RIO DE JANEIRO - They want to be heard. They want injustices reversed. They want attention. They probably didn’t think they would achieve this – but they did, to the point where the whole region is now looking at them.
They are Brazilian. And since last week, hundreds of thousands of them have taken to the streets to protest against the fare hikes in public transport and the huge costs and repercussions brought on by the Confederations Cup and the 2014 Soccer World Cup hosted by Brazil. The protests are the largest the country has seen in more than 20 years.
However, it seems as though under the loud demands, there is a buzz that no one has been able to decipher yet. To better understand what is happening in Brazil, we talked to Natalia Viana, director for Agenda Publica, the leading independent media research center in Brazil. She explained the details of this protest movement, which has left the whole nation and Latin America perplexed and waiting for what it might mean – or trigger.
AMERICA ECONOMIA: The specific reasons for the protests are all over the place, but do you think that there are deeper, underlying reasons for the mobilizations?
NATALIA VIANA: Nobody is clear on why these protests are so unique. The first thing is that the movement against bus fares hikes is an old one in Brazil. There have been protests against this since 2005, and organizations have even been able to obtain lower fares in some parts of Brazil. The movement has been questioning the logic of transport management as well as the quality of services in certain Brazilian cities for a while now. There are also students and other people who want free transport.
Brazil has a very inefficient public transport policy in general, one that favors individual cars over freedom of movement in the city – and this can be seen all around the country. The movement has become more visible now, but it has been around for years, including in southern Brazil where there were big protests two or three years ago.
Besides that, there is generalized discontent and part of it has to do with all things related to the 2014 World Cup. This is a hot topic in Brazil, which will host the cup next year – and everyone is looking forward to that. But since the beginning of the negotiations with FIFA, which did not involve the Brazilian people, there have been many human rights violations and financial abuses; improper spending issues; profound changes in the cities with hardly any consultation of its inhabitants. As result, about a year ago, local citizens’ committees started springing up in all the cities that will host the World Cup. These committees are fighting against the way things are being done.
In some of the cities where the protests are taking place, such as Minas Gerais, Brasilia, and Rio de Janeiro, one of the main contention issues is the fact that it is forbidden to protest during the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, which is a clear violation of the Brazilian constitution.
You speak of human rights violations... What are the main examples?
The main human rights issue is the expulsion and removal of people from their homes, which is very serious. Around 170,000 people have been threatened with losing their homes because they happen to be in the way of the new infrastructures and projects being built, or in the way of the stadiums, the roads, etc. The government is changing the cities in a very authoritative way. There have been no proper consultations or discussions with the communities involved.
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Construction on soccer stadium in Sao Paulo - Photo: Mark Hillary
At Agencia Publica, we have been covering this issue since 2011. We have heard dramatic stories. For instance, those living in a community are not told how much money they will receive for leaving their home. It always takes place in the form of individual negotiations, never group negotiations, so as to divide the community.
What about the economic abuses?
There are exorbitant costs involved. Case in point: the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. In 1999, FIFA required modernization works for the 2000 Club World Championship, totaling $50 million. All paid for by the government. The Maracana stadium had to be upgraded again for the 2007 Pan American Games, at a cost for the government of $150 million. FIFA and the government argued in 2006 that this way the stadium would be ready in case Brazil hosted the World Cup. That was not enough. In 2010, there came another upgrade, which is approaching the $500 million mark. So in total, about $700 million have been spent on renovating the stadium three times.
That is tremendous economic abuse. After all these public investments, the Macarana will later be contracted to a private company. In the past 15 years, there has been a public investment of almost $1 billion in the Macarena stadium – all that for it to become a private concession. No wonder people are outraged. The Macarena and soccer are very important to Brazilian people. They do not want to be removed from the equation so that profits can go to a happy few.
Meanwhile, the international community wonders: “Don’t Brazilians love soccer? Why are they protesting the World Cup?”
If the public transport movement has been going on for years and there has been a lot of public discontent in regard to the World Cup and the Confederations Cup, why are people deciding to take to the streets now?
The same question goes for Turkey. That’s how movements are now. Maybe the Brazilians have taken some of their inspiration from Turkey, but I don’t think a specific event sparked the protests.
Does that mean that these protests were expected or did they come as a surprise?
They took us all absolutely by surprise and we are very happy.
How did they start? How were people invited to join the protest?
The Free Transport Pass Movement is a Brazil-wide student movement. Social networks have been very effective, but that’s not all. There is also the Anonymous movement, which has been calling people to protest. The Internet has had a great impact, but we are still trying to understand how.
Is there a leader emerging from the protests?
No, but these demonstrations have been going on for the last four years. I think it is similar to what happened in Turkey with the Arab Spring: these protests do not have specific leadership. For many Brazilians, and me, the crucial issue is that of our right to the city and democracy. Transport is important because people are figuring out how to organize themselves. In terms of the international soccer events, people want to have the right to say what they do or do not want in their cities and their homes. They do not want any more authoritative public management. There is a profound, urban crisis in Brazil.
Are these protests driven by the middle class or is the movement socially fluid?
There is a general indignation. For instance, the protests in Sao Paulo grew a lot more after last Thursday’s violent clashes with police forces – who beat demonstrators and fired rubber bullets. There are all kinds of people involved. Police brutality is a serious issue in Brazil, and this has always been the case. It has not gotten better since the end of the dictatorship in 1985 – in fact it has gotten much worse. On Monday, there were about 100,000 people in the streets. I think that the movement is spreading. There are people from each social class involved in the citizens committees of the different cities that will host the World Cup.
If there is no leader or no one to negotiate with the government, do you expect the government to propose new measures?
People are asking for a different thing in each city. It is not traditional. It is a movement unlike any other. This is why nobody can say what will happen because it is a movement that has spread and continues to do so. We shall have to see what happens in the following weeks.