By Sharone Birapaka:
As one nears the Itaquera Stadium in SÃ£o Paulo, where the FIFA Men’s Soccer World Cup opening ceremony and game is to be held, one passes by several kilometers of exceptional graffiti. The shiny-new art will be an excellent cultural diversion for football fans stuck in traffic on the way to a game. Only once in a while, in between the giant footballs and ebullient ladies, will they be reminded that not everyone is happy – thanks to a few passionately scribbled (pardon my French) ‘F*CK YOU, FIFA’s’.
International events, whether they are related to economics, sports, or the environment, are always an opportunity for social movements, marginalized groups, and civil society in general to be heard by and exert some influence over their own government and/or a wider and more international audience. The 2014 World Cup is no exception. Over the last few weeks in SÃ£o Paulo, we’ve seen anti-world cup protests, strikes by public sector workers, and marches by the housing movement. As I write, SÃ£o Paulo’s metro workers are currently threatening to bring the city’s crucial underground system to a halt on the 12th, while the anti-world cup crowd promises to disrupt the opening day festivities and games via their largest protest yet.
This is not what the Worker’s Party had in mind when they won the bid for the games back in 2007. The federal elections take place in October. Ergo, the World Cup was supposed to be a smashing success, a high point in the country’s morale in which Brazil’s possible 6th world championship, on home soil, would pave the way for the triumphant re-election of the Worker’s Party. Instead, by 8 am on Monday morning the Brazilian military police had already fired tear gas to disperse protestors and detained around 13 striking metro workers. By 10 am, the housing movement claimed to have brought 20 busloads of support into the city. By noon, the festivities were in full swing.
In order to understand the significance of these protests and their possible impact on the games and Brazil’s elections, it is important to break down who the different groups are and what they want.
Strikes are fairly common within certain segments of the public sector in Brazil as a tool for securing pay raises and better work conditions (for the most part). In terms of their demands, nothing has changed, but the scale and frequency of strikes this year are note-worthy. Over the last week, professors, secondary school teachers and SÃ£o Paulo metro workers were on strike. The week before it was buses (one non-World Cup city’s strike went on for 16 days). Before that, the state police in twelve states and military police in some regions had joined the wave. In game cities, most of these sectors are crucial for the smooth functioning of the World Cup, but this hasn’t necessarily given them a great deal of bargaining power, particularly in the state of SÃ£o Paulo, where a central-right government is in power. 42 of the metro workers who went on strike were fired on Sunday, provoking the workers to warn of a paralyzation starting Wednesday if the decision is not reversed. While a World Cup (or, you know, daily life) without a metro system in one of the world’s most populous cities boggles the mind, the state government seems unmoved and claims that a plan B for alternative transport will be put in place should the strike, currently on hold, resume on Wednesday. Besides, they say, it’s the train system and not the metro that is indispensable in getting fans to the stadium. The people that matter will be taken care of.
The Housing Movement
The Movement of Workers without Housing (MTST) has fared better in their negotiations with the government. Yesterday, 2000 homeless or at-risk families who occupied an empty terrain near the Itaquera stadium about a month ago won the right to have government funded housing constructed for them in the same location (housing prices around the stadium went up by 50% over the last three years, making rent impossible for many families). This win comes after a 25,000 strong protest last Wednesday that showcased their strength and proved their ability to follow through with threats to disrupt the World Cup, should their demands not be met (yesterday’s protests in support of striking metro workers also demonstrated their people power). Since housing falls under federal purview, the MTST were helped by the fact that they were negotiating with a more sympathetic central-left body.
While the MTST is an older player — the urban leg of Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) — they got a shot in the buttocks during last June’s protests. Guilherme Boulos, the MTST’s national coordinator, says the combination of skyrocketing housing costs and the victory and scale (in terms of human bodies) of last year’s protests have strengthened the movement. ‘The masses’, so to speak, started coming to the MTST for help, having seen victory through struggle. Though the World Cup has not been favorable to affordable housing and has moved a few communities out of their homes to make space for the games, the MTST is not officially opposed to it taking place. Its focus is on larger housing policy changes.
The ‘Nao Vai Ter Copa’ (there will be no World Cup), ‘Fora Copa’ (Get out, World Cup), ‘Se nao tiver direitos, nao vai ter copa’ (If there are no human rights, there will be no world cup) and other groups or sloganeers.
The MTST’s position is quite different to that of the ‘No World Cup if there are no Human Rights‘ movement. This leaderless group, a remnant of last June’s protestors, has had nine official protests against the World Cup so far and promises that the largest and most spectacular ones will take place on the 12th... The ‘Fora Copa’ et al., group has legitimate grievances — the government failed to fulfill most of its promises on improved infrastructure and has gone way over budget, using mostly public money to fund the stadiums instead of private sector funds as it had promised. If this wasn’t an election year, their protests would be a simple case of a population getting angry over large public spending on an event that has little long (or even short) term benefits for the country, particularly in the face of an abysmal education and health care system.
Since it is an election year, the cost of so much civic angst is high as political opportunism and exaggerations are rife. The costs of the World Cup are significant and much larger than budgeted, but the total amount being spent on it equals out to one month of the education budget — hardly enough to revolutionize education and health care systems in Brazil. In other words, though I too hate FIFA and think World Cup spending is disgusting, unfortunately, it is not the root of Brazil’s troubles.
It’s hard to say how many feel that the World Cup is a pox on Brazil, but the vibe is strong enough for one political commentator to state, without sounding stupid, that the Worker Party’s re-election is dependent on whether or not Brazil wins the championship. As such, I will be rooting for Brazil like no other. The Workers Party, with all its faults, is still the best option for Brazil’s ‘unrich’. Its social programs and dedication to eradicating poverty, albeit limited to the same obsession with GDP and exports as most other nation states, are still avant-garde in this unequal world.
The Black Bloc
The Black Bloc is the most infamous/famous (depending on who you’re talking to) part of the larger movement against the World Cup.They/it is sometimes identified as a movement and at other times as a tactic. Either way, it involves people dressed in black, usually sporting some form of head and/or face covering (an action made illegal in Rio de Janeiro last year), who come together momentarily during a larger protest to attack capitalist symbols and then disband. Their clothing and collective action against inanimate objects helps protect them from identification while causing the damage they believe is necessary in the fight against the oppression of markets and governments. They are strongest in Rio de Janeiro where they have a Facebook fan page of almost 100,000 and a fair bit of chaos to their name. They, like the ‘Fora Copa-ers’ are also dead set against the World Cup and promise to take to the streets. I have no idea what will actually happen, but if anyone could disrupt the games, they’re probably your best bet.
All of this to say that – between strikes, broken promises, the ‘re-resurgence’ of popular protest, upcoming elections, and an ‘anti-terrorism’ bill (not enough time to talk about that attempted fiasco and its repercussions) – Brazil’s World Cup excitement started weeks ago. Stay tuned!