Widespread protests are continuing across Brazil, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to express their anger at government corruption, poor public services, and police violence. While the protests were originally sparked by a plan to increase fares for public transport, they have since broadened into a widespread show of anger, one of the main targets of which has been massive amounts of the money the Brazilian government is spending to host major sporting events such as the Confederations Cup (currently taking place), the 2014 Football World Cup, and the 2016 Olympic Games. Protesters say that the money being spent on these events would be better spent on addressing the rising costs of living and poor state of public services in the country.
Prestigious, and incredibly costly, sporting events such as the World Cup and Olympic Games often generate debate between those who are argue that they serve to boost the economy and showcase the country, and those who argue that they divert resources and attention from pressing social, economic, and political issues within the country. While they are frequently touted as events that unite people in celebration, in Brazil they are instead uniting people in opposition to them.
The Brazilian government hopes that the events will "showcase the country as an emerging power on the global stage," and generate income from the flood of tourists, and locals, who expected to attend. Protesters, however, say that the money being spent on stadiums and other infrastructure for the events should instead be spent on improving things like hospitals and schools. Activists even reportedly hacked the official Brazil 2014 World Cup website, replacing it with a YouTube video showing footage of demonstrators marching and being confronted by riot police. The budget for the World Cup alone is already around $13 billion, with a similar budget for the Olympic Games. And given the nature of these sorts of projects, they will probably rise further. As one protester in Sao Paolo said, "We don't want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children."
Of the roughly 6 million people who live in Rio de Janeiro, which will host both the World Cup and the Olympic Games, an estimated one-fifth live in the favelas (neighborhood slums). While the Independent reports the Brazilian government is spending over $3 billion on "improving more than 200 favelas over a 10-year period either side of the Games," it also reports that around 30,000 people have been evicted from the shanty towns as part of the government's controversial pacification program and to make way for construction for the Olympics and World Cup.
As the Guardian's Jonathan Watts notes, while the infrastructure development taking place for the events will bring benefits, many people are critical of whether the money could have been better used elsewhere in society, and whether the long term impact and needs to long-term resident and poor communities have been properly taken into account. The head of a residents' group in Vila Autódromo, a poor community near the site of the Olympic village, says that the spending is short-sighted and that big construction firms are driving the attempts to relocate poorer communities.
"The Olympics only last 27 days so this is really all about real estate speculation not sport," says Altair Antunes Cumarães, "the big construction companies are behind it … For 20 years, they have been trying to move us because there is no more space in the South Zone for the upper middle class so they are looking here."
In the video below, one Brazilian, Carla, explains her opposition to the World Cup:
The grievances over the cost and impact of these sporting events are not uncommon when a country gets set to play host to an Olympic Games or a World Cup. There were mass evictions in the lead up the 2008 Olympic Games in China and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and protests against the events.
Echoing concerns being expressed in Brazil, Vusi Nkosi, a squatter in the Mamelodi East township near Pretoria, South Africa, said back in 2010, "if the government could spend millions of rands and prepare for the World Cup so quickly, it's a disgrace that people are still living in squalor in squatter camps. The soccer means nothing to us because we won't be able to watch it anyway, since we don't have electricity."
When it comes to the legacy of the facilities constructed for such events, Watts writes that "South Africa and Beijing have been left with expensive white elephants, because the huge stadiums they constructed are now rarely used. Many believe Brazil might suffer the same drain on resources."
Although the current protests will no doubt die down at some point, freelance journalist Alex Hijmans says that they will simply spark up again unless the concerns of demonstrators are addressed:
The photo below, taken by Hijmans, shows a protester in Brazil with a placard which reads, "you built the stadiums, but you forgot to build a country around them." The statement neatly encapsulates the criticisms being expressed by protesters.
Image credit: @alexhijmans
As much as I love watching events such as the World Cup, more attention needs to paid to the long term impacts of the spending and construction binges that precede them, and more emphasis needs to be put on consulting with local communities, those who will continue to live in these cities once the athletes and cameras have gone away. An expensive prestigious sporting spectacle will only distract from underlying issues in society, it will not solve them.