely facing tear gas and police violence. The protests coincided with the Confederations Cup, a top-shelf international soccer tournament viewed as a precursor to this summer’s almighty World Cup. Everywhere a publicly funded stadium grew from the ground, it became a focal point for protest. Without any formal leadership, people were protesting corruption and misplaced government priorities amid preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which Brazil is also hosting.
What was particularly interesting about the protests was that they made all the sense in the world, given the frustrations besetting the country, and yet everyone was stunned. When I traveled to Brazil, most people in the social movement community told me that these sports extravaganzas would leave behind major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and attendant infrastructure were monstrous, given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the brutal evictions from the country’s famous favelas, or poor neighborhoods, were unacceptable. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed on was whether anybody would do anything about it.
The activists of the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for more than a decade and winning concessions with little publicity, suddenly found themselves with a mass audience and a mass following. They were savvy enough to link their struggle to government spending on the mega-events of the World Cup and the Olympics. Demonstrators held up posters reading We Don’t Need the World Cup and We Need Money for Hospitals and Education.
The protests caused a head-on collision between the people of Brazil and the sport that reputedly defines their country, their culture, their way of life. One massive demonstration gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza, where the Brazilian national soccer team was staying, with signs that read FIFA, Give Us Our Money Back! and We Want Health and Education. World Cup Out!
What none of the powers that be can admit is that the World Cup, in their hands, is a tool of neoliberal plunder. Neoliberalism, at its core, is about transferring wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever relied on public services—little things like schools and hospitals—can understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular in much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police to simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense, such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil, even New York City in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.