At least two people are dead and nineteen have been injured in the World Cup host city of Belo Horizonte after the sudden collapse of an unfinished highway overpass. The overpass had been constructed to handle the bus lines to and from the World Cup games being held at Mineirão soccer stadium, less than three miles away. Instead, unfinished, it fell upon two construction trucks, a commuter bus and an automobile.
This tragedy now casts a shadow over the remainder of the tournament. It is a tragedy not only because it happened but because it did not need to happen. Brazil’s politicians and assumedly FIFA as well, had been warned as early as January that this was a possibility according to ESPN’s Leonardo Bertozzi. Make no mistake about it: this blood is on the hands of the international soccer governing body FIFA and Brazil’s ruling Workers Party. To conclude otherwise would be an act of willing blindness, but not only because of the early warning. It would be an act of blindness to the ways in which infrastructure projects were rushed with little regard for commuter safety or workers rights.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, FIFA went on a public relations blitz against Brazil’s lack of readiness for the tournament. This is a tried and true FIFA tactic that I saw firsthand in South Africa in 2010. Using a combination of threats, insults and public shaming, they bring their whip-hand down upon a host country, demanding that the promised infrastructure, security and stadiums be built on time and on schedule.
It started in January with reptilian FIFA chief Sepp Blatter’s saying that Brazil “is the country which is the furthest behind since I’ve been at FIFA.” This was only the beginning. In what was described as a “stark warning” by NBC sports in a headline that blared, ‘FIFA warns host cities in Brazil, as rush to finish venues continues’, FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke said in February that “none of the twelve cities can afford to sit back and relax.” One host city, Curitaba, was told that its games would be pulled if it did not step up the pace and that it would be “monitored on a daily basis.” In March, Valcke said specifically that Brazil’s transport infrastructure needed “a kick up the backside.” In May, Valcke said, “We’ve been through hell” in Brazil. With thirteen days before the start of the cup, Valcke described the country as being in a “race against time.” Most egregiously, in April, Valcke seemed to pine for Brazil’s old dictatorship remarking, “Working with democratically elected governments can complicate organizing tournaments.”
FIFA was whipping the Brazilian government to crack down on strikes and safety regulations to get the massive construction projects done, as if laborers were just undermotivated to finish. Workers endured eighty-four-hour work weeks, and rotating twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week shifts. This was not implemented without resistance. There were a series of strikes in response to the speedups and unsafe conditions. According to workers I spoke with, they also struck against overflowing toilets and cafeteria food described to me as “infested with vermin.” As Antônio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of São Paulo, said to Al Jazeera earlier this week, “The construction workers are among the poorest in Brazil and are often not aware of their rights. And the world soccer body FIFA has never shown any concern about the workers.”
True to form, rather than address these conditions, the government’s response was either to summarily fire the complainers or promise bonuses for the extra work. They were using either the carrot or stick, with the goal of getting these projects done by any means necessary. These were the orders from Zurich to Brasilia, and President Dilma Rousseff committed to making this a reality.
The pressure on the Workers Party came not only from FIFA but Brazil’s all-powerful, politically connected construction industry. The almighty Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht employed their own private security force to make sure that news cameras were kept at bay and workers kept their heads down. We have already seen the bitter fruits of these priorities in previous months as nine workers died in construction accidents in the rush to provide “FIFA quality infrastructure.”
I reached out to Christopher Gaffney, a Rio-based activist and journalist who has been monitoring the planning for the World Cup. Gaffney said to me, “The repercussions of the collapse will reveal the extent to which Brazilian authorities can be held accountable for the projects associated with the World Cup. These hastily conceived, quickly built projects have dubious benefits for the long term and when the basics fail, it is even more difficult to have confidence in the so called legacy.”
The unfinished overpass had been lauded as yet another of the World Cup infrastructure legacy projects that would benefit all Brazilians. That is clearly not the case. Like the favela children living under military occupation, killed or injured by police since the start of the World Cup, today’s tragedy in Belo Horizonte did not need to happen. They are what results when breakneck neoliberalism arrives with a soccer ball in one hand and a gun in the other.
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