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Dispatch From Rio

Rio de Janeiro

For anyone fortunate to be in Brazil Sunday night, the raucous and peaceful outpouring of an estimated 250,000 street protestors was indeed historic. What began as disgust with shoddy public transportation exploded to include issues ranging from government corruption to flamboyant and seemingly unlimited state spending on next year’s World Cup.  “Japan take our football, we want your education” was one popular sign at last night’s protests.

I watched in awe as street after street in Rio de Janeiro filled with the young, the restless and the until-now passive Brazilian citizenry. Not anymore. In dozens of cities in Brazil and around the world, Brazilians flocked together to shine a light on their discontent. “It’s not just about 20 cents” was a common sign, referring to the hike in bus tickets that set off the first round of protests. Protestors in Turkey waved signs “Brazil You Are Not Alone.”

The massive street protests in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and cities across Brazil stunned the Brazilian body politic. For nearly a generation the Brazilian populace kept quiet despite rising signs of corruption, inefficiency and overall financial mismanagement. But the international hype about Brazil – which is always off the charts – went haywire with the awarding of both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. (Though both competitions are notoriously corrupt and shady, somehow the winning of both rounds was supposedly a sign that Brazil had graduated to the big leagues.) Few analysts took the time to contemplate really what it would take to negotiate the smoky back rooms of the IOC and FIFA and come out winners in both rounds. Bribery allegations aside, Brazil was an emerging power, a BRIC with samba hips.

The first cracks began showing earlier in the year. Stadium projects were far off schedule. Construction projects tens of millions of dollars over budget. The Brazilian economy slowed, the stock market tanked. Foreigners began ripping billions out of Brazil. FIFA began to feel the panic.

With just one year left to show the world that all was well with the World Cup planning, the Brazilian football federation and their cronies at FIFA – the international football federation based in Zurich – brought a collection of international teams to Brazil last week. They called it the “The Confederation’s Cup” or as many Brazilians dubbed it  “The World Cup Lite.”

Thousands of hotel rooms were booked. Hundreds of ticket agents from Match.com (the company in charge of ticket sales for world cup matches) were flown to Brazil. Festivities and caipirinhas flowed. Then the party was over before the first kick off. In Brasilia, the nation’s capital. A platoon of jacked up riot cops began spraying pepper gas and firing rubber bullets at a crowd that dared protest. TV journalists and fans were gassed yet the Brazilian press cited the incident as a blip on the screen, cute in a benevolent kind of way.

Then Monday’s protest started forming. In Sao Paulo workers, students, families poured out and took over the highways. Government officials who days earlier had denounced the protestors as hooligans now pulled the troops back, ceding entire swaths of sweeping highways, overpasses and bridges to the growing crowd of protestors. Watching the Sao Paulo protest grow, Brazilian TV announcers sounded like they were broadcasting a live football match, in barely controlled glee they described the virtual occupation of Sao Paulo by a crowd estimated to top 80,000.

The June 17 protests were not directed by political parties. Instant polling suggested that nearly 80% of those in the street had never before protested nor belonged to a political movement. If true, the statistics show the body politic in Brazil to be extremely weak as a crowd of 80,000 peaceful protestors was able to upend not only the political agenda but also the infrastructure of a city of 19 million people. As protestors flooding the streets, government officials were forced to shutdown several major avenues to accommodate the march. Traffic in Sao Paulo went into a tailspin. Traffic jams were backed up for between 80 km or 200 km depending on how far out you measured. Brazil was being occupied by its own incensed citizens.

 

Protestors were particularly irate about the billions lavished on World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. An estimated $30 billion will be spent before next year’s kickoff – much of that disappearing straight into the pocket of corrupt businesses and shady cost overruns. For the “povo do brasil” [Brazilian people] it all just is too damn much. After nearly a generation of silence, the Brazilians appeared to have organized a new national team — one will play out on the streets of the nation.

 

Football and politics are now linked in Brazil. Cries for a boycott of the World Cup are thriving in Brazil, with actors and celebrities recording videos stating “Don’t Come to the World Cup.” For the guardians of the status quo, the uprising is a nightmare.

 

For the past five years, the football chieftains and their allies in Brazil spent a fortune “pacifying the favelas” and promising public security would suddenly improve.  They desperately tried to paint a pretty picture for their games. The Brazil they highlight was peopled by a compliant citizenry, the occasional impromptu celebration of football fans dancing around their nation’s flag as rowdy as it got.

When they bamboozled the Brazilian government into sponsoring next year’s World Cup, FIFA and their sponsors including VISA and Coca Cola imagined huge sweaty, surging crowds of Brazilians in the streets – even their worst case scenarios would be hard pressed to match the crowds and scenes that unfolded in Brasilia as a surging crowd of 10,000 stormed the national government offices, occupying the sweeping curves of modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer’s futurist city.

The stylish lighting of the photogenic Brazilian capital was instantly converted into what looked like a mad rave scene, as crazy 10-meter shadows of dancing teenagers bounced off the curved swaths of concrete. Niemeyer, a devout communist, must have been laughing in his grave to see the Brazilian youth occupy his buildings in such overwhelming sense of joy.

The “reflection pools” build around the government ministries have long served as the foreground to photographers as they shoot the world famous Niemeyer buildings. Last night, those same pools became a swimming pool and then a weapon.

When police began spraying blasts of pepper spray in the protestor’s face, the crowd responded by splashing the police until they were sopping wet and apparently less eager to continue with the pepper-spray-to-the-face routine. As the sun rose on Brasilia this morning, few doubt it is a new dawn in Brazil. The reflection pools suddenly seem necessary as Brazil struggles to understand the depths of a long festering and now world famous discontent.

Jonathan Franklin writes for the Guardian.

 

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