Well, the first round of Confederation Cup games has successfully concluded and to the amazement of many, things came off pretty well. Brazil soundly defeated a tired Japan team 3 x 0 in Brasilia. Dilma was roundly booed, as were the other “authorities”. Rio got to see Italy push past Mexico fairly convincingly at 2 x1 with a full Maracana. Spain defeated Uruguay 2 x 0 and showed why it is ranked number 1 and will be a very serious contender for the title next year. The game in Recife had a minor glitch after the keys to one of the arenas were lost. Finally, Tahiti debuted with its first goal on the big stage of international competition but the Nigerians prevailed 6 x 1 in Belo Horizonte. All in all, the stadiums pretty much functioned as expected but there were some glitches like the 3G not working in Brasilia.
Outside the stadiums, the picture has been a bit different. Sao Paulo attempted to raise bus fares by about 10 U.S. cents. Fare hikes usually draw attention. But now there have been large and, at times, violent conflicts. Sao Paulo has been the epicenter, but the protests have spread to other Brazilian cities, including Rio, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and Salvador.
There is a small organized group calling for free public transportation and most people see this as fairly romantic and unrealistic. But the movement has been a catalyst for more generalized discontent. Everyone sees the soccer tournaments as a world stage with lots of media potential. Brazil’s government also continues to suffer from a lack of legitimacy, even now 25 years after the end of the military dictatorship. This discontent hangs around in spite of regular elections and is driven by the perceived lack of responsiveness of the political class to the “real needs” of the “people”.
Young people, students, and some politicians are taking up the banner that the World Cup is wasteful and that Brazil has other priorities. Indeed, protests that began over bus fare hikes have grown to include striking teachers, policemen, and other public servants who are unhappy over poor salaries and awful working conditions.
More diffusely, there is general unrest due to all of Brazil’s well-known weaknesses, including too much corruption. The high cost of living and prices increasing even more during international soccer events in Brazil, including the high costs of tickets to the games, have cast a spotlight on inequality in Brazil.
Add to this the shortage of good roads and schools, the lack of doctors and health-care professionals, paltry pensions for private-sector employees, and a minority of overpaid and underworked high-profile public sector executives (known as ‘Marajas’ in Brazil), and the list seems nearly endless.
The attempted bus fare raise coalesced this diffuse malaise with the aid of social media and even the regular media which cannot afford not to publish the sensationalist pictures of instances of police brutality and depredations (some caused by protestors but some caused by the very forces which are suppose to be protecting public order).
The question everyone is raising, including high-ranking government officials, is where all of this is headed. President Dilma, wisely said today that peaceful protests are legitimate. So far the workers unions, largely allied to the state and the PT, have not joined the protests. (How much they might benefit is unclear as workers in the formal sector have “vale transporte” or free subsidized use of bus service already). So without more massive popular support and without union resources, the federal government can push the problem back on to the state and municipal authorities who are in charge of local services.
Right now, the movement is too diffuse and there is no clear leadership and the goals are not well articulated. There are no generals to overthrow. There is only a popularly elected leftist civilian government which only partially can deliver the demands of protestors and others in Brazil. The Confederations Cup, World Cup and Olympics may seem like bread and circus, especially to the traditional middle class, but most people are proud that Brazil has the events and are willing to put up with the accompanying waste and the ongoing opportunities for illicit gain.
Until Brazil’s political culture evolves to a much higher level of maturity, it is unlikely that the current protests will have much impact and little will remain after the tear gas has cleared, except the very slow process of institution building.
So if you are going to the games, plan around the protests. If you are out protesting, be prepared to run from the police, their batons, smoke bombs and tear gas. If you are part of the police force, please don’t kill anyone and that goes for the protesters as well. There may be groups out there seeking to create a martyr. I hope Brazil is beyond that, but you never know.