A view from Rio: “The World Cup now pervades every serious political dispute taking place today”

The World Cup kicks off in Brazil next week. Last year’s Confederations Cup saw huge protests and confrontations with the Police, directed at the corruption and vast public spending which surrounds the event. One year on, anger continues, but the picture is more complex. Mark Bergfeld interviewed Rio activist Miguel Borba de Sá  last month to find out more.

Image via http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/05/14/362569/strikes-hit-brazil-ahead-of-world-cup/
via www.presstv.ir

MB: Last June we witnessed a massive street movement under the banner of ‘Brazilian Autumn. What has happened in the meantime?

MBS: After last year’s peak of street protests, when all sorts of political voices competed for hegemony of those mobilisations, we’ve witnessed a noticeable withdrawal of the liberal middle-classes from political agitation. But workers remained! Both organized and non-organized sectors of the working class took it as an opportunity to push for their rights, and began a wave of strikes that has been going on ever since. Moreover, these strikes in many cases have been organized over the heads of their unions, like this year’s (successful) public cleaning worker’s strike during Carnival, or the ongoing bus drivers’ struggle, both in Rio de Janeiro. Even police forces, as in Recife last week, also went on strike. In São Paulo, the “Homeless Movement” (MTST) is on the offensive, occupying empty buildings and so on. It is fair to say that workers and popular sectors are feeling more confident, less fearful of police, bosses and authorities, as they gain greater public opinion support.

So there is this spirit of radicalization from below, but at the same time, protests against the World Cup itself are far smaller than last year.Partly, this is because of the retreat of the middle classes I already mentioned, but also, of course, because of the escalating police brutality and their permanent conflict with the so-called “black-blocs”. Many people, including some from the left (like myself), see no point in joining confrontation with the police for the sake of it. In this context, the death of a TV cameraman on February 10th, hit by a sort of rocket firework mismanaged by a “black-bloc”, led to national agonising in the mainstream media. From that point on, protests, demonstrations and strikes have returned to their usual place in the press: either criminalized, on the police pages, or on road traffic news – which is more interested in telling people about how many kilometres of traffic jams there are than the political content of the protest that caused it!

MB: So does the World Cup still mobilise people? 

Today, protests specifically targeting the World Cup are no bigger than 20 thousand people in any part of the country. Last week’s M15 mobilizations took only 10 thousand to the streets of Rio. If you compare it to last year’s numbers, it remains the size it was before last Autumn’s peak of one million people during the Confederations Cup.

However, it is important to recognise that while protests focused on the World Cup are smaller in size, pretty much all of the strikes refer to the World Cup or use it as a main driving force into action. Workers from the public education system, for instance, are asking for better wages and working conditions, and questioning where the money spent on the World Cup came from, because they have always been told that such money never existed for them. The same is happening in many other public sectors, from health workers to police forces, which is publicly threatening the governor of Rio with a strike during the games if their wage demands are not met. So, if you take into account all of those strikes that justify their actions in terms of “If FIFA has it, I want my share as well” – or sometimes, more bluntly, “FIFA go home, I want my money for health and education” – then the size of political action against the World Cup is far bigger, and impossible to measure. The protests may not repeat the millions in the streets again, but the World Cup now pervades every serious political dispute taking place today.

It is important to note, though, that these strikes are still confined to public sectors and public services that were privatized. In the huge industrial plants there is no sign of radicalization, as people are fighting to keep their jobs, not to confront their bosses.

via rebaixada.org
via rebaixada.org

MB:  Are people looking forward to the World Cup? 

MBS: I believe that there is widespread frustration with the World Cup and that it can’t be recovered. Even high profile PT (Workers Party) officials came out and publicly criticized the event, maybe with an eye on next October’s elections. Making sarcastic remarks about the World Cup has become common sense. The slogan “Não vai ter Copa” (There won’t be a World Cup) can be seen on graffiti in every corner of the host cities, not to mention in social media hashtags. That may not turn into one million people protests again, but the lack of enthusiasm is undeniable. Even the traditions of painting the pavement or hanging yellow and green ribbons in lamp posts, which is generally mandatory in every World Cup, are absent, precisely when the World Cup is in Brazil!

