Brazil’s Troubles: World Cup Runneth Over

With the extravaganza of the winter Olympic Games in Sochi over, the spotlight now turns to Brazil, the host of the FIFA World Cup championship in June. This tournament, the most widely viewed of global sports spectacles, is held every four years and involves thirty-two national teams, each of which has survived two years of regional competitions in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas to reach the final play-offs. Starting on June 12th, sixty-four games will be played in four weeks, in stadiums all over Brazil, until the winner emerges in a final match on July 13th at the Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro’s world-famous arena. Three million foreign fans are expected to visit Brazil, and billions of television viewers worldwide will watch the games.

When the World Cup was awarded to Brazil in 2007—part of a remarkable parlay that included the award of the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio as well—the country’s economy was starting to boom as part of the BRIC upsurge that seemed ready to shake up international finance. The event was political from the onset, its significance potentially going well beyond the results on the playing fields where Brazil has won the world championship a record five times, a source of great national pride. But despite initial euphoria over being chosen to host the World Cup, Brazil is now experiencing doubts over whether it can pull off the event and second thoughts about the upsurge of influence on the international scene it was supposed to symbolize. The fervid devotion of Brazilians to soccer has made this country the Land of Football (as well as samba and Carnaval). Some non-Brazilian sports commentators have been baffled, therefore, by protest signs saying, “No to the Cup.” But Brazil today is not just a land of football, it is also a land of public protests against corruption, heavy taxes, and deplorable public education and health services, cities with chaotic urban transport, markets with inflated consumer prices, and a dysfunctional political system that is manipulated by an elite for personal benefit.


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Organized urban protest movements are a recent development on Brazil’s political scene that caught many by surprise, including the current populist government of President Dilma Rousseff. They first erupted in June 2013 in São Paulo, led by a small group dedicated to preventing bus fare increases. Riot police beat the protesters, provoking angry criticism from human rights groups against excessive police violence. Soon, there were similar street protests in Rio de Janeiro, Brasília (the national capital), Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, and other large cities. The protesters included vandals who sacked stores, smashed bank agencies, and burned buses. Alarmed by the violence, the federal and state governments deferred bus fare increases and tried to establish official contacts with the “social movements.” It was then discovered that the violence had been promoted mainly by masked “black bloc” agitators who embrace an anarchist, anti-capitalist ideology.

As the start of the World Cup has drawn near, Rousseff’s security concerns have grown, especially because this event, epochal though it is to soccer fans, is also a dress rehearsal for the even larger Summer Olympics. The government has formed a combined command of army, police, and detective units, involving more than one hundred thousand agents, to maintain security during the event. Public opinion also swung against the violent protesters after a television cameraman covering the street clashes was killed by an incendiary rocket launched by a demonstrator. After being arrested, the protester said he had been paid by an unidentified political agitator to fire the rocket at police. There are well-organized criminal groups in Brazilian cities, financed by rampant drug trafficking, that are in constant conflict with security forces and with each other in turf wars. These hard-core criminals may be instrumental in stimulating the violent protests because it distracts the attention of forces that would otherwise be dealing with ordinary crime.

Despite the image of a country socially and economically on the move, an image the government has tried so hard to project in the last few years, Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Between 1990 and 2010, a staggering one million violent homicides took place—an annual average of fifty thousand deaths. Life is cheap in Brazil, and killers often go unpunished in rural vendettas over land, family blood feuds, and crimes of passion. A cultural leniency toward crime contributes to endemic lawlessness in a society that also has one of the most debased penal systems in the world. The conditions in overcrowded jails are notoriously inhuman, with five hundred and fifty thousand prisoners lodged in facilities with a total capacity for two hundred thousand fewer than that. Joaquim Barbosa, chief justice of the Supreme Court, has called Brazil’s prisons “hell holes,” and some Brazilian judges refuse to sentence convicted lawbreakers to prisons that are controlled by criminal gangs where new inmates are routinely raped, and schooled in crime. This breakdown of basic justice was put on scandalous display in the main prison in the state of Maranhão, in January 2014, when six prisoners there were decapitated by the ruling gang, in executions filmed and shown on national television. “We have for years cultivated the image of Brazil as a land of cordiality and peace. That is at risk if we don’t bring violence under control during the World Cup,” said Fernando Gabeira, a onetime guerrilla fighter against the military regime that ruled Brazil in the 1970s, who is now an influential television journalist.


Against this backdrop of diffuse discontent and organized protest, the political landscape in Brazil is further complicated by crucial presidential and congressional elections that take place soon after the World Cup. President Rousseff is running for reelection to a second, four-year term with the backing of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her mentor and predecessor, and historic leader of the leftist Workers Party. Opposition to the incumbent has mobilized a coalition of centrist political parties that will try to block a Rousseff victory in the first round of the presidential elections in October and force a runoff a month later. The opposition has designed a bare-knuckle campaign focusing on Rousseff’s poor economic showing and failure to meet promised growth targets in oil production, infrastructure projects, and fiscal discipline. Brazil’s vigorous free press has piled on with relentless coverage of government waste and inefficiency. But this campaign will only kick in after the World Cup ends in July. In a testament to the tight relationship between football and politics, observers believe that if Brazil loses at home, Rousseff’s reelection could be in trouble.

