Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paulo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasília, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracaña Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.