Of course there are people looking forward to the event, because society is anything but homogeneous – especially Brazilian society. The wealthy are quite happy about the World Cup actually, as they will promote their businesses and make higher profits. They are also grateful for the fact that poor people are now out of football stadiums (or ‘arenas’, as they are now called) due to the high price of tickets, even for banal regional championship games. Real estate speculators are gaining millions with the gentrification of areas through the forced eviction of shanty towns (favelas). The same can be said for the tourism industry.

The elites are trying hard every day to mobilise enthusiasm for the World Cup through mainstream media and other means, and will succeed in part, but not on the whole.

MB: What are some of the big issues that Brazilians face today?

MBS: Again, one must separate out these “Brazilians” you refer to. I would say that the challenge for the Brazilian elite is to continue deepening the process of capital accumulation in a peripheral, dependent economy. This is not an easy task, as this type of capitalist growth carries several contradictions within it, either of the relationship of private capital to government planning, or regarding the relationship between foreign and ‘national’ capital.

On the side of the workers, the challenges are of course bigger. People do have more job opportunities than they did two decades ago, but the quality of those jobs is mostly very low. As I just mentioned, the Brazilian bourgeoisie must transfer to workers the losses they have in their competition with foreign capital. That’s why one observes so many economic struggles at this point, with strikes and so on.

So, for me, the biggest challenge of the working class and the political left in general is to realize that an ’emerging economy’ is still a capitalist economy, and that means the growth it generates will further the social and economic gap. The rich may become super-rich the more they associate/subordinate with foreign capital, but the poor remain poor, in spite of the modest increases in minimum wages and other compensatory measures by PT governments.

The important thing, then, is to avoid the myth of a society that is resolving its social contradictions, the ideology of Brazil-as-a-Great-Power.

MB: In early 2012 we saw the violent clearing of the Pinheirinho favela. More and more photos are circulating about the violent destruction of people’s livelihoods in the run-up to the World Cup. Why is the government targeting the favelas

MBS: It is not only the government which is targeting the favelas, but the economic elites. Both Pinheirinho, in São Paulo, and Favela da Telerj, here in Rio, were examples of State brutality in order to defend private interests, to reclaim those empty territories for the sake of real estate speculation. They don’t care if people have no place to live. That’s something governments should worry about.

It is not so trendy nowadays to call the State the ‘central committee of the ruling classes’, but in Brazil this is not so far from the reality. If you go to the countryside the situation is even worse, with government troops cleaning the way for agro-business and high-scale mining projects that push further the frontier of (primitive) capital accumulation every day. If small peasants or indigenous communities try to resist, they are smashed. Land reform is stopped.

So I guess the images we are seeing are not especially related to the World Cup itself (Pinheirinho had nothing to do with it, for instance) but with class struggle, in its most acute form. What is happening now is that Mega events, like the Pope’s visit or Rio+20 summit, and  of course, World Cup and Olympics, are being used as an excuse to promote all sorts of social evils, especially in the name of the ‘security’ needed for those events. The question is: security for whom?

MB: Rio will be hosting the Summer Olympics in two years time. Is this shock doctrine gone mad? 

MBS: In Rio the situation is bearing madness, yes. This series of mega events gave local elites the best opportunity in decades to promote their model of ‘development’, that is, development for their business at the expense of the majority of the people.

So far they seem to be getting away with it. For instance, they have increased transport fares twice again since last year. But with the proper combination of coercion and consent, there were no massive protests this time. And this is remarkable, as one should note that last year’s multitudes were in the streets protesting against fare hikes (not, actually, the confederations cup).

In this sense, it is not shock-doctrine alone. For the extremely poor it may be, but for bulk of the working class it is a mix of co-option and violence.

MB: Will the protests continue during the World Cup?  

MBS: They will, but in the form of strikes more than mass demonstrations, I expect. There will be protests, the Popular Committees against the World Cup are trying to re-enact last year’s powerful mobilizations. But in a sense, it is good to have smaller protests if they are politically better, if they demand an anti-capitalist agenda.

Last year, we had millions of people on the streets, but only public buildings were targeted. Not a single corporation had fingers pointed at it. Big capitalists were not seen as the problem of society, only ‘corrupt’ politicians. As I said in the beginning, this is a very liberal and bourgeois mindset that still conforms to the common sense of the masses in Brazil.

There will be protests, but our task is to dispute their ideology better this time, demonstrating that the state and markets are not separate, but act together to exploit and oppress the poor, the working class. This is what we should look for next month, to see if the level of consciousness has been raised or not.


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