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Brazilian goals unrelated to football

June 26, 2013

IT is perhaps no more than an intriguing coincidence that at least some of the teargas used against protesters in Turkey bore a “Made in Brazil” stamp.

What is arguably less coincidental is the similarity between the Brazilian mass mobilisations of the past two weeks and the recent Turkish variant.

It’s a resemblance that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recognised, telling reporters last week: “The same plot is being laid in Brazil. The symbols, the banners, Twitter and the international media are the same.”

The Turkish prime minister’s aversion to Twitter is well known by now, and he seemed to be hinting at some shadowy external conspiracy. On the latter score, his thesis is almost certainly gravely mistaken.

It is true enough that in both cases the initial spark was a relatively minor concern: the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in one instance, a marginal hike in bus fares in the other. There is a remarkable difference, though, between the reactions of the two governments.

Erdogan was quick to demonise the demonstrators and embarked on a scheduled visit to North Africa as the protests peaked.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff struck a very different note. “Brazil woke up stronger today,” she declared in the immediate aftermath of mass mobilisations early last week. “The size of yesterday’s demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population.”

The increase in bus fares was also speedily rescinded. But by then it was already too late. The protests had ballooned and the cost of bus journeys had been relegated to a relatively minor concern.

The Brazilians who continued taking to the streets in their tens of thousands were channelling popular anger about a wide range of issues — not least the amount of resources that are being expended on preparations for next year’s football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

There was widespread popular jubilation when, back in 2007, Brazil was named as the host of the 2014 Fifa World Cup. It was not obvious at that point that its cost would add up to more than that of the past three World Cups combined, with Fifa reaping the biggest profits.

Many of the newly built stadiums are perceived as white elephants that will bring little or no medium-term benefit to Brazil.

That the stadiums built with public funds have cost billions more than anticipated reinforces suspicions about corruption amid the evidently popular perception that the funds ought to have been expended on hospitals, schools and various other infrastructure in a country that has made some progress in these spheres over the past decade, but where a great deal more needs to be achieved.

Segments of the international media have been wondering whether Brazil has fallen out of love with football. That is almost certainly not the case, but there is a welcome tendency to put the sport in perspective.

Iconic stars of the game such as Pelé have lately been lambasted for their tunnel vision. Ronaldo was taken to task for remarking, “A World Cup isn’t made with hospitals. It’s made with stadiums.” A contributor to The New York Times spotted a placard that read: “When your son is ill, take him to the stadium.”

And some footballers, past and present, have found it easy to empathise with the protesters. For instance, the former striker Romario, now a congressman for the Brazilian Socialist Party, who initially supported the World Cup bid, has found cause for a change of heart, noting: “Investment in cities hosting World Cup matches [was] prioritised over the people’s needs. Money was channelled predominantly towards sports projects, at the expense of health, education and safety.”

Brazil’s presidency has been held for more than a decade by the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party, a social-democratic organisation that has pursued a moderately progressive agenda without a radical break with the neoliberal paradigm.

Its achievements are not to be scoffed at, notably in the sphere of reducing absolute poverty — which helps to explain why Luz Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, enjoyed a popularity rating of over 80pc when his second term ended following the 2010 elections, despite accusations of corruption against some of his closest aides.

Lula, a representative of the working class with a proud trade union pedigree, sought to strike a balance whereby, in the domestic sphere, he would be perceived as an ally by the bourgeoisie as well as the proletariat, while on the international front he managed to maintain fraternal relations with more radically inclined Latin American states such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador without alienating the United States.

His successor, Rousseff — the daughter of a Bulgarian communist, she became an urban guerrilla who was tortured and imprisoned by the right-wing military dictatorships that ruled Brazil from the mid-1960s until 1985 — has not deviated too sharply from the policies of her predecessor, but has in the past few days been persuaded to propose significant reforms, including constitutional reforms.

“My government is listening to democratic voices,” she said at a news conference at the beginning of this week. “We must learn to hear the voices of the street. We all must, without exception, understand these signals with humility and accuracy.”

Exactly what will come of her multiple initiatives remains to be seen, and it is far from clear whether her words will suffice to calm the tension that has been compared with the unrest in Mexico on the eve of the 1968 Olympics.

It would no doubt help, though, were Erdogan inclined to import Dilma’s attitude rather than her country’s teargas.