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As Protests Continue, the World Cup and Brazil’s Uneven Economic Ascent Shape Evolving Demands

A Brazilian holds a sign asking if the Dilma Rousseff of the 1970s would be proud of the President Rousseff of the 2013s.

There has been a minor Turkey mania in Brazil over the last year, given that an ongoing telenovela, one of the soap operas that command national attention, is set in exotic Anatolia. While this is just a coincidence as Brazil has followed Turkey into nationwide protests, the timely comparison is instructive.

Both movements were sparked by issues at the heart of urban life — the planned demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul and the proposed fare increase for buses in São Paulo — but only one country has stuck to that theme. Turks are rallying over the right to assemble against the repressive and intrusive policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been dishing out equal doses of disparaging remarks and tear gas despite the protests’ overwhelmingly peaceful nature.

To that extent, the current Young Turks resemble the Direitas Já (Direct Elections Now) movement of the mid-1980s, when Brazilians agitated for a quicker transition from military dictatorship to democracy by demanding direct presidential elections. One can also draw a comparison to the caras-pintadas (painted faces, as in the colors of the flag) of 1992, which called for the impeachment of then-president Fernando Collor de Mello. In both instances, the popular demand was about national politics rather than something as local as a park or bus fares.

Such is the case today in Turkey, where despite a republic dating to 1922, the maturity of the contemporary democracy seems to be more in line with that of Brazil nearly 30 years ago. By contrast, President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured in prison for her anti-dictatorship activities, has commended the protesters as part of the democratic process — although she has yet to publicly denounce the sometimes brutal police repression of the mostly peaceful demonstrations. Indeed, when a few bad apples got out of hand and torched a vehicle in downtown Rio de Janerio during the first wave of marches, an online crowdfunding campaign sprang up the next day to buy the car owner a replacement.

Turkish protesters have argued that the unrest is about far more than Gezi Park, which echoes Brazilian protesters’ insistence that the nationwide marches are about far more than the 20-centavo (about a 10-cent) increase in bus fares. The major gripe in Brazil, rather, has grown from demands for democracy to demands that democratically elected leaders do better to solve the traumas of daily life in major cities.

According to the United Nations Population Division, Brazil is 84.6 percent urban, more so than the four other countries with larger populations. But while Brazilian cities have much to laud by way of progressive urbanism, from Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting to Curitiba’s parks and bus rapid transit, the long story short is: Too little, too late.

Brazilian media and politicians constantly tout the notion that the country has rocketed forward to nearly join the ranks of the world’s developed countries, perched as it is at the alphabetical head of BRICS. Yet this does not square with the tangible experience of the millions of Brazilians who have traveled abroad in the last decade, as the middle class has acquired the means to take foreign vacations. Unlike Global North travelers who seek out cheap destinations and enjoy riding a chicken bus or two, Brazilians have been flying in droves to European and North American cities, only to return home disgusted that their infrastructure barely matches up.

As Beatriz Marinho Folly, a graphic and web designer from Rio, wrote to me in an e-mail:

Remember the recent cases of rapes on buses, how extremely overcrowded they are, and how filthy some of them are. (I can recall a time when the driver apologized because of how many cockroaches were on the bus. The passengers couldn’t even sit down.) In summary: To classify them only as bad, they still need to improve a lot.

Simply put, Brazilians want a subway system as extensive as London’s, biking as respected as that in Amsterdam, a high-speed train as reliable as the French TGV, parks as nice as the High Line in New York, and streets as safe as any in the dozens of major cities that have managed to curb violent crime (Latin American cities remain the world’s most dangerous).

That public schools and health clinics are deplorable only adds insult to injury, and the proposed fare hike would certainly have been a squeeze on Brazil’s lower-income residents already suffering from the old demon of inflation. The base fare of around $1.50 USD is lower than high-priced public transit New York, London or Tokyo. Factor in average wages, however, and fares in São Paulo and Rio become some of the costliest in the world.

Although the mayors of major Brazilian cities have already canned the fare hikes, they clearly haven’t been reading the signs proclaiming, “It’s about more than 20 centavos.” Above all, the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians currently in the streets of every major city in the country — as well as satellite protests by expats in 50 cities worldwide — rightly feel that they have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the World Cup.

