Witnessing the Protests in Brazil
I came here to visit my family. The government hoped I’d come for a soccer tournament.
“Are you in Rio for the Confederation Cup?” asked a woman in uniform when we stepped from the plane.
“No, no,” we said. Posters in the Brazilian team’s yellow and green advertised the games along the halls leading toward immigration and customs.
I would soon think a great deal about the Confederation Cup.
Three days later, we heard about protests downtown, in the spot where we’d wandered as tourists. We turned the TV to the program called Cidade Alert (City Alert), which was sure to sensationalize any crime or activity in Rio. Within minutes, we saw the streets and sidewalks and building steps jammed with human beings calling for lower bus fare. Within a few more minutes, we saw an overturned car ablaze, and young people feeding a second fire.
The government had raised the price of all public transportation. Bus fares rose from 2.75 reais to 2.95. Much of the international media has taken to calling this a 20-cent hike, though it is about half that in American money. But twenty cents does not say enough.
We privileged American tourists had gotten around Rio by car, on foot, and in rapid subway trains from new, expansive stations connecting only the wealthy and commonly touristed places. We had not touched a bus, though we had retreated from their pounding rush up the pavement.
But Rio’s poor, who live in favelas slung along high slopes above the city, often have no choice but to make the steep commute home by bus. One afternoon, about an hour before the Uruguay-Brazil match, bus after bus passed us, each crowded with standing passengers.
The fare hike touched lives hard. The people of Brazil believed this new financial hurt had purchased stadiums.
Historically, Brazil’s favelas have been the childhood homes of many soccer players. But the country’s biggest sports stars appeared to forget their origins. As has been widely reported, Pelé advised the Brazilian populace to “forget the protests.” While Ronaldo in his new role as sports commentator sat like a lump of bread during Confederation Cup broadcasts, web videos revealed his words could blister souls. World Cups are won “with stadiums, not hospitals,” Ronaldo said.
A few days after the first protests, the government dropped bus fares in São Paulo and Rio.
TV political advertisements targeted inflation. In one, from a socialist party, a woman shops for vegetables and comes home to cook. She sits in a chair next to her stove and says, “Every time I go shopping, I return with more anger and less food.”
The woman in the ad can buy less food because in March, according to Reuters, the price of tomatoes was higher in Brazil than in the north part of Alaska, up 122 percent. The cost of carrots and onions also rose. Food inflation is no small matter in a country where food is 22 percent of the consumer price index.
Even to an American traveling at a moment when the dollar is strong against the Brazilian real, food and other items seem exorbitant. However, there is an exception to this rule. Purchase anything having to do with Brazilian labor—a haircut, handmade shoes—and the sale will be a bargain. Such steals reveal the place of the Brazilian worker in this economy, and one reason for simmering anger—low pay for heavy work.
In the days of the protests, in sidewalk cafés, in gyms, in beach stalls along Copacabana, televisions above people’s heads showed either: 1) thick clots of protestors in the streets along with any fires they lit (proving the adage that TV news cameras love a good flame); 2) or the broad green of soccer stadiums in Rio, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Salvador, Recife, or Belo Horizonte.
Within days, something seemed new in these protests. It was the word “corruption.” I’d noted the word six years earlier, when Lula was in power, and I’d come to Brazil eager to hear what people thought of this energetic president who was bringing better education and access to home loans to lower-class people. I asked and asked back then, “What is your opinion of Lula?” and found a divide. People with less money, in service work, would say they admired him. But people with money, including most who spoke English (which indicates education), used the word “corruption.”
Now, as the protests expanded, the signs still demanded services. But next to these, other signs called the government corrupt. The protests had spread to the middle classes.
We did take in a Confederation Cup game—the one where Spain trammeled Tahiti 10-0, and where the Brazilian crowd bellowed for the underdog. Afterwards, we boarded a jammed subway car. People said they planned to join the protests. When the train stopped downtown, about half left the car. Those who departed had been boisterous, not unlike people at an American tailgate party. They joked that they were going to protest the cost of beer at the Maracanã stadium—just under $5 a cup. These protestors were not from the favelas.
I had my hair trimmed and my nails polished at Amie’s Salão de Beleza. Then I asked owner Livia Bento her opinion about the unrest. “I feel that it’s good for the country because we are always accepting the government,” she said. “Now we are doing something to get better.”
Bento sees a government that offers nibbles for the poor, gobbles for bribes, and all but nothing for the middle class. The protests had moved from the lower to the middle classes, she said, because some government policies help the lower classes gain access to jobs and education. Similar policies are not in place for Brazil’s expanding middle class, she said.
