Tuesday, July 23, 2013

World wide events and their protests in Brazil

Over the past few months Brazil has been gearing up for several international events as the country becomes more and more relevant in the rhetoric of development as "a growing world power". In a series of country-wide protests last month the entire world saw how such rhetoric backfired during the 2013 Confederations Cup, which failed as a sort of test drive for the much anticipated 2014 World Cup. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young, and I will argue, middle class protestors in nearly ever big city (and smaller cities in solidarity) stood up against the contradictions of development and the failure of the Brazilian government to serve its people with basic necessities.

These protests have been widely covered by major, international news sources so I will not repeat the basics, but rather explain my point of view on the uprisings as a platform to discuss not only the particularities of this Brazilian case, but also to connect the movement to similar manifestations that have been occurring since the Arab Spring in 2010.

Protest in Salvador, Bahia. June 27, 2013. I was surprised by the socio-economic make-up of the protest. In all honesty, I had never seen so many white, middle-class Bahians in one place together on the street. Usually the social make-up in Salvador is very different, and I didn't feel like the movement was particularly representative of the poor, working class of Brazil but rather the young, university students who represent a privileged position in relation to the majority of Bahians. In any case, they were standing up for justice and causes that, if listened to and reacted upon, would benefit everybody. 

Since arriving in Brazil (this time) in July 2012 I have been keeping my eye on FIFA and major corporations that sponsor FIFA in order to see their power and interventions in Brazil as they prepare for this major event in a country that has very little infrastructure to support it (see my post on Acarajé, Coca Cola, and FIFA). Since the early phases of preparation FIFA has expressed deep concern and doubt regarding Brazil's readiness and ability to complete all the necessary tasks and facilitate the influx of investment and tourism in order to successfully carry out the event. This appears all too obvious for me, and for many Brazilians, who love soccer and love the World Cup, but who see that the major cities are dirty, unorganized, dangerous and fully unequipped to host tourists in large numbers. If the city, state and federal governments cannot even facilitate transportation and traffic for its own citizens (the subway in Salvador, for example, has been in construction for 13 years and is still not running due to a series of engineering and organization snafus, while public money is blatantly being eaten up by corrupt politicians), then how will the host cities function during the events? And even if security and transportation are miraculously sufficient during the particular day or week to host visitors in a particular city, does that mean it will stay that way and help facilitate the day-to-day struggles faced by Brazilian workers and students? The protestors say no, with great reason. They say Brazil's focus is not on improving the health, education and infrastructure for Brazilians, but instead to invest in an idealized image of Brazil focused on it's culture of parties, music and open arms to brand to tourists. When the tourists go home and leave their party mess behind, the government will not clean up the mess but instead the people will walk through trash-filled streets, sit in hours of traffic to get to and from work, and pay high taxes for everyday consumer products.

A Coca Cola ad in Salvador, Bahia. During the Confederations Cup Coke launched a campaign entitled "Together, lets color Brazil". They were offering spray paint and stencils with Coke images and messages, encouraging neighborhood residents to "color their streets" as a sort of decoration to receive tourists with an iconic Brazilian vibrance. Photo by author.

Since 2010, much attention has been given to the "social networking" tactics of major protests in various cases throughout the world (including Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and more recent protests in Turkey). This was certainly an important tactic in Brazil, as hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized largely through internet forums and networking between young adults. Although this strategy may have changed the focus and scope of the protests, I don't think it is particularly surprising as most of us access important messages and information through the internet world-wide. However, with such broad participation and space for free expression, it appears people interpret the "movement" as an abstract moment to propagate their own concerns regarding a variety of issues. In Brazil it started as a "free pass" movement for bus fare, and quickly escalated to include issues such as homophobia, healthcare, education and political corruption. People can access the movement and participate from their homes regardless of their social position or stance, contributing material freely without ever participating in a formal meeting or even going to the streets to protest. I believe this contributes to the size of the protests, but also to the apparent disorientation of the messages. It also allows small sectors, sometimes violent, to intervene and sometimes dominate the public image of the movement without the agreement of the movement as a whole. In this way, I felt parallels to my experience in and later frustration with the Occupy Movement in 2012 (where I participated at UC Berkeley and in Oakland). 

Although protests died down after the Confederations Cup in early July, they have sparked again in response to Pope Francis' visit to Rio de Janeiro. He is the first South American Pope to visit his own continent in honor of "World Youth Day" and has been deemed the "Pope of the People" calling to the poor, which is a popular and historic message directed towards Brazil's massive Catholic population. Once again, as a response to the incredible public spending for the Pope's visit (which has also attracted a world-wide pilgrimage of young Catholics to Brazil, aka more tourists), protestors are going to the streets. The media has unsurprisingly focused on the violence of the protests, while others have taken this event to confront Brazil and the Church's homophobia with public displays of homosexual romance on church steps. As a host to internationally relevant events such as these, and more to come in the near future (including the actual World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro), I doubt such protests will subside unless some real structural changes are made on the part of the Brazilian government and their relations with major corporate investors. Brazilians have made it clear to FIFA and their own politicians that such lavish public spending will not be accepted laying down.

Within these many struggles, there has been a small victory on the part of the Bahiana vendors and their association ABAM, which through a series of petitions and negotiations have won their right to sell acarajé in a privileged area of the Fonte Nova Stadium during the World Cup in Salvador. However, they are still prohibited by the stadium's corporate sponsors from selling acarajé during regular season games. I look forward to following these development projects and international events as a side interest to my particular research project with the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies at the Federal University of Bahia.

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