The World Cup opens in Brazil on July 12 surrounded by an air of nervous anticipation. This was supposed to be a glorious event, marking clearly Brazil’s place as a rising power on the global stage. Instead, it has become a showcase for the limits of the “Brazil model” of development — one that has registered some important and meaningful achievements, but also one that has fallen well short of expectations on a number of political and social criteria. Perhaps most importantly, it is highlighting a certain hubris of the Brazilian government under the Worker’s Party (PT) and particularly its past leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), who successfully secured the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Hubris in Brazil has a specific name: grandeza (greatness). Grandeza is the word attached to the Brazilian aspiration to be a major global player — an attitude more typically identified with the older military regime, but one that can still be seen in modern policy making and discourse. Grandeza under the military took the form of massive, inefficient state investments in “pharaonic” projects such as the Itaipu Dam. For Lula, grandeza took the form of roughly $11 billion for hosting a “pharaonic” sporting event (and that is without considering the mounting costs and growing concerns over the 2016 Olympics). This massive investment in unnecessary projects, including new stadiums and training facilities, comes in a country that has woefully underinvested in basic infrastructure and social needs for decades.
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The staging of the Confederations Cup last summer threw into sharp relief the contrast between grandeza-inspired indulgences and vital infrastructure and social needs, and the anger it has provoked. In the midst of the tournament, a proposed 10 per cent increase in bus fares in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro led to a protest by the Movement to Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) opposing the proposal and demanding free transit. Bus fares are not trivial in a country in which low-income citizens can spend as much as a quarter of their income on the slow, crowded and terrible transportation system. Consequently, fare increases are politically fraught and have a long history of producing protests and even riots.
On this occasion, however, an aggressive police response produced a public and media backlash and within days, what appeared initially to be an isolated and not particularly popular movement transformed into millions of Brazilians protesting in cities across the whole country.
Protesters raged against a host of frustrations, most of which stemmed from gross inadequacies in public services, corruption and impunity, and the sense that politicians cared little for the concerns of average Brazilians. The diversion of public funds into international sporting events made the Brazilian government appear more sensitive to FIFA’s needs than to average Brazilians: “FIFA standard” services became a common ironic battle-cry of the protest movement. Eventually, the protests petered out, but not after leaving a significant mark on the government, the country and the global stage. President Dilma Rousseff enjoyed extraordinary public support before the protests began — she appeared unassailable looking forward to the presidential elections of October 2014. Over the roughly one month of protests, popular approval crashed, falling from a “net approval” (total negative evaluations subtracted from total positive) of +55 per cent at the start of June 2013 to only +5 per cent by the end of the month. While she has regained some support over the past year, weak economic performance coupled with disgruntlement over World Cup and Olympics spending has begun pushing her support down again. She is still favoured to win but it is now an open contest, and more than 50 per cent of Brazilians disapprove of her performance. What happens over the next month may have strong effects on the outcome.
The reason is that the protests revealed the limits to Brazil’s BRIC-worthy performance. Moderate growth, rising wages and declining unemployment, and innovative social policies helped lift millions out of poverty. Millions of Brazilians became consumers and joined an “aspirational” middle class, earning enough to avoid poverty but dependent on critical public goods to establish secure futures, particularly health, education and public transit. Slowing economic growth, rising inflation, weakening income growth and ongoing frustrations with inadequate services suffering from decades of underinvestment have hurt both the poor and this “aspirational” middle class. The protests of last June-July revealed to both the world and the country’s political elites the degree of dissatisfaction and the disconnect between average citizens and their seemingly tone-deaf leaders.
The most serious concern was that the issues sparking protests in 2013 remained unresolved and that the country could see a new round of protests. Not surprisingly, protests have re-emerged in the lead up to the World Cup, with strikes by transit workers and assorted street protests crippling São Paulo days before the competition begins. The government and police response has been heavy-handed and even violent. The protesters are reflecting broad feelings about both the government and the competition. Surveys in May and June found strong majorities expressing pessimism about the state of the economy and the view that the World Cup was bad for Brazil. Over a third of respondents believed the competition would damage Brazil’s image in the rest of the world. Even if protestors do stop to allow the games to proceed without incident, Brazil’s image may suffer simply because the country’s infrastructure is unlikely to cope effectively with 32 national teams and an estimated half a million visitors.
The World Cup was supposed to showcase Brazil’s arrival as a new power, and Rousseff continues to promote that idea. Yet, the protests are an entirely legitimate response to the fundamental failure to invest adequately in citizens. Ironically, nothing has perhaps hurt Brazil’s image more than the protests, the underlying grievances and the ham-fisted government response. During the BRIC glory years, Brazil gained renown for lifting millions out of poverty and its innovative social programmes were emulated all over the world. Yet, instead of deepening those achievements, the allure of grandeza meant wasted expenditures and opportunities, and distracted global awareness away from the country’s very real accomplishments. Instead of the World Cup announcing Brazil’s arrival on the world stage, it suggests a still developing country overreaching.
The writer is co-director, Institute for International Development, King’s College London and author of ‘Crafting Coalitions for Reform: Business Strategies, Political Institutions and Neoliberalism in Brazil’