The story line that soccer is returning to its spiritual home, and that soccer-mad Brazilians are embracing the quadrennial spectacle with open arms, has been dispelled. As global sporting events become ever more profitable for a select few companies at the expense of the public, that trend is becoming less palatable in an era of austerity and economic uncertainty. FIFA has been tone-deaf to Brazilian soccer culture, demanding oversized stadiums filled with luxury boxes and dictating national policies in a way that smacks of European colonialism. Recent comments by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke that it’s easier to host a World Cup in a less democratic country are just salt in the wound.

The People’s Committee for the Cup has been steadily documenting the human cost of the World Cup, especially in terms of housing evictions for poor residents located near stadium sites or along new transit lines. While the work is admirable, thus far it has not transcended the echo chamber of likeminded activists in public forums and online distribution channels. But the millions of Brazilians who have taken to the streets in the last week have gathered both national and worldwide attention to ask the central question of the People’s Committee’s: Copa para quem? Who is the World Cup for?

In Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, a 42,000-capacity stadium will be a classic white elephant, hosting a mere four World Cup games when the local teams regularly pull only about 2,000 fans per match. In Rio, reforms to the Maracanã complex, site of the World Cup final and 2016 Olympic sporting events, have resulted in the eviction of an indigenous cultural center to make way for a museum honoring the Brazilian Olympic Committee. The recent discovery of a new bike lane that in theory circles the complex, but instead ends abruptly at a brick wall, is an apt metaphor for the city’s current state of affairs.

Residents of the northeastern capital Fortaleza, which has the highest poverty rate among World Cup host cities, briefly blocked access to a large stadium that had undergone some $240 million USD in renovations. Recife, another northeastern capital, presents an excellent case study of planning disaster. Last-minute incomplete road repairs choked traffic, causing the Uruguayan and Spanish squads to spend an hour and a half each way en route to a stadium too soaked for practice — June, the only month FIFA will permit the tournament to begin, is northeastern Brazil’s rainiest. Uruguayan striker Diego Lugano complained to O Globo newspaper, “This is the farthest stadium in the world.”

Meanwhile the budget for the World Cup, just that for like nearly every Olympic Games — Rio 2016 will be no exception — far exceeds that which was originally promised. In Brazil’s case it now hovers around R$28 billion ($14 billion USD), three times the initial estimate. While purported improvements to public transit alongside enhanced community sports facilities are the supposed legacy of the Cup, some of the billions spent on stadiums could have instead been invested in public transit, education and health care without a single soccer match. Given that the economic impact of the World Cup will not recoup the entirety of the investment, the event itself does not justify neglecting those priorities, which even the national team’s players have begun arguing.

Meanwhile, São Paulo, the spark for Brazil’s 21st–century awakening, has built an average of 2.1 kilometers of subway per year between 2000 and 2010. Its Chilean neighbor, Santiago, has half the population but has been laying subway track three times faster.

For the middle-class Brazilians who have been the face of the rallies thus far — just like the Direitas Já and caras-pintadas protesters of the ’80s and ’90s — the claim that the current moment is about more than 20 centavos is an economic truth as much as a broader political statement. As social media has registered, the urban poor who bear the brunt of the chaotic daily life in Brazil’s cities, and are most at risk from the eminent domain bonanza that the World Cup entails, have been conspicuously absent so far. For those on the economic margins, it will take some exceptional dissatisfaction to give up a day’s wages to take to the streets. But given their track record for torching a bus or two when service reaches untenable levels, if they do decide to join the protest en masse, the situation in the streets could escalate to unprecedented heights.

Already, Thursday’s 300,000-strong protest in Rio has left a trail of destruction downtown, prompting the soul-searching question, “Who are the vandals?,” with one leading paper accusing the military police of inciting violence. The Free Pass Movement has gladly taken its victory and officially disengaged from the protests. Even as protests continue this week, the result has led the hashtag #vemprarua (take to the streets) to become, for some, #ficaemcasa (stay at home).

Greg Scruggs is a freelance writer on cities and culture pursuing a master’s in Latin American studies at Columbia University. He lived in Rio de Janeiro from 2010-2012.

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Tags: cultureminimum wageprotestssportsolympicsrio de janeirosao paulo