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.
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 continued…