Brazil won the right to organize the World Cup, as well as the 2016 Olympic Games, thanks to an all-out diplomatic campaign led personally by then President da Silva in 2007. It was his second term and everything seemed to be going well for Brazil. The economy was growing with orthodox financial policies that attracted foreign investors. A domestic consumer boom was being financed with easy credit that promoted a “new middle class” and salaries elevated by virtual full employment. Brazil had just discovered huge offshore oil fields, which da Silva compared to “winning the lottery.” It seemed to be a country bound for glory, and da Silva, a shrewd political strategist, decided it was time to promote Brazil to the world as the regional leader of Latin America. A great sports fan as well, da Silva decided that a World Cup in Brazil would help to elect a candidate from his Workers Party as president in 2014 and pave the way for victories in elections for governors in key states like São Paulo and Minas Gerais, now controlled by the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party, and in Pernambuco, a major state in the northeast region now controlled by the Brazilian Socialist Party. In other words, what would be at stake in the 2014 elections is full hegemony for the Workers Party with majority control of Congress, now shared with a coalition of twelve other parties. Down the road, this strategy includes a likely presidential run by da Silva himself in 2018 that would put the Workers Party leader at the head of government when Brazil celebrates its bicentennial as an independent nation in 2022.

The problem with such grand visions is that Brazil’s political imagination is always strong on dreams but short on ways and means. Despite one of the heaviest tax burdens in developing economies (more than thirty-seven percent of GNP), public sector finances and management have proven inadequate to maintain reasonable levels of public education and universal health care. This is a failure of social organization that leaves Brazil’s lower-income majority in need of basic education and health facilities while the wealthier thirty percent pay for access to private schools and clinics. The Rousseff government has wrestled with this contradiction, trying to force private banks to reduce credit rates to consumers and putting heavy pressure on electric power companies to reduce rates to home consumers while subsidizing rates to poorer people. Both of these initiatives, strongly identified with Rousseff’s economic interventionism, have turned sour. To avoid an inflationary explosion, the Central Bank has set interest rates back up above ten percent. Electricity rates have soared as a result of a drought that has required thermal plants to increase production to avoid blackouts. The government is subsidizing prices of gasoline and diesel by requiring that Petrobras, the state oil company, sell refined products at less than the cost of imported petroleum. Stripped of cash by this demand, Petrobras has failed to increase any production that requires huge investments in new oil fields. The critical energy sector, supposedly one of Rousseff’s areas of strength as a former minister of mines and energy under President da Silva, is now one of her vulnerabilities in her reelection bid.


The World Cup and the Olympic Games were supposed to provide a cure for this bad news. But instead they have become part of the disease. The twelve stadiums Brazil promised would meet FIFA standards have encountered long delays. Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, has said that in his experience with World Cups he had never seen so much uncertainty in meeting deadlines. It appears that the new or remodeled stadiums will eventually be ready at the last minute in June. But the promised reforms of the public transportation systems in cities where the World Cup games will be played have not taken place, and every large city in Brazil is beset by horrendous traffic conditions that can add hours to a trip to an airport or stadium. Foreign visitors who come for the World Cup will probably also discover that traffic accidents in Brazil cause more homicides than criminal violence, and that pedestrians are at high risk from drivers who disregard traffic signals and swarms of “motor boys” who weave dangerously through dense traffic on high-powered motorcycles.

Yet the World Cup is a show that must go on. The Brazilian national football teams are the product of an organized system of professional clubs that participate in major local tournaments and an annual national championship, as well as regional competition throughout Latin America. Becoming a professional player is one of the routes for talented youngsters to move up in the labor market. Brazilian football provides at least thirty-five thousand paying jobs and exports at least six hundred world-class players to teams abroad. The best of these, like the footballer known as Neymar, now playing for Barcelona, can become millionaires. Some are now politically ambitious, like Romário, hero of the 1994 World Cup championship team, who is a federal deputy and plans to run for mayor of Rio de Janeiro.

This year’s Brazilian team has two coaches, Felipe Scolari and Carlos Parreira, who have both coached previous World Cup champion teams and have shown leadership qualities that can motivate a good team. A winning team has to be welded out of the available talent, and this year’s crop of Brazilian players is not brilliant. In the last World Cup, played in South Africa, Brazil was eliminated by the Netherlands, an always solid team that relentlessly pressured the Brazilians, until it scored two goals produced by errors by the defenders. These weaknesses have to be corrected if Brazil is to prevail in a tournament that includes not only Spain, but Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, England, Argentina, and Colombia among the strongest contenders.

If this year’s team can overcome its obvious defects, sports observers (who are almost always also political observers) believe, then perhaps Brazil at large can pull itself out of its decline and still win the world leadership role it seemed assured of back when the bid for the World Cup was won.

Juan de Onis is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. A New Yorker who lives in Brazil, he blogs regularly about Latin America for World Affairs.

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