EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

The Brazilian Discontents behind the World Cup Stage

Se mancha la pelota? (Does the ball get stained?)

In a few days, the eyes of millions of people around the world will be fixed on their TV screens, following a ball rolling in some shining green field in Brazil. They will be expecting to witness one of the most exciting World Cups in history; after all, we Brazilians live in the country of football. But probably very few of these spectators know that more than 250,000 Brazilians had their rights violated and their lives harshly disrupted in the process of making such a sport spectacle possible. Entire communities were evicted to build the facilities for the games and the infrastructure to receive the tourists. The slums and the peripheral neighborhoods of major cities were militarized in a process euphemistically referred to as “pacifying.” Workers were displaced and injured, and died building the new stadiums required by FIFA, while their labor rights remained unobserved.

And now, children and teenagers face the danger of sexual exploitation (distinct from prostitution, which should be completely decriminalized). Homeless people are violently repressed and “cleaned” from the prime city areas. Protesters and activists are criminalized — and to add insult to injury, the popular cries against what the World Cup represents and presents to the country have been dismissed as an unintelligible lack of patriotism and hatred for the game that is seen as a defining category of our identity.

However, the Brazilian working class, social movements, and popular sectors of society have not been silenced by such dismissive attacks. In a wave of protests that reached its capstone in June 2013, people are taking to the streets to make explicit their discontent, claiming back what belongs to us, meaning our freedom to decide what path we want to take. During this week, metro and train workers in São Paulo started an open-ended strike demanding higher wages. In the same city, the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) mobilized more than 10,000 people in a peaceful march to the Arena Corinthians stadium, which is to host the opening game of the World Cup next week, demanding the government to increase funding for public transport, health, education, and low-income housing, besides a lifetime pension for the families of the construction workers who died during stadium construction. In Belo Horizonte, students occupied the administration’s office at the Federal University of Minas Gerais to protest against the decision to close the campus during the days in which the nearby Mineirão stadium will be hosting games, turning the campus into a FIFA territory. And the indigenous peoples, who staged a protest against the landlords’ lobby on the National Congress’s dome in the end of May, promise further political actions in the coming weeks. These are just a few instances of the countless demonstrations that are bursting all over Brazil, in large and small cities alike, expressing people’s discontent with the status quo and aiming at destabilizing it. The broad array of issues brought into light by protesters demonstrates that this is not only about the World Cup; it is rather about something larger and deeper, of which the football spectacle is just the most visible and immediate component.

Indeed, the current wave of revolts expresses disapproval of a neoliberal model of development of which mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are a small, albeit relevant, part. And differently from what Marxist writer Antonio Negri claimed last week in an interview for a Brazilian newspaper, this is not a shift from the politics of revolutionary transformations put in place by former President Lula to a new politics of mega-events advanced by his successor, Dilma Roussef. On the contrary, this is all part of the same developmental model fostered by the Workers’ Party, of which both Lula and Dilma are key representatives. Such a model relies on the privatization of the commons, the flexibilization of work relations, and the institutionalization of laws of exception that not only suspend constitutional rights but also criminalize all forms of political dissent. Meanwhile, it promotes the interests of transnational corporations and actors, such as FIFA, which are exempted from any form of democratic accountability. Within this framework, the World Cup is not different from mining activities or the construction of dams: it is “accumulation by dispossession,” to use David Harvey’s term.

Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced in order to make space for new stadiums and facilities, to which none of them can afford to have access. Workers in the informal sector have been pushed away from the areas where the matches will take place and the tourists will circulate, thus losing their source of income in favor of FIFA’s authorized dealers. Public funds were employed for the renovation and construction of infrastructure that will generate profits for private companies. These developments are, however, not anomalies, but rather part of a larger trend, and it is against this model that the marginalized and oppressed are now fighting in Brazil. Hopefully, their cries will appear on the TV screens of the millions who will be following the matches around the world. Because, contrary to what Maradona once stated, this time “la pelota se manchó” — the ball was stained!

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Mariana Prandini Assis

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