I lost my voice in Rio. I didn’t lose it in the chorus of one hundred thousand voices singing songs of national pride and hope for a better future. I didn’t lose it in the streets while pumping my fist in the air and chanting demands from the powers that be. I didn’t even lose it while choking on the tear gas that erupted from the hot canisters that rolled on the ground and filled the air around me.
After I got back to where I was staying, I turned on the Brazilian news. I wanted a third person view; to see the historic protest I had just experienced up close through a wide-angle lens. Instead I saw a gang of impudent youths, beers in hand, telling a reporter that the protest was a fantastic party.
I was in shock. How many interviews had the reporter conducted before he found these hooligans? Where were the songs and the signs, the passion and the pride? How could over one hundred thousand voices be so casually silenced?
That is when I lost my voice. I lost it yelling at that pitifully negligent reporter.
June 18, 2014 – Argentina Square, Porto Alegre
Exactly one year since the protest in Rio, I’m standing in the center of Porto Alegre, a metropolitan city near the southern tip of Brazil. Over the past 365 days, a social movement has continued to pulse through Brazilian society. The first wave of this movement took the form of a protest against rising transportation costs. As the protests gained traction, activists used the opportunity to call for social reform. The protesters began demanding education reform, an improved healthcare system and the end of privatization of public services.
The newest swell is a campaign against the World Cup, an international soccer tournament currently running within Brazil’s borders. The change in focus has been accompanied by a significant shift within the ranks of the movement. The small group of 150 people milling about Argentina Square, sharing pens, cardboard and other poster making materials, is a far cry from the thousands of zealots that attended the 2013 protests.
The justifications given for such poor protest attendance are peripheral. Many of the protesters are students who have obligations to school and work; nobody can afford to take three months off to “Occupy Wall Street.” In addition, the political parties that had been sounding their trumpets and encouraging the call to arms have suddenly tiptoed to the sidelines. Apparently the violence and riots that often follow huge protests are bad press, and this is an election year.
The unspoken reason for the decline in attendance, however, is more uncomfortable. As recently as April and May, there were marches against the World Cup that boasted 10,000 strong—especially in World Cup host cities like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizante and Porto Alegre. But as soon as the first ball of the World Cup was kicked, the protest numbers shriveled in size. Thousands of zealous Brazilian activists retired their gas masks in favor of the green and yellow jerseys of Brazil’s national team.
Those who remain are the true revolutionaries. They stand under the trees in Argentina Square, pitted against Brazil’s favorite past time. It is a paradoxically patriotic yet un-Brazilian stance to take. At noon the group assembles. They briefly discuss their plan and then step out into the brisk, winter sunlight. One woman holds her cardboard sign above the rest. It reads, “FUCK FIFA.”
FIFA, a company with a reputation shrouded by shady business practices and accusations of corruption and bribery, is an easy target. Sure FIFA pockets every cent of the sponsorship deals, ticket sales, licensed merchandise and television rights associated with the World Cup. And yes it demands tax-exemption from everywhere it conducts business. But it was the Brazilian government who invited FIFA in and it was the Brazilian government who promised to spend billions of public dollars to prepare for the tournament.
“In a few days the World Cup will end, but the Brazilian population will pay for it for a long time,” said Gabriela Féres a journalism student who has been a loyal Porto Alegre protest attendee for almost two years. Her words echo the concerns of the movement. The fleeting bliss of the Cup does not outweigh the burden on the Brazilian people.
From a financial standpoint, the argument is difficult to disagree with. In all, the government officially dropped a cool $11.3 billion on World Cup preparations—although it isn’t hard to find economists who theorize that the amount was actually much more. Almost one third of that money was spent on the stadiums—both new and refurbished—which was over budget, but stadium preparation was the priority.
Several of these stadiums have no long term value. Take Manaus for example; a city so deeply buried in the Amazon rainforest that building materials had to be brought in by boat is now home to a $350 million stadium. After just four World Cup uses, it will probably never be filled again.
The rest of the money was put into infrastructure such as highways, public transit systems and airports; a supposed investment in the future. But, since the burden of the stadiums cut into the cash flow, several projects initially included in Brazil’s World Cup bid—such as Latin America’s very first bullet train—never made it past the “let’s do this” phase.
Up to this point, only half of the infrastructure additions that Brazil’s government promised have been finished. Corridors in Galeão International Airport in Rio are lined with plywood panels to hide evidence of unfinished construction. Around the country, light rail tracks leading to nowhere stand alongside highways with lanes that may never be uncordoned.
I think most Brazilians find it easy to forgive their government for a little splurge. $11 billion is minuscule in comparison to the $385.4 billion it spent on social programs over the same period of time. When we’re talking about the great Brazilian past-time, will anyone really sweat the few extra billion?
Of course, most “progress” comes at a price that can’t be quantified in government ledgers. A street called Avenida Tronco has been a part of Porto Alegre’s city master plan since the 1950s, but has never been completed. After Brazil won the World Cup bid, the city finally had the motivation and the federal funds to finish it. But in the 60 or so years since the street was planned, seven different neighborhoods housing almost 1,500 families had sprung up in its proposed path. The fact that the avenue’s planned path went straight through these neighborhoods made no difference to the Brazilian government, which was perfectly content to relocate all of them.
