Brazilian Protests: A World Cup in the Crosshairs?


2013-06-22  By Kenneth Maxwell

According to the BBC, the current protests in Brazil might well lead to problems facing Brazil in hosting next year’s World Cup.

Football supporters fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets. Angry mobs torching banks and buses. Gleaming new stadiums encircled by activists. These are images few Brazilians would have predicted they would see on the streets of their country just 10 days ago, images the organizers of the next year’s World Cup could not have imagined would blight the Confederations Cup. 

And yet this week, more than a million people took to the streets of 100 cities in Brazil to mark a rising wave of protest that has coincided with the country’s biggest sporting event for 63 years. 

The rallies, and the violence that followed, were not, however, sparked by the tournament.  It was a 20c (£0.06) rise in public transport fares that stirred passions. 

But concerns over healthcare, security, rising inflation and World Cup and Olympic overspending soon became the focus – along with a profound dissatisfaction with their elected leaders, who they believed did not understand the “real people” of Brazil. 

It started with a modest event.

Riot police have used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse Rio protesters. Credit Photo: BBC

Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the boss of Fifa, chided the Brazilian football fans at the opening of the Mane Garrincha national stadium in Brasilia last Saturday when they booed President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazil beat Japan to be sure, but Blatter should have held his tongue.

As he spoke the police were already using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters outside the stadium who were angry at the amount of public money spent on the stadium and on preparations for next year’s World Cup, which Brazil is hosting. The sports minister, Aldo Rebelo, said: “the government will not tolerate demonstrations.”

Over the following days people took to the streets from Belem to Salvador, from Natal to Florianopolis and Porto Alegre, and from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, in a popular movement, which took Federal, State and Municipal authorities completely by surprise.

As it did the political parties.

The initial violent reaction of the military police in Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo only added flames to the fire. 

The popular movement was coordinated by means of social media and was apparently largely leaderless. It was stimulated by increases in the price of public transportation, by concerns over the excessive expenditures on new and refurbished sports facilities, by Fifa’s demands and behaviour, and by anger over continuing endemic corruption.

There are historical precedents for the current events.

The popular revolt, the “Revolta do Vintem” in Rio de Janerio in late 1879 and early 1880, was provoked when a twenty reis tax was proposed on all passengers who used Rio’s mule drawn trams. Protestors gathered outside the Sao Cristovao palace. Emperor Pedro II wanted to be conciliatory.

But when the police could not contain the angry crowd at the Largo Sao Francisco, where the trams lines began and ended, the police called in the army, and more than a dozen demonstrators were killed or wounded when they opened fire.

The popular revolt in Sao Paulo in 2013 began as a protest against raises in public transportation fares, and the military police reacted with violence, and fired rounds of tear gas into the crowd. Many were injured, including several journalists.

The “revolt do vintem” ended as quickly as it had arisen when the twenty reis tax with withdrawn. But it shocked the imperial regime. Within nine years a republican government replaced the emperor.

The demands of the popular revolt on the streets of urban Brazil today are so far incoherent.

But it is a nationwide movement.

Politicians will not be able to avoid its consequences.