Understanding Demonstrations in Brazil

By Lucy Phillips, on 3 March 2014

By Laetitia Sanchez Incera

Over the past eight months, a number of Brazilian cities have fallen victim to strikes and demonstrations. What started in June as a protest against the price hikes of public transport in Sao Paulo, has escalated in recent months, into a means for Brazilians to express their more general discontent. The open expression of frustration with the provision of public services – notably public transport, which affect millions of people who commute from the outskirts of cities every day – is indicative of deeper problems. Demands have encompassed a wide variety of issues related to structural problems such as poverty, corruption and insecurity, and social issues including inequality and lack of access to healthcare.

The glory of hosting mega events has fallen out of the spotlight. The 2014 Summer World Cup should not be considered as a trigger of demonstrations, but rather as an additional source of discontent. Topping the list of public grievances are matters including the building of overpriced stadiums, the security breaches on construction sites, and a shared feeling that money could be better invested addressing the problems in Brazilian society.

Competing views about the consequences of the World Cup and the Olympics in 2016 are easy to find. Ernst and Young’s paper on ‘Sustainable Brazil. Social and Economic Impacts of the 2014 World Cup’ stresses the benefits of the World Cup for Brazil, highlighting the tangible legacy of ‘stadiums, buildings, urban mobility, infrastructure, telecommunications, ports, airports’ that will directly benefit the people. Aspects of social legacy are also mentioned, particularly the ‘self-esteem of the people hosting the World Cup, the gains in education and training provided by the Cup’s experience and temporary jobs…  inclusion through sports, the improvements obtained with investments in health and safety, and income generated by increased economic activity’.

However, the broad nature of these benefits belies the limits of their scope. Brazilian Congressman Romario de Souza Faria declared in the video ‘Public Domain’ that ‘the legacy to be left to the Brazilian people… is very little for an event like this’. In fact, the contracting process of construction for the World Cup and Olympic sites have been channeled through big corporations, thereby exacerbating competition with local, smaller businesses.

As for those who are powerless and more isolated from society, they will remain in the dark.  Since 2008, programmes of pacification of favelas led by Pacifying Police Units – known as the UPP – have been ‘greatly publicised in the media, and occur in strategic points for major investors’. In fact, recent controversies have drawn attention to the displacement of residents of favelas near city centres. Residents are repeatedly encouraged to sell their house, and some end up being evicted on the basis that their house is ‘unfit for inhabitation’, sometimes without any kind of compensation and without being offered alternatives. Congressman Romario declared that these evictions are ‘inhumane, illegal, unconstitutional’.

Pressured by the extent of demonstrations, President Rousself declared in an address to the nation that she would invest in public services including education, transport, and health care, and that she would tackle corruption. Regarding the World Cup, President Roussef wanted to make clear that she ‘would never allow for these costs to come from the public federal budget, jeopardising priority sectors like health and education.’  Dilma Roussef was elected in 2010, becoming the first woman to hold office as president in Brazil.  As the head of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the workers’ party in Brazil), Roussef positioned herself as the continuation of Lula’s government, committing herself to the ongoing support of welfare policies.

The hosting of the World Cup this summer will test Brazil’s capacity for hosting mega events, offering a glimpse into its potential to host a successful Olympic games in 2016. Next fall will be the time for evaluating the benefits and losses for Brazilian people. It is undeniable that corporations and the tourism industry will benefit from the incoming flows of tourists, yet it is the responsibility of the Brazilian government to draft and implement the appropriate policies to ensure benefit for all. The upcoming presidential elections in October will give the electorate an additional voice to express their opinion on the current government, especially regarding its ability to host mega events and to tackle urgent national issues.