The social and political ramifications of the Brazilian World Cup

In the months preceding the Brazilian World Cup, our television screens were plastered with images of protests, riots and burnt out cars on the streets of Rio De Janerio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte. The cause of the violence was attributed to social discontent with protesters captured carrying banners with potentially threatening messages such as ‘Don’t come to the World Cup’. Now the spotlight has shifted away from the nation, has hosting the World Cup benefitted the Brazilian population who appeared less than pleased by the use of funds to hold the competition? Plagued with political corruption scandals, a failing infrastructure, growing discontent with police brutality and a stagnating economy, many perceive the World Cup as the catalyst leading to the mobilization of the Brazilian people.

Violence was a consistent theme throughout the lead up to the tournament with an unprecedented level of protest recorded since 2013 which in part was a reaction to the $11bn spent on the tournament. As a population , Brazilians are fiercely patriotic in terms of its national team. Following the devastating 7-1 defeat against Germany, violence resumed across the country. 20 buses were set on fire in Sao Paulo whilst in Belo Horizonte protesters set fire to a Brazilian flag and threw rocks at police. However, whilst Brazil may be a country obsessed with football, life quickly returned to normal with the small scale protests being quickly extinguished. In terms of longer term consequences of the tournament, it is debatable as to whether the competition will have longevity in leading to change. Commenting on his research noting the impact of sporting events on politics and society, political scientist Neil Mahotra notes “my intuition would suggest that the effects probably wear off over time,” adding that he believes Rouseff’s competitors may potentially play on Brazil’s loss of the competition and the unrest surrounding the event as a point to rally votes.

Thousands of police officers were deployed to cities hosting matches as a contingency plan to deter greater outbreaks of violence following the loss. Speaking with those who attended the tournament they report of a constant police presence. The government remained in constant fear that tourists would potentially bear witness to the political and social discontent unravelling across the country. Lest we forget that the nation is to host the Olympics in less than two years time. If the international community viewed Brazil as incapable to control violence, this could have potential ramifications further down the line. As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, the World Cup acted as the perfect platform to attract potential investors. Considering that four years ago the country’s GDP was growing by 7% the predicting growth for the upcoming year is expected to forecast for 1% forecast for this year whilst inflation stands at 6.5%, investment is needed in order to change public opinion of the current regime. These statistics are a poor sign for the country’s long term economic prospects. In order to seem attractive to investors, tourists and the World Cup and Olympics boards themselves, the Brazilian government had to appear to be making a concerted effort to deal with its infamously high rate of violent crime.

In 2009 a leaked cable from the U.S. embassy in Brasilia released by Wikileaks noted “the great question mark concerning Rio’s selection has been the security situation, a question brought to the fore on October 17th as a gunfight between drug gangs resulted in the shooting down of a police helicopter”. For a nation attempting to portray itself as a growing economic centre which should be considered as a major global player, the inability to control violence within its borders is embarrassing in the international arena.

The protest movement began in 2013 in reaction to the increase in prices of public transport in the major cities rather than in direct reaction to the winning of the World Cup bid and the inability of the Brazilian government to fulfil its promises. The protests soon encompassed greater issues including police brutality, political corruption and increasing costs of basic goods alongside growing inflation rates. 5% rise in taxes provoked widespread upset among the general population. Taxes and everyday costs, including school fees have increased but Forbes reports that the average Brazillian will tell you that the quality of such services remains poor. Left wing protesters are furious at what they view as lavish spending on the sporting competitions rather than on much needed investment on public services. On winning the bid, a number commitments were made by the state in regard to investment in services and infrastructure. As the World Cup drew closer, it was evident the deadlines for such projects were not going to be achieved. A proposed bullet train that was supposed to connect Sao Paulo and Rio due to have been completed by the beginning of the World Cup has still not even had a formal contract bidding process let alone the start of works. On the eve of the beginning of the competition, a satirical Facebook group inviting followers to the “grand opening” of the bullet train garnered thousands of attendees. The World Cup rather than leading to protests should more accurately be viewed as exemplary of the ineffective actions of Rousseff’s government to deal with social pressures and implement much needed services.

The above is very much the argument of the large middle class population against social issues and economic pressures in Brazil. However, protests also occurred from favela residents and the lower classes. A number of communities have been evicted with little regard to make way for various amenities for the World Cup and Olympics resulting in clashes between police and residents. In addition, harsh police brutality and questionable the tactics used led to further social abrasion.

The favelas developed organically in the early 1900’s as a reaction the lack of affordable living in Brazilian urban hubs. The nature of their growth meant there was a lack of planning and infrastructure with many communities still not having access to these amenities. In the 1970’s a rural exodus resulted in the population of favelas increasing significantly creating an environment for drug trafficking gangs to grasp control in the 1980’s and function with relative impunity due to the lack of police presence. Until the 1990’s when an infrastructure programme was finally introduced, the government noted the existence of but never dealt with the favelas and relatively people living within them.

