Football, Riches and Protest: Brazil Is One of the World's Emerging Powers, Host of the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. So Why Is the Middle Class Increasingly Angry?

By Hilton, Isabel | New Statesman (1996), June 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Football, Riches and Protest: Brazil Is One of the World's Emerging Powers, Host of the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. So Why Is the Middle Class Increasingly Angry?


Hilton, Isabel, New Statesman (1996)


By Friday 21 June, two weeks in to what had become the largest protests in Brazil in 20 years, happening to coincide with the Fifa Confederations Cup, the activists were demonstrating a clear sense of strategy. By mid-afternoon that day, a favourite for elite weekend travel, they had succeeded in blocking access roads to Guarulhos, Sao Paulo's overloaded international airport, the largest in South America. Some desperate passengers abandoned their cars on the motorway and continued on foot, lugging their bags to the terminal, only to find it paralysed.

If those passengers made it through, many of the flight crews and other essential staff did not: by 6pm, when the airport should have been at its busiest with weekend departures, the monitors were showing a long list of flights suffering "technical delay"--as though a mechanical virus had attacked the airport. By then, shock troops had moved on to the blocked motorway and not only was it impossible to enter the airport but there was a ban on leaving it.

The protesters' blockade was made easier by the already parlous condition of Sao Paulo's transport infrastructure. This sprawling city of more than 11 million people, a chaotic jumble of typical low-rise villas and huge skyscrapers, of shopping malls, sprawling slums and luxury gated communities, is, as one local commentator observed, the transport equivalent of a patient on the verge of a heart attack. It does not take much--sometimes just a drop of rain--to push Sao Paulo over the edge. Its potholed side streets and urban motorways clog up. For those who do ride the buses, often on long commutes to distant suburbs, it is a daily torture.

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In the week leading up to the airport blockade, the city suffered serial heart attacks as protesters targeted its arteries, turning Sao Paulo's flyovers and urban motorways into temporary protest playgrounds and occupying such main thoroughfares as the central Avenida Paulista. It's not just Sao Paulo: so far, more than 100 cities have been affected, resulting in four deaths, scores of injuries and hundreds of thousands of reais' worth of damage. But who are the protesters? And how did what had begun as a complaint about a small hike in bus fares become a nationwide movement?

In the search for explanations, it has become customary to point out that the protesters did not seem to match the demands they were advancing. It had all begun with Passe Livre ("free pass"), sniffily described by local pundits as a group of no more than 45 students, many of them enrolled at Sao Paulo's top universities, protesting against an increase in bus fares of roughly 8p. They were demanding free public transport; as one early slogan declared, "If the fares go up, the city stops." In the case of Sao Paulo, it was no idle threat.

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And yet, according to the Sao Paulo-based news magazine Veja, these were not people who ever rode the buses: they were protesting, some reportedly told the magazine, on behalf of their family maids, who could easily spend a quarter of their monthly earnings just getting to work. If that was the case, Veja tardy observed, it might have been more effective to ask their parents to give their domestic staff a pay rise.

But Veja, like many of its well-off readers, had completely misread a rapidly moving situation. At the end of the first week of protests, the police in Rio de Janeiro unwisely did to these children of the middle classes what they routinely do to criminals, or those guilty of no crime worse than poverty: they took off their badges and beat them up. In the age of mobile-phone cameras, it proved to be an error. The images of police brutality spread rapidly through social media and fuelled nationwide indignation. The second week of protests would be very different.

By Monday evening, 17 June, people all over Brazil turned out to say: "Basta!" The call had gone out on Facebook, and tens of thousands of students responded--as did their parents.

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