So it's official: Australia 1, Iraq 0. We're going to Rio! Once again, the ephemeral flame of Australian soccer fandom has flared up. Talk of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is filling our airways, but the recycling of old Brazilian stereotypes – sun, surf and samba – shows we'll be playing the round ball game in a country we know embarrassingly little about.
Compared to its BRIC comrades Russia, India and China, Brazil passes under the political and economic radar for most Australians. Yet the nation is preparing for its “coming-out party” at the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, drawing all eyes upon itself as it steps into the ring of new global heavyweights.
Even so, as the Australian media has finally woken up to the protests that have been flaring up across Brazil against the government since the beginning of June, they seem to gloss over the fact that the millions of demonstrators who have taken to the streets are also shouting to us at the top of their voices, and their message couldn't be clearer: “Don't come to the World Cup.”
For these Brazilians, the mega-event spits in the faces of the citizens who, despite being pushed to the margins of the political landscape, are paying for the country's painful facelift. The nation's transformation into an economic juggernaut has delivered on few promises. Instead violence, corruption and disenfranchisement have become entrenched across many sectors of society.
Ostensibly, the protests began in São Paulo at the beginning of this month in protest, against a rise in the cost of public transport to the tune of 10 Australian cents. The fare hike tapped into a well of growing resentment across the nation against municipal, state and federal governments, siphoning money from citizens at the same time as it hacks away at basic social services, particularly health and education.
Protests have now flared in cities across the nation of nearly 200 million, despite the decision to reverse the price hike as protestors are taking advantage of a new opportunity to make their voices heard on a myriad of long-standing social and political issues. Social networks are bringing the protests to the world; instead of a “coming-out party”, the World Cup is being used to show how little the country has changed since the supposed return of democracy in 1985.
What's remarkable about these demonstrations is that they are driven largely by the younger and relatively well-off sector of society, a generation which was thought of as politically disengaged, shunning activism. Yet growing up with the aftershocks of a dictatorship they cannot remember, Brazil's youth have witnessed the promise of democracy and development suffocated under a blanket of endemic corruption, a media monopoly and a political class whose sole goal is seemingly to preserve its own dominance.
Corruption scandals abound among politicians, and sitting members of parliament and senators are immune from prosecution, but the leading Worker's Party is proposing a number of constitutional amendments, including removing the investigative powers of public prosecutors and subjecting some decisions of the Brazilian Supreme Court to Congressional approval, removing even the pretense of the separation of powers.
The protests have come face to face with a pumped-up military police presence, determined to contain dissent and very willing to use violence to do so. In fact, much of the movement's drive is fulled by outrage at the violence let loose by the state upon peaceful protestors and journalists.
These new demonstrators are coming face to face with what, for the majority of the country's truly poor, has been a reality for decades. Brazil's notorious police are some of the most violent in the world, known for astronomical homicide rates and the infamous “death squads” that would sweep through the shantytowns of Brazilian cities to get rid of the urban “trash”. Sheltered from legal retribution, judges, lawyers and activists who attempt to bring these crimes to court are met with death threats or worse.
For the first time in decades, this violence has been turned on the population at large and is playing out in city centres rather than at the periphery. Rubber bullets have torn through demonstrators and journalists, police have attacked protestors and passers-by indiscriminately to drive people indoors and one reporter was even arrested for carrying vinegar, a remedy for tear-gas. This has lead some to nickname the protests the “Vinegar Revolution”.
Brazil is currently hosting the 2013 FIFA Confederates Cup, considered a test run before the World Cup next year. The government hopes the games will win foreigners back to the country – the tourism industry is stagnating. But attempts to subdue protestors to ensure the smooth running of the event – including soccer legend Pelé asking the nation to “forget” the protests and focus on the game – have left Brazilians discontented with what seems to be a bread-and-circuses approach to governance.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has offered words of support for the protests, saying they are signs of a strong democracy, and promising major transportation and education reforms. Yet despite this the military police continue to crack down on demonstrators. A general strike have been planned for coming days.
What has infuriated this soccer-mad nation is that its government is more than willing to spend more on the World Cup than what was invested in the previous three combined, while being reluctant to do anything to shore up infrastructure for its own citizens. Indigenous Brazilians and the poor have been evicted for the sake of new stadiums and a “sanitary” image.
The deep irony is that the government, willing to bulldoze dissent, presents itself as supporting a vibrant democracy. Moreover, while the Brazilian government is understandably trying to prove it can become a global player, it does not exist to serve the interests of a foreign audience. Brazilian citizens, fed up with an increasingly authoritarian status quo, are making quite a different statement – one that we should keep in mind before we march off to Rio to support the Socceroos.
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