“We have to pay for hospital, for insurance,” said Bento, adding that the middle class pays high taxes that don’t hit the poor. The government “paid too much money for the World Cup,” she said, taking money that should have gone into schools and hospitals.
The protests are middle class, she said. “The rich didn’t do the protest. The poor protested about bus fares. But the middle class protested about everything.”
“Everything” includes corruption.
In Rio, one can overhear café conversations like this:
--The Maracanã stadium costs 1.2 billion reais. That seems too much.
--How much of that cost is corruption?
--I think the real cost of the stadium should be about 800,000 reais.
--So, 1/3 of the stadium price is corruption.
The people of Rio expect corruption, and they often have reason. According to Elio Gaspari, the Brazilian newspaper columnist and author, “In 2005, the government of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, then Brazil’s president, was caught in a vast cash-for-vote scandal. The plot, which became known as ‘mensalão,’ because the bribe payments were made monthly, shattered expectations. Mr. da Silva’s government had been widely trusted to lead a fight against corruption. Suddenly, a former president of his Workers’ Party and his own chief of staff were caught up in a scandal.”
Many here believe the politicians have lost sight of public frustration. “At a time when federal, state and municipal taxes eat up 36 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product without providing public services minimally compatible with what is expected from government, at least $13 billion is being poured into 12 soccer stadiums to host the World Cup,” wrote Gaspari. “An additional $12 billion is being spent on projects to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.”
The things the protestors demand—improvements in health care, sanitation, transportation, education, infrastructure—are what many would consider the basic functions of government.
The public made the connection. When vandals crashed the protests, they grasped for symbols of government power, tipping police speed lights, shattering bus windows and the glass of the president’s offices, setting fire to the halls of congress.
The police also took aim—with tear-gas bombs and some well-publicized beatings. One journalist appeared on TV news with a deep imprint from a rubber bullet in his forehead.
On the highway between the city and the airport, traffic often stalls. People from Maré, the nearby favela, weave between cars to sell Coca Cola, Globo cookies, and candy. One night in late June, police killed at least ten people in the hours after a protest. Three of these were innocent residents of the favela. The police at first said those killed were criminals who had taken advantage of the protest to loot and steal from people in the streets. The people of Mare told a different story, of police killing people inside buildings, reported The Guardian. Maré resounded with protest again the next day. The police brought in a large armored car.
“The mayor of Rio has proudly declared that during his tenure not a cent is being spent on subsidizing public transportation,” wrote Gaspari. “Yet he was able to find $560 million of public money to spend on the renovation of the iconic Maracanã stadium to meet the requirements of next year’s FIFA World Cup.”
Eduardo Paes, the current mayor of Rio, is not the first to put buildings before people. In the early twentieth century, a different Rio mayor, Pereira Passos, became enamored of Paris, and sought to import its charms (along with onyx from Algeria, marble from Italy, chandeliers from England, and stained glass from Stuttgart) to the city center, explained Vanessa Raffel, our tour guide at Rio’s beautiful Municipal Theater. But he had to put the new buildings somewhere. He chose a neighborhood.
“He destroyed all the houses,” said Raffel. The displaced populace, much of it poor, needed to remain close to the city for jobs. So, she said, “people began to put houses on the hills.” Thus, this architectural achievement of early twentieth century Rio started the favelas.
Had the current protests come close to the Municipal Theater? I asked. Yes, said Raffel. Twice before, the protestors in the square had been so numerous that they stood “on the steps of the Municipal Theater and of the Municipal Council.” On the outer walls of the Municipal Theater that border the busy avenue called Rio Branco, protestors wrote “2.95” (the amount of the bus fare they protested) as well as “some dirty words,” said Raffel. She said we could come back that afternoon to see a protest.
But why were the protests still happening? Hadn’t the government lowered the bus fare? interjected a woman taking the tour.
“We have a lot of problems,” said Raffel. “Yes, they lowered the price, but we have problems with health care, with schools, and with politicians. They steal from us, and we don’t accept that.” She turned back to me. “5 p.m. today. If you go there, be careful—not with the protestors, but with the police.”
At 3:20 p.m., police came to the square below the Municipal Theater. They carried guns. (They’d only had nightsticks at Ipanema.) The police were numerous, in knots throughout the crowd—three to my right, four more directly behind me, another four at the bus stop.
