Brazilian Protests Continue To Escalate, Offering A Lesson To Soccer’s Governing Body And The World

Brazilian protester in São Paulo Thursday night. (Credit: AP)

Protests escalated again in Brazil Thursday night, as an estimated 1.5 million demonstrators flooded the streets of at least 80 cities to continue their movement against government corruption, waste, and overreach. The protests began last week but grew significantly this week during the Confederations Cup, the international soccer tournament acting as a tune-up for the World Cup Brazil will host next summer.

That World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics have become the major symbols of the Brazilian government’s waste and corruption. And FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, has for the first time emerged as a target too. Protesters at the Brazilian national team’s match against Mexico held signs reading, “We want hospitals, FIFA standard,” a nod to the top-notch standards FIFA requires at its World Cup soccer stadiums — 12 of which Brazil has either renovated or constructed for next summer at a cost of more than $3 billion in taxpayer funds. The protesters have remained largely nonviolent (the police, unfortunately, cannot necessarily say the same), but last night they damaged two FIFA buses with rocks outside the hotel where FIFA officials are staying.

FIFA likely took attention too when Neymar, Brazil’s top soccer player and one of the best in the world, posted a message on Instagram before the Brazilian national team’s Wednesday match with Mexico supporting the protests. “The only way I have to represent and defend Brazil is on the field playing ball,” Neymar wrote. “I take the field inspired by this movement.”

The protesters have already achieved some victories. Rio and São Paulo have already rescinded the planned bus fare increases that sparked the original demonstrations, and other cities have scrapped planned increases or lowered fares in an attempt to stave off protests. But the Brazilians are no longer protesting against bus fare increases — “You still think this is about 20 cents?” is a common slogan on signs across the country. Instead the protests are about larger issues of corruption, overreach, and a general ignorance of the plights of ordinary Brazilians, some of whom shared modestly in the country’s decade of economic ascendance and others, like those who still populate Brazil’s favelas and shanty towns, who did not.

Excessive spending on the World Cup and Olympics emerged as the main symbol of that corruption, as Brazilians still face high levels of inequality, a low minimum wage, and crumbling schools and infrastructure, problems they were told Brazil’s bids for the two mega-events were going to help fix. But the protests aren’t merely economic. Groups of protesters have turned their attention to radical anti-gay legislation that signifies another form of overreach and ignoring of the populace, this time from Rep. Marco Feliciano, an evangelical with a history of homophobic and racist remarks, whose appointment as chair of the legislature’s Human Rights Committee this spring spawned protests of its own. “Feliciano, we didn’t forget you,” one sign warned this week. “We’re fixing one shitshow at a time.”

Achieving the change Brazilians seek on those larger, more abstract issues will not be easy. It is important to remember that these protests, at their root, are about Brazilians and their efforts to make their country a more equal place to live, rather than simply a sporting event. But should they continue to escalate, they could also force change in other countries at at future World Cup and Olympic sites too. Other countries that have experienced the costly effects of such events have not reacted the same way — “Brazil is saying what we could not: We don’t want these costly extravaganzas,” The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins wrote in comparing the Brazilian events to the 2012 London Olympics. But thanks to Brazilians, other governments, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee now have the chance to learn a lesson about what can happen when entire populations are excluded from the process of bidding on, hosting, and conducting these events. That’s a lesson those organizations haven’t learned yet and are unlikely to learn now. But it’s also a lesson Brazilians are offering the world every day, and people in other countries are hearing them.