With less than six weeks remaining, Brazil has yet to complete the finishing touches, as it prepares to host the 2014 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup. Being one of the most widely watched sporting events in history, the World Cup is likely to reach roughly three billion people world wide and expected to flood host cities with hundreds of thousands of tourists. It is one of the most celebrated athletic events of all time, football’s ultimate tournament, and due to the deep passion for the sport that is shared by most Brazilians one would imagine that they would be absolutely thrilled to host the famous World Cup.
On the contrary, many Brazilians feel quite the opposite. According to the Brazilian polling institute Datafolha, approximately 55% of Brazil’s population currently believes that the World Cup will bring more harm than good. Moreover the same poll has shown that this sentiment has been growing in popularity over time. The source of these sentiments have been linked largely to the outrage over the great economic and social costs that the preparations for the World Cup demand and the great inequalities in Brazil’s society and economy that continue to plague the world’s seventh largest economy.
I had the chance to visit Rio de Janeiro and Salvador last summer and was able to witness first hand the incredible gaps between rich and poor, as well as talk to a number of local activists and learn about the issues and consequences that the World Cup has created. After landing in Rio, I spent the first night and day in the heart of the city. Walking up and down the beach and touring the streets, I soaked up as much as I could of the busy city. With a population of about six million, Rio is just smaller than New York City and has essentially all of the same attractions: Elaborate malls, lively night clubs, fancy restaurants, enormous hotels and office buildings. For all intents and purposes Rio de Janeiro is a thriving, developed, city on a hill, at least as far as the downtown anyway.
On my second day in Brazil I went out to the extremities of the city to visit Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. The favelas are essentially shanty towns, and are home to some of Rio’s poorest. Together, the favelas surround the city and make up for about 20% of its population. In the vast majority of favelas, the Brazilian government is entirely absent. Instead, local drug lords create and enforce the law and provide order throughout their territory. However, while many foreigners would view the drug lords as a leading problem, many of the residents see them as the lesser of two evils. Many Brazilians despise the government due to a combination of the immense corruption throughout the system and the memories of police brutality against political dissidents and the poor. Thus, the favelas are also notorious for periodic shootings and murders resulting from internal gang wars, as well as significant and extensive drug abuse. Other social problems include inadequate access to water, electricity, and waste removal.
This kind of extreme economic inequality is a central component of Brazil’s social and economic structure and is one of the main reasons many Brazilians strongly oppose hosting the World Cup. Brazil has already invested upwards of ten billion U.S. dollars on renovations and building projects, in preparation for the World Cup. Those are billions that are not being invested in social services and projects designed to help combat inequality. Moreover, while it is estimated that the World Cup will inject approximately $60 billion into the Brazilian economy many argue that the incoming money will never touch the hands of Brazil’s poor. The money generated from tourism will certainly stay almost exclusively in the already affluent parts of Brazil’s major cities or go directly to FIFA and will likely never reach the favelas and rural areas of Brazil.
In addition to the economic costs of the preparations, there is also a degree of human cost. In order to make room for new facilities and infrastructure the Brazilian government has demolished thousands of homes, mostly in the favelas, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. On top of that the government has been undergoing a process of “pacifying” several favelas in strategic areas. The “pacification” process is essentially the reclaiming of a favela from the local drug lords and establishing a police presence. The idea is that due to the proximity of many favelas to tourist and stadium areas it is necessary to reestablish control in order to more easily quell any protests that are likely to break out and to restrict the flow of drugs and extent of crime. These “pacification” operations have faced significant resistance from the residents and local drug lords and although they have been effective in establishing police authority they have not done much to reduce the drug problems or combat any other social issue.
Thus, for the majority of Brazilians, and especially those living in the favelas the World Cup exists only as a symbol of the ongoing corruption in the government and the perpetuation of inequality. Within a few weeks of returning from my trip, cities all around Brazil broke out in mass demonstrations protesting against rising inequality, corruption and the World Cup. Similar protests and riots have continued to take place since then, at different times and in different places throughout the country. Now that the famed tournament is just weeks away, these demonstrations have increased in frequency and intensity. If this trend does not cease, and if pubic opinion does not change drastically, it is quite likely that the focal point of this year’s World Cup may not be the games themselves… but rather, a great deal of social unrest.