An American two tables away got up to leave. He came to warn us. He’d been working in São Paulo five months and was “protested out,” he said.
Gilmar Braga, a Rio citizen, stopped to talk with us. Like many, he said the government had spent too much on the stadiums, and that the money should be “for the Brazilians who live in Brazil.” He said there was a reason the protests had been all over the country. “They don’t have good health care, education, transportation.” Among those who travel by bus, “many people have to wait a long time, up to one hour.” He said the city was dirty and needed help with its infrastructure. Braga was optimistic, saying he thought the Labor Party was listening. “I think the government is going to change,” he said.
The police stood with their backs to the Municipal Theater, shields propped on the ground. Some distributed leaflets with long passages of Portuguese.
“Military Police of Rio de Janeiro,” announced the leaflet. “Help us protect you. Get away from those who insist on vandalizing a peaceful protest.” The writing noted that the police were not “against the freedom of expression,” which it called a “principle of democracy—the peaceful gathering.” But the military police duties included “life protection, crime prevention, and preservation of the state buildings.”
Helicopter sound throbbed. Police or film crews? The rumors went both ways, but the helicopter had no spotlight, which made people think it was a police vehicle, perhaps preparing to drop the “bombs of moral effect” that had struck other protests.
But the protestors shouted and danced, beating the complex, compelling rhythms of Brazil. They wore business suits and Guy Fawkes masks and dreadlocks and T-shirts. They carried signs. “Estado Vândalo” [vandal state]. “Inflação e Arrocho Salarial” [inflation goes up, salary small], Dilma Não [No more Dilma—the current Labor Party president]. “Verás Que Filho Teu Não Foge A Luta” [see that your son does not abandon the fight—a line from the national anthem]. One sign referenced “Candelária,” the colonial-era church where off-duty police in July 1993 allegedly killed eight homeless children who slept on its steps.
I stopped a man who wore a gas mask and carried a sign that read “Não é Par R$.20 é Por Direitos” [It’s not for the $.20. It’s for rights]. Like many in the square, he was young. His name was Matteus França. Politicians in Rio and Brazil are “trash,” he said. “Because we are children here, we are fighting for political reform.”
Locals will say you can know where you are in Rio if you gaze up at the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The protest happened just to the south of Christ’s “left armpit,” or Zona Norte, home to most of the city’s poor, and to numerous favelas. The Rio most tourists know is Zona Sul, in Christ’s “right armpit,” home to the wealth of the city and much of its famous beauty.
Walking after midnight in Christ’s right armpit, we came upon two beach umbrellas propped as though to block the streetlamp light. We’d been talking, but stopped when a sleeper lifted his head sharply.
The Michelin Green Guide to Rio de Janeiro describes the Praia de Botafogo where the umbrellas sat this way: “Do not plan on spending any time at Botafogo’s beach, as its waters are not suitable for swimming.” Our hosts warned us not to step on any liquid we saw in the streets of Rio, unless the skies were pouring.
We walked along the bay again and again. We soon realized the umbrellas sheltered several men, women, a handful of kids (some in diapers), who had made a home under a shade tree that often shaded only the water. They kept a short red dog that had black freckles on its nose, washed baby clothes in the bay, and spread wet shirts and pants out flat on a large rock. They fished for clams, roasting them in a fire. One of the men lifted an infant into the air, gazing intensely into the child’s face.
I asked our host: “Do you know the families that live under umbrellas on the beach,?”
He said he did.
I asked: “Do you think poor people are worse off here or in the United States?”
He thought a bit, then said that in the United States, most poor people did not have to make their homes alongside sewage water. But, he said, the people on the beach might be better off than some in the favelas. Because the poor are squatters in those hills, the favelas of Rio have neither running water nor sewers.
One afternoon, we watched the television broadcast as the Brazilian soccer team defeated Uruguay 2-1. Rio apartments commonly open onto balconies that invite inside car-motor clamor, smells of garlic and roasted meats, and hints of other lives. Now, an apartment across the avenue had a faster tele-feed, and so we’d hear the cheering seconds before our television showed the goal. We’d run to the balcony to listen—from above and below came yells, whistles, honking trumpets, and the bark of a large dog that obviously favored the home team.
Some recent U.S. articles have suggested the Brazilians have turned against soccer. But the noises off the balcony offered more precise information. The people of Rio adore their game. But like most of us, they will not trade the joys of sport for their families and homes.
Anne-Marie Cusac is professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University, a contributing writer for The Progressive, and the author of “Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale, 2009).
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