The mesmeric samba beat of football’s waning heart will be taking centre stage in the backyard of millions of exuberant Brazilian people. How could I not be excited by the prospect of the summer World Cup? Nowhere else in the world offers a frame for the beautiful game quite like Brazil and “The Marvellous City”, Rio De Janeiro – home to the Estádio do Maracanã. In the words of Brazillian legend Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, Brazil is “a colourful country” of “breath-taking natural beauty” blessed with “talented, determined, creative and innovative people”: a heavenly setting to showcase “Neymar’s dizzying, magical dribbles”. Right?
The truth is that Brazil is a polarized society. A Latino brand of neoliberal capitalism, first introduced by ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995, has enabled vast economic growth whilst restricting any real social mobility. According to Cardoso countries across Latin America were realizing that “some version of free market capitalism was the only path to prosperity”: prosperity for whom? The crux of it is that for an economy of Brazil’s size – with one of the fastest economic growth rates – to be the fourth most unequal country in Latin America in the distribution of income (according to a recent study by the United Nations) is utterly deplorable.
In 2003 the popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took over from Cardoso with the pretense of change. In truth, his tenure delivered little to redistribute wealth. The unfortunate reality is that Lula’s flagship welfare programme to tackle extreme poverty – bolsa familia – has turned into the only source of income for far too many families in Brazil. As Social Development Minister Tereza Campello admits: “If it disappeared, they would all fall back into extreme poverty”. In effect, social policies like bolsa familia are a step toward facilitating a fairer distribution of wealth: not the ultimate solution.
Since Lula introduced bolsa familia more social welfare programmes have been rolled out by the government with the veiled intention to redistribute wealth; when the reality is that by lifting millions out of extreme poverty – and creating a welfare system which they are dependent on for survival – crony capitalism can continue to flourish unopposed in Brazil under Dilma Vana Rousseff’s leadership (who became president in 2011 as Lula’s natural successor within the Workers’ Party).
Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo estimates that the cost of hosting the World Cup will require $14.5 billion (or $40 billion according to a recent Senate study), and for the majority of people who face substantial rises in the cost of living and essential public services, this outlay is unjustifiable and a clear indication that their needs are being crushed by the weight of private interests of a new breed of corporate elite in Brazil. A corporate elite that as Alvaro Diago (chief operations officer of InterContinental in Latin America) states, benefit most from this “window of opportunity” to consolidate Brazil’s “tourism image” and privatize central state assets in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The reality for the majority of people in Brazil is that this World Cup is the first major step in a systematic transition which will see their country follow the mantra of free market fundamentalism. In practice this will mean that homes are destroyed and families relocated in order to clear the way for glitzy promenades which cater to multinational corporations and bourgeois tourists. As Senhor Coelho, a city councilman investigating allegations of abuse in the government’s “reurbanization” process explains: “What’s behind this is a transformation that’s looking to turn Rio into an elitist city”.
But it doesn’t end there. According to recent reports 34 out of 1000 favelas in Rio have been “pacified” over the last four years by the Brazilian government’s security forces. As one community leader reveals, this pacification involves police brutality and a total disregard for the dignity and wellbeing of local communities. Unsurprisingly, the favelas targeted by the government’s reurbanization process have been those closest to the Maracana stadium.
In the words of Renata Neder of Amnesty International, “There is a process of gentrification taking place in the whole city that is connected to the sports events and how the government sees the city: it is no longer a place for residents, but as a business to sell to foreign investors. That’s what the World Cup is about”.
Football legend Romário de Souza Faria – now a congressman in Rio – posits that Ronaldo’s fanciful depiction of Brazil as an idyllic frame for the beautiful game underlines his starry-eyed ignorance to the inhumane social inequalities and injustices which continue to pervade the heart of Brazilian society. In essence, Romário strongly affirms that these mass protests must continue to gather momentum as an act of immovable defiance to halt their exploitation at the hands of Brazil’s version of the Washington Consensus. Whether it be the people of Venezuela using their power and influence to bring back Chavez or the people of Bolivia bringing about a regime change through the weight of their collective voice, the men, women and children of Latin America have demonstrated that true authority lies with the people.
Echoing the recent sentiments of Brazilian poet Iumna Maria Simon, the widespread social unrest is a clear indication that this capitalist revolution is being “shaken in its hegemony”.
The frame is set for the people of Brazil to make their voices heard. We now know why we must look outside the stadiums – as well as inside – when June arrives. We now know why we must look past the veneer.