Brazil faces social turmoil ahead of World Cup

Thiago Reboucas

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Police positioned to stop protesters from reaching the president’s palace. Photo by Agência Senado

There was a storm of teargas and rubber bullets on Wednesday, February 12th, as 15,000 protesters took to the streets of Brasília – the country’s capital and one of the World Cup host cities – and marched towards the president’s office.

The protesters were members of the Landless Workers Movement, an organisation that campaigns for agrarian reform. They traveled from settlements across the country to gather at the nation’s capital for the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of their movement.

After setting up camp outside the World Cup stadium in Brasília, they headed for the president’s palace and were fought off by riot police. An intense confrontation ensued, during which police used batons and teargas, while protesters responded with stones.

Photo by Agência Senado
Photo by Agência Senado

President Dilma Rousseff was not in her office at the time, but she certainly knows that this is not the mood she wants the nation in by June.

In Rio de Janeiro, the country’s capital of carnaval, protesters against rising public transport fares took over the city’s main train station during rush hour on Thursday, 6th.  The demonstrations took police by surprise and violent clashes spilled onto surrounding streets.

Santiago Andrade was covering the protest as a cameraman for TV Bandeirantes and was hit by a flare. He was taken to a hospital but died four days later. Two protesters were charged with murder.

Here’s a video of the protest in Rio’s train station:

The protests in Brasília and Rio de Janeiro last week were only the latest in a wave of widespread public dissatisfaction with corruption and poor public services that erupted into massive street demonstrations last year.

Brazil has been known internationally as the peaceful country of carnaval and samba, where its people live a laid-back lifestyle. That notion changed last year, when the June protests took the world by surprise.

For the first time since 1992, millions of Brazilians took to the streets of the country’s main cities to protest against corruption, inequality, police brutality, dire public services, high prices and street crime.

It was the first time in decades when the streets were filled not because of a football celebration but instead because people were angry at those who represent them.

Photographer Michel de Souza offers a poetic, first-person account of the clashes in this impressive video that went viral in Brazil:

The protests happened only weeks before the Confederations Cup – the tournament that precedes the World Cup – and for the first time in Brazilian history football became the focus of the demonstrations.

Sparked by a hike in public bus fares, the protests went on to target the huge public expenditure on World Cup stadiums in a country plagued by corruption, public inefficiency and that still lacks basic infrastructure.

Radical anarchic groups took advantage of the fact that the nation was on the streets to infiltrate in the protests. They broke bank and businesses windows, set cars and buses on fire and engaged in violent confrontation with the police.

After a few very tense weeks the protests died down, but debate about the benefits the World Cup will bring to the country still go on.

It has been reported that Brazilian government is spending 9 billion pounds in the construction and renovation of the 12 World Cup stadiums across the nation, while critics say that several of those will be virtually useless after the tournament because they are being built in cities with minor teams.

Social unrest is the last thing Fifa wanted to see in Brazil in the time around  the World Cup, but for millions of Brazilians furious with the country’s expenditure on the football tournament, Fifa has become a tainted brand, associated with corruption and misuse of public money.

Fifa's boss, Sepp Blatter (left), at the World Cup draw with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (center). Photo by GOVBA
Fifa’s boss, Sepp Blatter (left), at the World Cup draw with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (center). Photo by GOVBA

The general notion on the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and many Brazilian cities, is that the World Cup means lots of public spending that could have been directed to lasting investments in education, health and basic infrastructure.

Fifa’s ambassador, Brazilian football legend Pelé, however, insists the tournament will prove beneficial for Brazil. He believes the World Cup will bring tourists and their foreign money to his home country.

But Pelé’s optimism is not shared by the majority of Brazilians and he has lost a great deal of respect among the local public for his recent comments. The extravagant preparations for the World Cup have upset millions of Brazilians; they fear the tournament will not leave any real legacy for the country.

The clumsy preparations for the Fifa event have taken a morbid side as six workers have died at stadium construction sites across the country. Last week saw the latest fatality when Antonio José Pita Martins, a Portuguese worker, was crushed in Arena da Amazônia in Manaus. Three people have died in that site alone.

Fifa deadlines were not met by most of Brazilian states and only on February 18th  the stadium in Curitiba, south of the country, was given the green light by the football organisation. Delays in construction works had prompted concerns of games being switched. In that case, Fifa would have had to reimburse tickets, flights and hotels for teams and fans.

The stadium – Arena da Baixada – is still far from complete. Recent images showed scaffolding, cranes, cement mixers and workers wandering through piles of cement and stone. The owners, however, claim it is now 91% finished, and Fifa have decided the ground will be ready for its first match on June 12th.

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Thiago Reboucas