Brazil 2014, When The Roots of Discontent Run Deep
Luigi Spera 15 June 2014

And this time, what stole the show was not, as was always in recent years, the sensationalization of the plight of street children, or of the marginalization of the favelas, but something different, that has invested even the middle class and, sometimes, the upper one as well. A people united with the same goal of bringing forward a protest movement that, unexpectedly for those who did not “hear” the country, made it very clear that if Brazilians have to choose between elite soccer and healthcare or education, they will choose the latter. A people united in showing its courage too, standing together despite its great internal differences, capable of throwing itself against the international sports power of Fifa, the ruling class, and politics, without any fear. And this is in itself a great result: winning even simply against the attempt of international media to exploit the protests (and the approximation made inevitable by the lack of knowledge of the foreign press), by trying to overemphasize as prime motive of the June protests an increase in the price of bus tickets. It was the people, shouting out their own truth through continuous protests, often even using black block violence, who made sure that what actually lay underneath these acts would show through. “Não è por centavos. São direitos.” It’s not about cents, it is rights.” It is now a concept clear to all.

The beginning of these protests, especially the spontaneous ones of the first few days, brought down to the streets various sectors of society, especially the soccer industry, astounding everyone: politicians and police forces especially. These institutions, however, quickly regrouped and retaliated with restrictive laws and, once again, through a repressive idea of public order. The protests were thus reduced, but they never stopped. The crowds on the streets lost the support of the majority of the population, especially that of the middle and upper middle classes. But almost every day someone went down to the streets, risking arrest and beatings. This is what made it possible to bring the protest forward until the beginning of the soccer world cup, where the possibility of a final explosion of violence still is a horrifying uncertainty for federal and state governments.

The violence

To contain the protests, the violence was exploited: stigmatizing those fringe protesters who are more prone to starting a fight, intensifying that of the government, with a repression that becomes ever harsher. And once again part of the national press played a crucial role. This time, they emphasized the violence wrought by the protesters, in order to discourage the sons of the wealthy classes from supporting them, and to make sure the more pacifist would stay on the sidelines. This past February, during a protest against the new increase in bus tickets, a camera operator of the TV station Bandeirantes, Santiago Andrage, was struck and killed by a petard launched by two protesters who were later identified, arrested, and are currently waiting for a trial in which they will risk over 30 years of jail time. This tragic episode, which cost the life of an information professional, was exploited by the press to spread fear among the population, especially within the upper classes, which had already begun to distance themselves from protests that had become extremely politicized and were once totally spontaneous and “secular.”

Two legislation proposals, one to prohibit mask-wearing and the other to treat street unrest crimes as terrorist felonies (with enormous jail sentences), have brought an additional decrease in the turnout on the streets, weakening the violent front, by scaring off the protesters with arrests and the threat of spending decades in jail for a molotov. The police violence and the increasing presence of agents in the streets sealed the deal: according to a report by the NGO “Artigo 837”, at least 837 people were wounded in the past year during protests, and 117 were the attacks on journalists. Last July, the photographer Sérgio Silva lost an eye, hit by a rubber bullet shot by a policeman. This manner of maintaining public order has deeply worried Amnesty International as well, bringing it to raise the red flag against the robust mobilization of forces ordered by the government and the states to avoid clashes during the cup. “Those who will go down to the streets to protest will risk running up against an indiscriminate attack from the police and the army. The inappropriate behavior displayed by the forces of public order, the entrusting of such tasks to the military, the absence of training and the atmosphere of impunity have produced a dangerous mixture in which the only losers are the peaceful protesters.” The report analyzes the violations of human rights committed by the police forces. “Starting from the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets against the peaceful protesters, arriving at the arbitrary arrests and improper use of the law to stop and punish the people who came down to the streets. And we predict that these tactics will continue throughout the World Cup.” All the while, “the Brazilian parliament is examining a series of legislation proposals that risk limiting further the right to peaceful protest.”

Effect on the cup

In spite of everything, and perhaps even because of all this violence and repression, support for the protest, if not in the actual streets, has remained strong nevertheless. The corruption has infuriated, the speculation has withdrawn buying power and wealth even from the middle class that, if not indigent, now has to face a continuous rise in prices, especially of rents, which have reached in Rio (complicit is the pacification of the favelas) incredible levels. According to a study published in a French newspaper, Brazil is the most highly taxed country in the world, but it is also the one where taxes are least considered as an expense. Transportation is entrusted to a few private companies and it only ever changes in price, which has increased numerous times over the course of the past year. Security is private, so are quality schools, decent healthcare. Those who can afford it have at least the opportunity to live, those who cannot are out. Having a good job, even in the public sector, means obtaining private insurance to access private services. Healthcare is the most privileged of private services, as poor workers are left to the public version, which is completely ineffectual, especially because of extremely scarce investments.

It is for this reason that the protest has gone on for a year, having the support, albeit on the sidelines, of everyone. And it is not difficult, talking to the soccer industry, to hear strong opinions, to hear of people who admit jinxing the national team at the World Cup, because a defeat would be the just punishment for a government that invested everything into this event, spending in, a scarcely transparent manner, billions of dollars that were supposed to go to other budgets. The message is clear: Brazilians are no longer letting themselves get drugged up on the soccer opium. Corruption, politics for self-interest – they are present in the entire world. And, in Brazil, citizens have chosen to rebel, to shout out, to get angry. No matter what analysis is made, and no matter how hard sponsors and television stations try to tell the contrary, the party has been wrecked. The image of Brazil is compromised due to ample condemnation, and even more so to the protests themselves, which served to deliver the message. The streets are being colored green and gold, but only in the last few days before the cup, and really on a much smaller scale than in the past. Incredibly so, if we think that the World Cup is taking place in this very country. The desire to celebrate which has been contested for a year is not there. It is not a coincidence that the index of enjoyment for the event has fallen from 75% in 2008 to 48% in 2014. To the Brazilians, it is absurd that the government spent 11.5 billion dollars, of which around 3.6 billion came from the public treasury, to set up the cup, all while fundamental social services, from healthcare to education, are lacking in the country. It might be true that the money spent would not have sufficed to build a quality healthcare system or schools with higher standards, but nothing takes away the fact that Brazilians cried out that total arbitrary judgment by politicians is no longer acceptable. The people protest, they fight, and this is a sign of vitality, dignity, and self-love.

Translated by Lavinia Borzi



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