Main image: cartoon by Benett. “Tropa de Braço: Any journalist here, raise your hand. Right, anyone else?”
April 1 2014: The fear that mass demonstrations could take place during the World Cup – like those during the Confederations Cup last June – is leading the government to militarize against the protests, with incredibly repressive strategies. And half of the Brazilian population rejects the Cup.
“In the last few months we have experienced an escalation of repression, aiming to silence all voices that disagree with those at the top and their branches of power: the state, the police, the media,” declares a São Paulo communiqué of the Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre, MPL).
The city was the principal reference point for the June demonstrations. “In 2013, the illegal actions of the Military Police, the selectivity of justice in city peripheries to deal with social struggle cannot be hidden. Not even by the mainstream media.” In a March 5th statement, the MPL denounced the multiplication of arbitrary detentions: [for example,] because the detainee had the “face of a protester,” because he/she was carrying vinegar in their backpack (to neutralize police gas), or the very common “because they intended to carry out black bloc action.” It is not only the members of this organization, but human rights organizations as well, that complain of police action against the protesters, acting “as they do daily in the poor areas of the city.”
Police of the Força Nacional in action in São Paulo in Feb 2014. Photo: brazilsoberanoelivre blog
There is an undeniable nervousness in Dilma Rousseff’s government facing the World Cup, when the glare of the media will turn to Brazil. The country’s image is at stake, they argue from above. Se Não Tiver Direitos,Não Vai Ter Copa (if we don’t have rights, we won’t have the Cup), the movements respond.
What is clear is that the political climate is getting thick [with tension]. “In the history of Carnaval, there has never been a larger number of police on the streets,” notes Le Monde (March 4, 2014). But during this year’s festivities, Rio de Janeiro was patrolled by 17,000 police, a figure that will rise to 50,000 for the World Cup, plus another 100,000 in other cities, and bolstered by 57,000 soldiers. A mind-bending 200,000 uniformed, armed people to maintain order.
The Rejection Of Squandering
It will be by far the most expensive World Cup in history. The total cost of the championship will be in the range $14 billion, more than double what was originally projected (Le Monde, March 4, 2014). Nearly 90 % of this comes out of the state treasury which, in the opinion of critics, would be better spent on education, health and infrastructure. This is one of the main reasons half of Brazilians question hosting the World Cup in their country. The Datafolha Institute asserts that support for the championship fell from 79 % in November to 52 % in recent weeks. Even the sectors most passionate for soccer are feeling this wave of rejection. “As if the World Cup has become an echo chamber for all the ills of this country,” says Le Monde.
According to the same survey, 75 % of Brazilians do not approve of World Cup investments. Projects to improve urban mobility were cut and the budget for public transportation infrastructure fell by a third, while five of the 12 stadiums have yet to be completed. FIFA president Josep Blatter complained that Brazil was the country that has had the most time to prepare for the Cup – seven years – but is the most “backward” in the agency’s 40 years.
According to the CNT survey, 50.7 % would not nominate the country for the World Cup again. Only 26.1 % would. The historical trajectory seems solid: in 2008, 79 % supported the championship, in 2013, when the protests began, support fell to 65 %. It is now barely half, and could continue to fall. Furthermore, [the survey] states that eight out of 10 believe that it would have been better to spend the money for stadiums on “more important areas,” since [cities] such as Brasília, which has no first division professional team, will receive very few fans after the World Cup.
“Who is interested in having a stadium in Manaus?” asks Orlando dos Santos Júnior of the national coordination of the People’s Cup Committees, “It runs the risk of becoming a white elephant” (Deutsche Welle, March 4, 2014). This organization’s recent data suggest that, in Rio alone, over 100,000 people were displaced for constructions related to the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
There are facts that make you cringe. The paving and urbanization of Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre are still in the bidding stage. Part of the infrastructure, such as that of the Tom Jobim (Galeão) airport in Rio, will be completed only after the World Cup. The Fortaleza International Airport will have a temporary terminal, while some of the projects that have already been inaugurated in Curitiba show failures, and must be repaired (Deutsche Welle, March 4, 2014).
Against this background, some cities decided to reduce the costs linked to the championship celebrations. The city of Recife announced that it will not participate in FIFA Fan Fest, the huge spectacles in which games are transmitted on giant screens that became fashionable at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. During that championship, and the following in South Africa, FIFA parties brought 24 million people together outdoors, religiously consuming products authorized by the organizers. Brasilia decided to do it, but far from downtown, and Porto Alegre also suspended it. Rio’s decision is still pending. The fear of protests and the need to distance themselves from the multinational soccer corporation has led to caution from public officials.
One of the country’s soccer idols, Romário, a former national team player and current politician, called the championship “the biggest robbery in the history of Brazil.” Amid the 2013 protests, he said: “The true president of this country today is FIFA. She comes here and sets up a state within a state,” in relation to the fact that “laws” imposed by the FIFA organizers will govern during the championship. Pelé serves in the ranks of those who defend the Cup. “Soccer only brings benefits and foreign exchange for the country,” he said last June, pointing out that nationwide, even among its sports stars, opinions are divided.
