NEW YORK – Last year, Brazilian authorities were taken by surprise when a wave of protests erupted during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, a sort of warm-up to this year’s main event, the World Cup, which will be staged in 12 cities across the country beginning in June. The protesters, complaining that the $11 billion spent on new stadiums and other World Cup-related infrastructure would be better invested in improving Brazil’s poor public services, were met with official violence. And yet the protests have continued throughout the year.
Not surprisingly, soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, and the World Cup’s corporate sponsors are worried – so worried that they and Brazilian government officials are planning carefully for protests during the month-long tournament. Worse, a raft of proposed security legislation would almost certainly restrict freedom of assembly.
The trouble with this backlash is that the World Cup is merely a focal point for a diffuse set of popular grievances concerning issues ranging from education to police corruption and abuse of power. Last June, a million people took to the streets across the country. In Brasilia, 45,000 protesters simply walked into the capital’s legislative district and stood quietly.
Recent demonstrations have followed on the heels of the government’s forced relocation of low-income Brazilians from their favelas overlooking Rio de Janeiro into newly built housing far away – an effort aimed at preventing the World Cup from being marred by scenes of poverty and unrest. Last week, protests erupted in the city’s Copacabana district after a dancer died. Locals say he was shot by the police, who have now been joined by the military to maintain order.
The use of soldiers in civil policing is of course the hallmark of an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. And the proposed security legislation includes use of the bogeyman of “terrorism,” which is pretty much nonexistent in Brazil (but always useful to police states), to stifle dissent. A bill proposed in February would make it a crime to protest a sporting event. In an atmosphere in which violent anarchists are not holding civil society hostage, the government has intervened to do so.
I was in Brasilia two weeks ago, when the entire country was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the military coup with cultural events and public activities. Indeed, it was the theme of the Second Biennial Book Fair, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.
Exhibits at the fair drew attention to what life was like under the military regime and promoted reading and writing as a central component of a free civil society. It was moving to witness this homage to freedom and be reminded of what tyranny looks and feels like.
One of the exhibits at the event featured a display of cartoons published during the dictatorship in Pasquim, an alternative magazine similar to the British satirical weekly magazine Private Eye. As so often happens with satire and allegory, Paquim’s cartoonists were able to sneak into print quite radical critiques of the military regime – its brutality, arbitrary arrests, and censorship – in graphic form, right under the nose of the state’s humorless generals.
But eventually the generals caught on. When Paquim was one of the last relatively unmuzzled press voices in Brazil, its cartoonists were arrested, and a live bomb was found in the magazine’s offices. According to Ricky Goodwin, a former Paquim journalist and the exhibit’s curator, at one point, when the magazine’s main cartoonists and writers were in prison, a mass of ordinary Brazilians surrounded its offices, insisting that publication continue. Other journalists volunteered, at great risk to themselves, to get the magazine out.
FIFA and the government’s response to Brazil’s recent protests are putting at risk what the Paquim exhibit commemorates: the rebirth of freedom and democracy. The problem for the government of President Dilma Rousseff, who was herself imprisoned and tortured under the military regime, is that Brazilians know exactly what is at stake.
When pundits weigh in on emerging powers like Brazil and India, they typically point to the rise of the middle class and booms in education and connectivity. But they rarely appreciate the texture of their democracy and civil society – the relative newness of hard-won freedoms and the intimate understanding of what tyranny, whether a homegrown dictatorship or a colonial administration, means to individual liberty. (Still less do they notice the role that women’s empowerment and feminism have played in development.)
The role of FIFA, in particular, in pressuring Brazil’s government to enact anti-democratic legislation is a dangerous precedent. This extra-national effort on behalf of the World Cup’s sponsors underscores the threat to newly empowered civil societies from global corporate entities, many of which are increasingly chafing at the constraints imposed on them by strong democracies.
Who is supposed to pass Brazil’s laws, the people of Brazil or Coca-Cola? When Coca-Cola, backed by the military, sets national policy in what is supposed to be a free society, a new and darker page in the fight for freedom has been turned.