“Most of these displacements are done in benefit of a small group with economical potential,” said Féres, who points out that not only has the World Cup led to elitism in soccer (those within a penalty kick’s distance of the poverty line can only dream of attending the expensive games), but it has also exacerbated the difficult living conditions of Brazil’s impoverished.
Féres created a short documentary called The Foreigners of Vila Tronco, which focuses on one of the neighborhoods from which families were relocated to build the Avenida Tronco. Within a handful of interviews, Féres picks apart the government’s relocation process. Resident after resident describes the ways in which the government has failed to provide indemnity to the evicted and now, many of them are stranded in the cold Porto Alegre winter.
It is possible that most Brazilians have also forgiven the poor treatment of their neighbors at the government’s hands. The country has enjoyed recent success in its fight against poverty. The poverty line has sunk to include just 18.6 percent of the population, down from 38 percent of the population a mere 10 years ago.
It is more likely, however, that many citizens simply have no idea what is happening. Brazil used the money left over from the new stadiums (and the somewhat-improved infrastructure) to invest heavily in World Cup security and protest suppression.
“When [a World Cup game] is in the city, they close all the streets the protesters could possibly go, they trap it and don’t let the protest move. Doesn’t seem like a democracy,” explained Féres.
The word “trap” is no exaggeration. As the protesters step onto the street and begin their march, they see a thin line of caution tape strung across the street, not even a soccer field’s distance away. A wall of police in full riot gear stands just behind.
It’s like attacking the walls of Troy with a handful of pebbles. As soon as the line of tape is breached, gas grenades drop into the crowd and the protest is scattered. A few fight through the stinging tears and regroup, but no matter which street they turn down, they only find more riot police; grenade cannons cocked, bearing down against them.
In a matter of minutes, the street is bare and silent, save only the hissing of the gas still leaking from the canisters. As the haze drifts away, it takes the muffled, choking chants along with it.
June 23rd – City Hall, Porto Alegre
Five days later the protesters gather again, chanting the slogan, “We are in the street again.” Once again, there are less than 200 people present, but their hope is not anchored in numbers.
“Most of all, the protesters want to be heard, want people to see the problems, and want to participate in the construction of the society,” said Féres.
But besides the occasional favela uprising and the story about the two CNN employees who were injured by gas grenades, international journalists have moved on. Locally, the news has whittled it’s coverage down to general, weekly statistics at the very most—this many were arrested, this many were injured and this many were killed. The protesters blame Globo.
Globo Organization—the largest mass media conglomerate in Latin America—maintains virtual monopolies on broadcast television, newspaper and radio media. Rede Globo, its television subsidiary, reaches 99.5 percent of the Brazilian population. It has such hegemony that most Brazilian households don’t even change the channel on their T.V. Of course, even if they did, they would probably land on one of the other 30 channels owned by Globo.
“All the media in Brazil is under the possession of 11 families. It’s not democratized,” explained Féres. This is the piece of the puzzle I was missing back in 2013 when I was screaming at the T.V. It explains why the news station made such a mess of their report about the Rio protest.
Globo has interests in the government, the transportation sector and, of course, the World Cup, all of which are targets of the recent protests. Rumor has it that despite its 10 international Emmys, the conglomerate reports the news with less-than-strict adherence to the Journalism Code of Ethics.
“They feed only their own interests,” Féres warned. “And, as the media is always discredited in protests, they criminalize protests.”
Féres alleges that when it can, Globo completely ignores the protests. But, when the protests become as large and violent as they did in 2013, journalists either report superficially or they demonize the protesters and discredit their cause. As a result, the millions of Brazilians who watch and trust Globo news have probably never heard the full story.
“People think they can see the reality through television, and the television criminalizes the protests, so people are afraid and angry at protesters, without really understanding [them]” said Féres.
That is why protesters today have taken exception to the power of the media, with special focus on Grupo Rede Brasil Sul (RBS), southern Brasil’s local Globo affiliate. The demonstrators fling accusations heavy with Orwellian hyperbole which, when a single television station has such command over the population (not to mention one of its most popular shows is actually called Big Brother), becomes appropriate. Seven people carry a banner that spans the entire street and reads, “RBS… yesterday an accomplice of the dictatorship, today a partner of the transportation mafia.”
Since there is no World Cup game in Porto Alegre today, the protesters are allowed to flaunt their signs and march unmolested through the streets of downtown. The police remain quiet on sidewalks—though they still outnumber the protesters five to one—and not once will they unleash their gas canisters.
Besides a few stragglers, there aren’t many people to witness the protest wind its way through the main streets of downtown Porto Alegre. It is Brazil’s final game in the group stage of the tournament, an event with real and immediate consequences. If their team loses, the country will have nothing in front of them except a terribly large bill.
But the protest continues, whether the rest of the country is listening or not. These are people who will never lose their voice.