As Brazil welcomes the world for, arguably, the greatest sporting competition on the planet, unrest is spreading throughout the country. This has been brought into sharp relief by a recent photo shared on Twitter; “The Two Faces of Brazil” shows a crowd of football fans cheerfully strolling along the street seemingly unaware of a young girl searching in a bin. Is the political and social situation in Brazil really this shocking?
The events of the last week alone have highlighted the extent of the discontent in Brazil. Activists from the Homeless Workers Movement marched on the São Paulo stadium, where the hosts Brazil kicked the tournament off against Croatia with a win last night. In Brasilia indigenous dissidents had tear gas used against them by riot police whilst the hacktivist group, Anonymous, have threatened cyber-attacks against World Cup corporate sponsors. Most recently, public transport workers in São Paulo have carried out strike action that gridlocked the city.
The grievances of the people are just; despite Brazil’s growth into a major economic super power, social development has been woefully slow. Around 35 per cent of the population live on or below the poverty line, on less than two dollars a day, an embarrassing statistic for a country trying to showcase itself as a developed society.
The economic boom of the 2000’s benefited two main groups. The very rich saw a vast increase in their wealth, whilst the lives of Brazil’s poorest were transformed. Over the last ten years a whole series of poverty and hunger-reduction programmes as part of the ‘bolsa família’ social welfare programme have led to the biggest decline in hunger and absolute poverty that the country has ever seen.
So if there is increasing help for the poor, what has sparked the monumental scale of protest that we have seen across Brazil?
The unrest has come from the middle classes who feel they have not benefited at all from Brazil’s economic progression. Social policy has been constrained by the macroeconomic conservatism of the regime; public healthcare and education, in particular, have remained drastically underfunded.
Vast swathes of people in Brazil feel that the $14 billion spent on the world cup would have been far better spent on these vital public services. A recent poll suggested that 61% of people in Brazil do not think the World Cup coming to Brazil is something to be celebrated.
Not only this but the attention of the world presents the opportunity for the people of Brazil to protest against a much wider range of issues that are affecting the country as a whole. There is anger at the government’s apparent lack of will power to tackle corruption and the ‘entrenched elite’ that dominate Brazilian politics and business.
The racism and violence that have plagued Brazilian football over the last decade is reflective of Brazilian society as a whole.
There is a general acknowledgement that racism is deep rooted in Brazil. African-Brazilians, who make up more than half of the population, are overwhelmingly concentrated in the poorest classes. In addition, despite the recent appointment of African-Brazilians to important state positions, they are vastly under-represented in positions of authority.
Aside from the widespread frustration at the Brazilian government there is also anger at the world football governing body FIFA. For a non-profit organisation, FIFA is set to make an awful lot of money: $4.5 billion from this World Cup alone.
The great Pele has been quoted as saying: “It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot , and in some cases was more than it should have been.” Demonstrators have made it very clear that the ‘FIFA-quality’ stadiums should not take president over ‘FIFA-quality’ schools and hospitals.
Brazil is a country where violence is widespread, life is cheap and the police and judiciary systems have often failed to function effectively. Moreover, in a world that constantly strips many Brazilians of economic dignity and offers them little but enduring marginalisation, it is hardly surprising that demonstrations such as those that we have seen over the last year, have taken place.
There have, however, been social benefits related to the World Cup coming to Brazil. The Urban pacification that has shifted control of Brazil’s Favelas into government hands has caused issues; the presence of government authority in the complex social structure of the Favela has undoubtedly upset the apple cart. However, it is my view that taking these areas out of the clutches of armed drug traffickers can only be a good thing.
The situation in Brazil indisputably links politics to sport, as great sporting events so often do. As we saw in Sochi, global attention due to a sports competition brings to light issues that affect the country as a whole. It also begs the question is it right to spend huge amounts of money on sporting events, forsaking spending on vital public services?
The answer is a complex one. Who knows what the long term benefits of a World Cup and an Olympics will bring? Despite Brazil’s dominant economic position on the world stage, in terms of globalised popular culture, Brazil’s presence is negligible. By hosting two major sporting tournaments, the government hopes to improve the brand identity of Brazil in the global tourist market.
How should we, as excited Brits waiting to see how Roy’s Boys will fair against the best in the world, feel about what’s going on in the country?
It is my opinion that the world cup has given Brazil the chance to reform and given the people an opportunity to express their anger at the regime in the spotlight of the world. The level of funding for the World Cup is bordering excessive but perhaps the great power of sport will help the people of Brazil get their message across to the government.
The tournament raises many interesting questions about the country’s future but I predict that once the football begins on Thursday, the world’s attention will switch to the winners and losers on the pitch rather than in Brazilian society.