Price of extravagance

Print edition : July 11, 2014

At a protest against the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro on June 12. Photo: PILAR OLIVARES/REUTERS

During a demonstration on June 12 in Sao Paulo which hosted the opening match of the tournament. Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

Teachers demanding better working conditions block the Brazilian national football players' bus way, near Rio de Janeiro's international airport on May 26. Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

Metro workers at their union headquarters in Sao Paulo on June 11 where they decided to end their strike, on the eve of the opening match. Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP

A demonstration in Sao Paulo on August 14, 2013, against the corruption in the public transportation system. The protesters demanded the resignation of the State's Governor, Geraldo Alckmin. The banner reads in Portuguese: "Get out Alckmin." Photo: Andre Penner/AP

Brazilians continue to protest against the Dilma Roussef government for spending huge sums of money to host the FIFA World Cup at a time of economic downturn and increasing social and income inequality.

EVEN as the attention of the whole world was focussed on the FIFA World Cup being played in Brazil, a country considered to be the Mecca of football, thousands of Brazilians from different walks of life staged demonstrations against the huge cost involved in hosting the World Cup, particularly in the face of a perceptible economic slowdown in the country and increasing social and income inequality.

Other grievances were also clubbed with the general protest: inadequate wages and salaries, fare hikes in public transport, factors relating to housing, widespread corruption, and the displacement of the poor on account of the World Cup, among others. The protesters came from various sections of society—teachers, homeless workers, transport employees and even a section of the police.

In fact, hours before the inaugural ceremony on June 12, riot police had to be deployed in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to disperse the agitators. Demonstrations, coordinated through social networking sites, also took place in other cities where matches were scheduled.

A staggering expenditure of $11.5 billion makes the event the most expensive World Cup to date. Protesters feel that it would have served the people better if the funds were spent on the development of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and public services. “We don’t need the World Cup. We need money for hospitals and education,” said one of the placards carried by the protesters.

The protests, which have continued from last year, showed no sign of abating even as June 12, the inaugural day of the World Cup, drew near. It began in June 2013, when reportedly around one million people took to the streets all over the country. What began as a protest against a hike in bus fares soon began to focus on the expenses incurred in hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which is scheduled to be held in Rio de Janeiro. Though the movement was largely peaceful, in certain places, particularly Sao Paulo and Rio, there were violent clashes with the police. At the time the movement erupted, the FIFA Confederations Cup was being played in Brazil (June 15 to 30).

Though over the months the agitation became less turbulent, it persisted nevertheless. It once again came to the fore in January this year and began to gain in intensity as the World Cup tournament drew near. With the focus of the global media on Brazil, several other sections of society joined the movement, bringing with them their own demands. In April and May, teachers and bus drivers of Rio went on strike demanding better pay. In what was particularly problematic for the government, in the city of Recife, the police also went on strike. This led to a situation of complete lawlessness with rampant looting and robbery. According to reports, more than two dozen killings took place in one single day in Recife. The army had to be called in, and tanks and armoured cars patrolled the streets of the city.

At the same time, anti-World Cup demonstrations continued to take place in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte and other cities. Outside the Maracana stadium in Rio, protesters decried the cost involved in refurbishing the stadium, claiming that the money could have been used to establish 200 more schools. According to the World Economic Forum, Brazil ranks among the 35 countries having the worst education systems.

Pressure on Dilma Roussef

In June, the situation turned even more serious for President Dilma Roussef and her government, when just a week before the beginning of the World Cup, the subway workers of Sao Paulo went on strike, demanding a 12 per cent pay hike. Chaos reigned in the already congested city as some traffic jams stretched to over 150 kilometres. The subway workers found support in the Landless Workers’ Movement. On top of this, at a time when international players and tourists were beginning to arrive in Brazil, the staff of Rio’s two main airports, Galeao and Santos Dumont, launched a “go slow” agitation.

The timing of the agitations was clearly to put pressure on the government to give in to the demands. For Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity has been on the decline, the success of the World Cup is crucial, as Brazil will head for its presidential election later this year. She had earlier promised that the World Cup event in Brazil would be “Copa das copas” (the Cup of all cups).

But many feel that at a time when the country’s economy does not appear as buoyant as before, the government should have made its priorities accordingly. Though there was much enthusiasm when Brazil, in 2007, won the right to host the 2014 World Cup, the subsequent extravagance and the manner in which the government went about setting things up began to convert the enthusiasm into a grievance. In fact, a recent survey indicated that more than 60 per cent of the people of Brazil felt that the World Cup was not good for the country at this time.

The country’s current account deficit in 2013 was at its widest in 12 years and its gross domestic product (GDP) growth slumped to 2.3 per cent. Even though it is the world’s seventh largest economy, Brazil is also among the 20 most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 54.7.

According to some reports, the amount spent on the 2014 World Cup is around four times the initial estimate declared in 2007 by the then President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. What has further annoyed the people is that the money that has financed the event, instead of coming from private investments, as was the original idea, is apparently the taxpayers’ money.

Reaction among fans

For a football-crazy nation, the celebrations and the preparations among the general public have also been more subdued this time. Brazilian football legend Zico reportedly said, “I wish I could see a bit more joy among the people.” Even diehard football fans voiced their disapproval of the government and FIFA during the opening match between Brazil and Croatia on June 12. A section of the crowd jeered and made obscene gestures at Dilma Rousseff and FIFA president Sepp Blatter as the two sat together during the match, which Brazil won 3-1.

Some Brazilians had even declared that they would be supporting some other country rather than their own as a mark of protest. Ronaldo, one of Brazil’s all-time great players, who is currently a FIFA World Cup ambassador, tried to put the matter in perspective. “This is what people should understand: it is down to governments. The governments they have elected. It has nothing to do with football or the World Cup,” he reportedly said.

Brazil, which has won the World Cup a record five times, is hoping to win it again and this time on its home turf. The last time it hosted the World Cup was in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the final. There are those who believe, including perhaps the government, that should Brazil win the cup, all the resentment and acrimony surrounding the event will magically disappear.

However, Brazil will also be hosting the 2016 Olympics, which too is generally a gala affair. It remains to be seen whether the euphoria of an expected World Cup victory will triumph over fresh anger over more expenditure on sports.