Whilst favelas are present in most of Brazils cities, the highest concentration of favelas exist in Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s police pacification programme began in 2008 in an attempt to gain control of the around 1,000 favelas in the city from drug-trafficking gangs and install community policing units. According to The Guardian, the force has installed 37 posts since the implementation of the programme covering an area of 1.5 million people. Many have been complimentary of the efforts of the programme, with one favela resident stating “This had to happen and it’s about time…We’ve needed to clean up this neighbourhood for so long, but we’ve always been ignored. For too many years these gangs have been ruling this place” (source: Guardian).

Harsh police brutality has cast a darker cloud over the project, instilling scepticism among many. In April 2014, residents of the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela protested against the death of a 25 year old dancer who they claim was killed by police who beat him on the pretence that he was a drug dealer. This clash occurred very close to the tourist hotspot of the Copacabana. On 06 August, 4 police officers were attested in connection with the rape of three favela residents. All of these officers were members of the Police Pacification Unit. These scandals and the violent tactics used by the police have also been a contributing factor to growing social discontent within these communities.

The programme has also received criticism due to the lack of social element to encourage development. Promises from politicians to ensure the favelas are equipped with basic amenities such as sewer systems have still failed to be implemented. Officially, the government’s commitment to pacification is nothing to do with the World Cup. It therefore seems a coincidence that the end of the Mare slum complex pacification operation appears to coincide with the end of the tournament. The project aims to have pacified 70 more communities by the start of the 2016 Olympic Games. Once Brazil is out of the limelight, will the lives of the favela dwellers once again return to periphery of politicians concerns?

Brazil’s reputation has been continually tarnished with political corruption scandals. A study in 2010 revealed that somewhere in the region of 1.3% and 2.3% of Brazil’s annual GDP is involved in corruption. In 2012, the Corruption Perceptions Index scored Brazil 43, tying with South Africa and Macedonia. Despite revelations of politician’s involvement in embezzlement and overbilling, they often continue to hold positions of power, deepening the lack of faith in the system. The infamous Mensalão scandal continues to cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the Brazilian regime. Investigations initiated in 2005 revealed that public funds were used to buy political support the Lula da Silva government to pay off debts from election campaigns. It was revealed somewhere in the region of $43 million of taxpayer’s money was embezzled in this scandal. The deterioration of the public’s trust in the system has been occurring for a number of years, with the diversion of public funds being a major concern to the Brazilian people.

In addition, Brazil faces great geographical challenges. Due to the vast size of the country, laws that are implemented at a federal level are not always executed at a local level. The inaccessibility to a number of regions, especially within the Amazon basin, allows for government officials to operate with relative impunity. In an urban setting, the lack of control of the favelas has prevented the implementation of a number of services to the most impoverished areas and results in the state being a removed entity in the communities.

Many believe that the social and political unrest that has been unfolding in the country over the past few years will climax in the upcoming elections to be held on 05 October. Speculation from both Brazilians and political scientists analysing the situation from outside the country have indicated the impetus for change. Due to the nature of Brazil’s two-round electoral system, if there is no clear winner with more than a 50% majority, a second round of voting will occur on 26 October. Current President Dilma Rouseff is re-running for election for the Workers Party. Whilst she is challenged by 11 other candidates, her main competition is Aécio Neves from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party  and Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party. Rouseff may be facing a poor economic situation and increasing social frustrations but neither of the election front runners are advocating policies that are challenging the Workers Party’s approach.

Whilst there has been a notable increase in dissatisfaction, this has not been reflected in surveys. Opinion polls saw Rouseff receiving 41% of the expected vote in February with a decline to 38% in June. That said however, according to a poll undertaken in Idope in late July, 70% of respondents supported the notion for next president to implement change (source: Forbes). Whilst Rouseff’s decline in popularity should not be overstated, it should be noted that she was booed twice by her own people during appearances at the World Cup.

The media has sensationalised the protests as a reaction to the World Cup. Whilst the Brazilian people are less than pleased by the excessive spending on the competition and upcoming Olympic Games, a combination of economic concerns, distrust of the political system and empty social investment promises have played a more prominent role in the current unrest in the country. With the lack of legitimate political opponents to Rouseff offering a realistic alternative it still remains feasible that she will retain her position following the impending election. However, with the pressure for change mounting, Rouseff and the Workers Party may have to think about addressing the concerns of the people before stepping back into the spotlight as the host of the Olympics in 2016.

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Categories: Latin America

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