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What is going on in Brazil? The World Cup and its malcontents

In the past week, there have been demonstrations in Brazil of a magnitude not seen since the movement for direct elections in the mid-1980s, and for former president Fernando Collor de Mello’s impeachment…

Rising public transport prices have been the trigger for protests across Brazil, but there are wider societal issues at play. EPA/Sebastião Moreira

In the past week, there have been demonstrations in Brazil of a magnitude not seen since the movement for direct elections in the mid-1980s, and for former president Fernando Collor de Mello’s impeachment in 1990.

What started with smaller demonstrations São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro has grown to hundreds of thousands of protesting people in other capital cities and towns in the country, and among the global diaspora. The largest demonstration took place on June 17. Then, thousands of marched on to the National Congress in Brasília and legislative assemblies throughout the country.

On June 18 there were protests in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast: cities where the Brazilian community is concentrated. But what is going on?

The ostensible cause was the rise in the price of public transport from R$3.00 to R$3.20 in São Paulo, although this should not spark so much anger in the population. However, the Free Fare Movement (which is organising these rallies) has tapped into the underlying anger Brazilians have been feeling for the past years.

The population has long seen politicians being convicted of corruption but allowed to walk free because they approve new laws with loopholes specifically designed for them. On June 26, politicians will vote on PEC 37, an amendment to the Brazilian constitution which will make it impossible for the Department of Public Prosecution to investigate corruption and human rights crimes committed by public officials.

In addition, large sums of money have disappeared in the black hole of the World Cup preparations and developers' pockets. Tickets for the World Cup are said to be so expensive that only the elite and foreigners will be able to afford them. Meanwhile, the quality of public hospitals and schools is so poor that only the disenfranchised patronise them.

Finally, public transport has deteriorated. The poor, who live in the periphery of large cities, usually stand in cramped buses for around two hours to get to work. For the middle classes, streets are so choked with cars that they also spend a long time getting to work. Similar to Australia, the mining boom has meant that the cost of living is very high for all but the elites. It is now cheaper for upper middle-class Brazilians to go on shopping trips to London and New York where they shop for everything from baby clothes and prams to iPads and mobile phones.

Last Thursday’s protests were met with violent backlash by the police, and this reminded many of the police brutality during the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985. Then, many activists were tortured and died in prison.

On Thursday, the police threw tear gas and shot rubber bullets at the population on the streets. Many were rounded up, beaten to the ground and taken into the police stations for carrying vinegar-drenched rags used as a relief from tear gas.

Journalists from Folha de São Paulo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, tell of how a police car drove by slowly and threw tear gas at them when they were preparing their equipment in a carpark away from the demonstration. In separate incidents, two journalists from the same newspaper were shot in the eye with rubber bullets. One of them, a cameraman, lost most of his vision in one eye.

Demonstrators gather outside San Paulo’s Metropolitan Cathedral. EPA/Sebastião Moreira

The callousness of the police came as a shock to the middle classes who were used to such behaviour directed exclusively to the poor in favelas. Much of the middle classes - who experience high levels of crime in everyday life - feel that in many case police oppression is justified.

However, crime and violence is experienced by all in Brazil. This is a consequence of the fact that Brazil has the 17th most unequal wealth distribution in the world, with a Gini index of 51.9 - down from 55.3 in 2001, despite recent improvements.

The Free Fare Movement called for new demonstrations on June 17. Rather than instilling fear and making people retreat, the police brutality emboldened demonstrators and resulted in tens of thousands in the streets (65,000 protested in São Paulo, while there were 100,000 in Rio de Janeiro). Social networking sites went in overdrive and coordinated the events throughout Brazil and other countries in the world, where Brazilians migrated to escape crime, violence and seek a better life.

Politicians, who at first called demonstrators “vandals”, have since backpedalled and reined in the police. On Facebook, many have compared the movement to the recent events in Turkey, the Occupy Movement, the Indignados of Spain, and the Arab Spring. There is disenchantment with the political system: the large majority of the population feel that none of the political parties represent them. For them, politicians work for themselves.

Explanation of what’s behind the protests.

What does that mean for the country which will hold the World Cup in 2014 the Olympics in 2016? How will this movement play out in the long run? Political analysts and politicians in Brazil are perplexed with the speed and strength with which the movement grew. Dilma Rouseff, the president who fought and was tortured by the dictatorship in her youth, had little to say:

Peaceful demonstrations by the youth are legitimate.

Like many movements throughout the world, globalisation had an important role to play in its creation and growth. As more Brazilians become affluent, they are able to travel to the developed world and experience high quality of life elsewhere. The movement’s organisation also took place through social networks, which bypassed the more conservative media such as TV Globo.

As with similar movements elsewhere, it does not have a clear leadership and is comprised of people who have disparate demands: from better hospitals, schools and transport to a less corrupt and fairer society.

So what now? New protests are set for June 18, and a general strike has been called for June 26, the day PEC 37 will be voted.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Most people on the Coast don't really want the Commonwealth Games because of the financial impost and the syphoning of greater community monies for the enjoyment of the well-heeled ...

    Been to Brasil? Its the same there, political decisions directed by corporate masters who over-charge for infrastructure that benefits the well off. The poor paying for the rich to enjoy their beach-front homes... see any similarities?