Karate In Action
On Saturday, Feb. 22, several groups summoned a demonstration in São Paulo attended by about 1,500 people. Police deployed new tactics to neutralize the demonstrations. Instead of applying the traditional strategy of dispersing the protesters, who return to cluster in small groups, the police were deployed on a massive scale, (2,300 police versus the 1,500 protestors), using helicopters and a broad apparatus of logistical support.
Once the march began, police proceeded to split it in two, and encircle those considered more “dangerous” by the so-called “ninja squad” or tropa de brazo, some 200 soldiers trained in karate. The protesters were not only surrounded, but forced to sit on the ground. To those who resisted, the police applied the “lion-killer,” a martial arts chokehold that paralyzes the opponent via temporary strangulation (Defesanet, Feb. 23, 2014).
Those who remained inside the police cordon were frisked, and those considered “dangerous” were “dragged one-by-one to the sidewalk by the karate military police” (Folha de São Paulo, Feb. 23, 2014). Over 260 protesters were arrested, but released almost immediately because no charges were filed. In fact, at the time they were stopped by the polikaratecas, they had done nothing wrong. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI, for its acronym in Portuguese), stated that several photographers were prevented from working and some were beaten. “It is abuse, an affront to the right of journalists to report an event that is happening. It isn’t the first time. Nor will there be punishment “(Rede Brasil Atual, Feb. 24, 2014).
In a later statement, the ABRAJI specified that 19 photographers and journalists were attacked or detained on Saturday the 22nd. “Since June 2013, 68 cases of attacks on journalists covering demonstrations in São Paulo were registered. Of these, 62 cases were deliberate, as they occurred despite the fact that the journalist was identified as being part of the press. Across the country since last June, we recorded 138 cases of aggression and hostility toward or detention of journalists covering protests “(Abraji, Feb. 26, 2014).
The reactions of the human rights organizations came immediately. The ombudsman of the São Paulo Police, Julio César Fernandes Neves, a lawyer renowned for his defense of human rights, appointed by Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, says that the new police tactic is “inadmissible and unacceptable,” because in reality it is “a obstacle to the right to demonstrate “(Rede Brasil Atual, Feb. 24, 2014). For the ombudsman, detaining people who have committed no offenses is a serious problem. “The police can only act from the moment a crime happens, not because they imagine it will happen,” he said. However, what angers him the most is the impunity, because, even if he presents the allegations and evidence, it is the police institution itself that is in charge of the ruling. He says that between 2000 and 2013, there weren’t any police sanctioned for abuses during protests and, in particular, there were no punishments handed out, despite confirmed attacks on peaceful protestors in June 2013.
“The danger of there not being punishment is that legality ruptures, a foreshadowing of the end of democracy,” stated Fernandes Neves. Then he told of the police beating fenced-in protestors, putting them on the ground and some on their knees, and subjecting them to humiliating inspections.
A Symbolic Triumph
Brazil is experiencing an upsurge of social violence, beyond that of the police. In Rio de Janeiro, where Pacifying Police Units have been installed in 30 favelas, a significant increase in homicides was registered in 2013, after three consecutive years of decline. During the year-end holidays, violent deaths rose 33 % in Rio and 10 % nationwide (Le Monde, March 4, 2014).
On Feb. 12, a manifesto against the criminalization of lawyers acting on behalf of protesters was issued. It was signed by 90 organizations and hundreds of lawyers, led by the Institute of Human Rights Defenders. The text denounces the police for the sustained increase – since the June demonstrations – of violence suffered by lawyers, who are often “threatened, insulted and even physically assaulted” when taking an interest in those arrested (http://ddh.org.br, Feb, 12, 2014). They understand the police attitude to form part of a “constant State strategy to suppress the individual rights and guarantees of the protesters, through the retrenchment of their defense.” Like many other groups, they demand the “demilitarization of the police and the end of the extermination of poor black youth in the favelas and urban peripheries.”
The Justiça Global organization, one of the most important human rights bodies in Brazil, denounced the government before the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. A public hearing will be held on March 28 in Washington, where for the first time the government will sit opposite society to respond to police violence, the criminalization of protesters, laws of exception, and the repression of journalists and lawyers.
A group of social organizations submitted 200 cases of human rights violations during protests last June. Justiça Global lawyer Edward Baker said that “the State has repeatedly used the penal system as the only response to popular demands. This is the first opportunity for civil society” (http://global.org.br, March 10, 2014).
In this not-so-hopeful scenario, some good news arrived. Blatter and Rouseff will not do the traditional opening statements at the World Cup, to avoid the boos they suffered during the Confederations Cup. Although Blatter said he was “convinced that the situation has calmed,” he added that “we will hold a ceremony that won’t feature any speeches” (Folha de São Paulo, March 11, 2014).
On June 12 in Itaquerão, while players from Croatia and Brazil get together to hear their national anthems and the authorities reflect on on their impotence, more than a few Brazilians will wear a sly smile.
Raúl Zibechi is the international analyst for the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly Zibechi Report for the Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org.