World Cup Protesters, Beaten Into Submission, Fizzle Out Like Brazil’s National Team

   on July 14 2014 2:10 PM
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    Caption:Demonstrators set debris on fire after clashes erupted during a protest against corruption and price hikes, on June 20, 2013, in Rio de Janeiro as the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 is being held in the country. Brazilians took to the streets again Thursday in several cities on a new day of mass nationwide protests, demanding better public services and bemoaning massive spending to stage the World Cup. CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
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    Riot police clash with demostrators before the World Cup final match between Argentina and Germany in Rio de Janeiro, July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Before the 2014 World Cup began in Brazil, the protest slogan "não vai ter copa," or “there won’t be any cup,” was commonly heard on the streets. Now, it’s become a national joke. There was a Cup, and it was a success, with all the tourists, pageantry and pomp that the tournament brought. Predictions of chaos due to unfinished stadiums, messy airports and political violence turned out to have been exaggerated.

On Sunday, just hours before the final, anti-World Cup protesters handed out red “There will be no cup” stickers, like a clearance sale giveaway. The 250 or so protesters in Saens Peña park, less than a mile from Maracanã Stadium, were outnumbered by police and journalists. There were 24,000 police on duty throughout the city as Germany played Argentina for the final game, an overwhelming number, and many were heavily armed. Faced with the authorities’ onslaught, the protest movement wilted into a shadow of the mass demonstrations that shook the country last summer.

Brazilian media reported that dozens of activists had been arrested ahead of the final and, while not being charged with a crime, were being held in preventive detention by police, as had happened before the opening game.

Before the World Cup began on June 12, crowds of thousands would turn out for protests focusing on many issues, ranging from gay rights to the legalization of marijuana, and the demand for free or cheaper public transport. During the Cup, numbers dwindled. Hundreds still turned out in support of the housing rights movement, but in the last few weeks events were sporadic, small, and often with a meta-protest focus, such as freeing arrested demonstrators.

But not every protest movement around the World Cup has been defeated. A clear winner has been MTST, a pro-housing group in São Paulo that struck a deal with the government to suspend its protest actions in exchange for public housing. Through directly occupying vacant land, staging protests, and negotiating with authorities, the MTST -- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto, or “Homeless Workers’ Movement” -- has secured at least one major housing project for its supporters, at least on paper.

"It's a privileged view," Bruno Dios de Lima, an MTST protester, said from occupied land near Itaquerão Stadium, the week ahead of the World Cup. After weeks of negotiation and continued protests, including occupying the city council, the MTST had just won a number of concessions, including housing for occupiers, and a new government agency to slow down evictions. The movement’s media savvy had paid off. Protest organizers used the World Cup to their advantage, leveraging press attention and the threat of disruption. Dios de Lima’s occupation site was only a couple of miles from the Itaquerão Stadium. Press flocked to the site on the day of the World Cup opening ceremony, to cover the “People’s Cup,” friendly, informal games played between occupiers.

People with less pull than the MTST were frustrated.

One month ago, Luis Vicente Ramos, a 52-year-old musician and former high school teacher who’s now a community organizer in Cosme Velho, the neighborhood that skirts the iconic Christ the redeemer statue, was optimistic.

“We’re Brazilian, and we’re going to party -- we’re going to enjoy the Cup at home,” he said. “Then we can focus on fixing Brazil -- on education, on security, on hospitals.” He was speaking in one of Rio’s "lanchonetes," lunch counters that serve beer and plates piled high with rice, beans and meat. Ramos had organized a neighborhood party to celebrate the Cup kickoff, complete with people in the yellow team jersey and an appearance by a giant rooster, a mascot borrowed from a local samba school.

But as the national team’s World Cup campaign sank into disaster, with an unprecedented 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semifinal, spirits in Cosme Velho fizzled. Last Saturday, Ramos was back to watch Brazil play Holland for third place, but there was nothing to celebrate. The tiny "lanchonete" was less than half full, with seven men nursing beers, not one of them in the Brazilian jersey. Brazil lost by a brutal 3-0, another ignominy.    

“We need to get back to work, back to social work,” Ramos said, while Brazilian players on the screen shuffled inconclusively. “What’s the point of a social movement if you’re not helping anyone?” As for the flashy protests planned for the day of the final, Ramos was skeptical. “Lots of ideas, but they don’t do [anything], you get me?” he said, using a profanity.

Other political movements made it a point to avoid the world’s biggest sporting event, to escape being overshadowed by a tournament watched by 1 billion people around the globe.

“We specifically planned to begin our campaign after the World Cup,” Nicole Oliveira, a climate change activist, said in an interview two weeks ago, halfway through the tournament. Her U.S.-based advocacy group, 350.org, is taking on the ruralistas, politicians who defend large agricultural interests, often own huge farms themselves, and are considered an enemy by many environmentalists for the expansion they support of agricultural land into pristine forests.    

The “Don’t vote for ruralistas” campaign will begin in September, enough time to let futebol fade from the national consciousness and still make an impact ahead on the presidential elections on Oct.  5.

Arguably, the presidential campaign will be largely unaffected by the World Cup.

On the one hand, the performance of the national team was a disaster, and unhappy Brazilians may take out their frustration on sitting President Dilma Rousseff, who was booed by local fans on at least two occasions. On the other hand, the government pulled off a world-class international event largely without a hitch.“It would have been more serious if we had lost outside the stadium than within it,” Rousseff, who is ahead in the polls, said in an interview with the New York Times. “Soccer doesn’t mix with politics,” she said.  

But back in the Rio bar, people disagreed with their president. “Soccer reflects politics, and Brazil doesn’t deserve to be the champion of anything,” said Lazaro Botelho, a 35-year-old Rio resident. “Not soccer, not education. Nothing.”

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