    Is anyone paying attention in Australia? We are headed in the same direction. Stabbings, shootings, murder, rape and vulture like journalists, clucking their tongues in photo-shop prepared faces ...

  2. Aden Date

    Service Learning Coordinator at University of Western Australia

    To be clear, I think this article should be seen as good news. The ability of social media to democratise developing nations and enable rapid displays of public anger should be welcomed. I feel like the recent uprisings in Brazil are enough to show that this isn't some freak phenomenon, but a part of the cultural landscape of middle-income developing nations.

    Colour me cynical, but I'm glad to see our international ostentatious obsession with competitive sport being challenged. Whatever cultural…

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    1. Cristina Rocha

      ARC Future Fellow at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Aden Date

      Thank you Daniel and Aden for your very thoughtful comments! I am really pleased to see that the article got 'the ball rolling' (to use a very apt metaphor) so that we can reflect on the connections with our own reality here in Australia and in other countries where these mega events have taken place.

  3. Edmund Esterbauer

    logged in via Twitter

    Inequality is always an issue everywhere. In Brazil football is the national sport and the income produced from it will help Brazil's development. This type of criticism can be levelled at any country. Football generates income, provides job and gives many people enjoyment. Carla does not understand economic issues involved. The issue is not one of either build a hospital or renovate a football field. The issue is about economic growth. Economic growth creates the ability to have both football fields and hospitals. Economic growth is not a zero sum game. Tourism is an export earner. Is Carla seeking an end to tourism and the income it provides for people in her country? What is her hidden agenda? People love football. Carla doesn't. This is her choice, but leave the rest of us to enjoy the football.

    1. Leiza Boreck

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Edmund Esterbauer

      Edmund Esterbauer most of the profits from the World Cup goes straight to FIFA and little of it stay in the country... when the total amount of money spent to organize the World Cup doubles what was spent to do the same in the last 3 cups together... the problem is not liking or not football, the problem is working for 4 months just to pay the taxes for a whole year... and not having this money being reverted to hospitals, security or schools... The minimun wage here (for a whole month) is 638,00... you can`t rent a house for less than 300, you spend around 200 with public transportation.. and then we have to pay for food, electricity, clothing and everything else. There`s no hidden agenda... Brazilians are just totally fed up... that`s all.

    2. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Edmund Esterbauer

      Football / soccer is a sport to be enjoyed; the Brasilians have more world champion trophys than any other nation, but its like suggesting cricket is Australia's sport; people in Brasil just as in Australia don't love 'the game'.

      One could easily suggest your agenda is your anonymity is addressed 'by association'. You copied the saying 'economic growth is not a zero sum game', what you didn't consider is 'for someone to have more than their share (of anything) someone else has to have less'.

      There is no social service there, most people are doing it tough and although there is little mention of it, all those Brasilians whose home was bulldozed to make way for stadiums, car parts, shopping malls etc ... in other countries 'adverse possession' is a civil matter heard in a Court of law, in Brasil, its a short eviction notice and no redress ...

    3. Edmund Esterbauer

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      You missed the point. The World Cup generates economic growth. Carla appears under the impression that government expenditure is an either or proposition. Government spending can act as a driver for investment and hence increase income in the economy. The World Cup will generate income for the country over and above the initial outlay. It provides not only lasting infrastructure, but also foreign exchange, and jobs for many people. Hence, it is not a zero sum game. The issue of “sharing” is separate issue. You cannot blame the World Cup for poverty in Brazil. The World Cup brings with it economic growth and opportunity that benefits many people. Comparing it to Australian cricket is not relevant. Having the World Cup is an attempt by the government to raise the international profile of the country and to attract investment.

    4. Edmund Esterbauer

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Leiza Boreck

      Not really, because you need to look at the multiplier and spillover effects. Firstly, there are the construction jobs and associated jobs with ticketing, hotel, well as a general “euphoria” that in itself encourages investment.
      The issues of corruption and incompetent government are separate issues that are not related to the World Cup. The World Cup adds investment to the economy that otherwise would never have happened. The sporting fields and infrastructure are also legacies from the World Cup. Using the World Cup to highlight problems in Brazil’s governance is another benefit because the eyes of the world are firmly fixed there. Creating chaos in the streets only entrenches the establishment as others become too frightened to invest in the country. Growth requires investment. The point is that there would be less money available to the government for hospitals and roads if there was no World Cup held in Brazil.

  4. MF Mantovani-Paton

    logged in via Facebook

    I think Cristina’s article is excellent and very well written. It explains clearly what is going on in Brazil but I disagree of using Carla’s video to “illustrate” it. I think it just reinforces the idea that all the protests in Brazil are related to the world cup which is not true.
    People are fighting for much bigger issues and the over spending in the WC + the power that FIFA has in the country is a consequence of those issues, a good example of how things always end up if we don’t start fighting…

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  5. MF Mantovani-Paton

    logged in via Facebook

    Yes, I’m going to the world cup!
    First of all I didn’t want Brazil to host the World Cup because I thought that wasn’t our priority and also because of our history of corruption.
    I didn’t go out on the streets celebrating when Brazil was named to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
    During the last few years I wasn’t overwhelmed by a strong currency, buying more than I needed just because everything seems to be so cheap!
    At least that was the scenario I saw in Brazil during my last visits... a kind…

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