Brazil’s Mega-Event Revolt: In Search of a Real ‘Legacy’
Matthew Richmond discusses the recent protests in Brazil and argues for the positive, if unexpected, social role of mega sporting events.
As in other recent large-scale examples of urban unrest, the current protests in Brazil’s major cities bring together an interesting array of local, national and global issues. The grievances range from poor investment in key public services and political corruption to repressive policing and a cost of living squeeze in urban areas. ‘Mega-events’, such as the football World Cup 2014 in Brazil, have provided a focus for the movement. They have highlighted, and in some cases aggravated, existing problems in these areas. They have also revealed the gulf between the priorities of the political class vis-à-vis those of the majority of the population.
All of this gives the protests a scale and reach they did not possess a couple of weeks ago, when they began over a R$0.20 ($0.09USD) rise in bus fares. However, it also makes them vulnerable to fragmentation and/or being co-opted into partisan agendas. The Passe Livre (free transport) movement that led the bus fare campaign has declared that it will not organise any further demonstrations for fear that they are being hijacked by the right.
Meanwhile, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff of the nominally leftist Workers Party has promised to take significant measures to meet protesters’ demands. These include the allocation of all oil revenues for education, the drafting in of foreign doctors to bolster the quality of the health service and the formulation of a new national urban mobility plan focussed on public transport. She did not mention the Mensalão, an ongoing corruption scandal engulfing her own party that is a rallying point for the right, or reforming the police and ending their repressive tactics against demonstrators. Many doubt that she will be able to drive through the reforms she has promised, given Brazil’s fragmented party system and the complex alliances operating at various levels of government.
It is a fragile moment for a movement that has the potential not only to transform Brazil, but which could also reverberate far more widely. What might be required at this stage is to simultaneously localise and internationalise both analysis and mobilisation, using the unifying theme of the mega-events.
Brazil is an overwhelmingly urban country, with close to 90% living in cities. The protests have been particularly concentrated in World Cup host cities, and have targeted stadiums currently holding Confederations Cup games. Rio de Janeiro, which will also host the 2016 Olympics, had the largest protest to date when 300,000 (probably an underestimate) took to the streets on Thursday 20th June. This is no coincidence. The mega-events are having dramatic effects on Brazil’s cities, and Rio in particular. (I have analysed these in depth elsewhere). Here the authorities promised huge investments in housing, transport and security, in a ‘whole city project’ that was initially embraced by Rio’s residents. Instead, while huge sums have been spent the impact so far has left them disillusioned.
With speculative development and hot money flooding into the city, house and rental prices have rocketed, squeezing even normally protected middle-class residents out of their neighbourhoods. Meanwhile the first favela removal campaign since the height of the military dictatorship in the 1960s is underway to make way for mega-event infrastructure. Transport prices have risen but services have deteriorated, and new metro and bus lines seem more geared towards connecting the airport, tourist areas and sporting venues than serving residents. A large favela ‘pacification’ (or proximity policing) programme has been successful in bringing down violence, but its geographical coverage also suggests it is more about the mega-events than urban security in general.
By focussing on these kinds of issues – demanding genuinely ‘legacy’-oriented reforms to improve urban public services and quality of life – urban citizens can unite around concrete demands without getting lost in the forest of mainstream political process.
But while demands must be urban, and certainly national too, they must also look to the international dimension. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and the IOC (International Olympic Committee), like other international bodies such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), have been comprehensively captured by private interests and are now a powerful vehicle for the profitable reinvestment of capital by the global 1%.
Worse still, they constitute a flagrant case of ‘socialism for the rich’. Host nations spend huge amounts of taxpayer money on contracting private sector construction and security firms and if things go wrong end up footing the bill. This is aside from the more general issues, so clearly expressed by protesters, that spending on mega-event infrastructure tends to both drive up the cost of living in cities and take money away from other more important areas.
As is always the case when individual countries come unstuck under pressure from international neoliberal institutions, a chorus arises blaming irresponsible governments and national cultures. In a shameful display of wilful ignorance Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan this week attempted to attribute the unrest in Brazil to government overspending and Latin American populism, predictably revealing both his free-market fundamentalism and his cultural chauvinism against every country to the south and east of him. This is the same tactic that has been so effectively mobilised in the Eurozone – by ascribing sovereign debt crises to Greek corruption, Spanish laziness, or the nouveau riche exuberance of the Irish.
The millions out on the streets of Brazil, and the many, many more who support them, are fully aware of the problems of corruption within their body politic and do not need to be lectured by foreign commentators about ‘governance failures’. The question is whether the arrival of FIFA, the IOC, or indeed the IMF, helps or hinders in addressing this. The truth is that when governments act like good capitalists seeking to exploit their comparative advantages (whether it is Icelandic banks, Spanish construction or Brazilian commodities) the hot money flows in and intensifies the mixing of big finance and low politics that corrupts us all.
Brazil’s mega-event revolt gives us the opportunity to look again at how the global sporting bodies are run and to comprehensively reform them. As with events during the London Olympics, the true test of their ‘legacy’ should be whether they make our services better or worse, our cities more or less liveable, our politicians more or less honest.