Interview with TNT Magazine

Posted on June 27, 2013



Here is the full text of an interview I did with TNT magazine for the article Riots in Rio: One million people protested across Brazil last week – why were they so angry?, by Oliver Jones. (NB. The interview was conducted on Wednesday 19th June, before the second large protest in Rio, at which point some of the unity evident at the first protest began to weaken)

1. A rise in bus fare is credited with sparking the protests but it would appear that frustrations have been simmering for some time. Could you outline what you believe those frustrations stem from? And who demographically who do you think are taking part in the protests?

The bus fare is a symbol of a wider failure of the public realm. Brazil has become much richer over the past decade, but public services have not improved. It is partly a case of rising expectations that have not been satisfied. But more than that I think it is about the money that has been spent – many feel misspent and misappropriated – by various levels of government and crony capitalist construction giants. Lots of separate grievances crystallise around this issue, such as corruption, the failure of representative institutions and a cost of living squeeze in large cities.

As tends to be the case, the protestors are typically younger and more educated than the population as a whole, including a large number of students. After all they are the ones who can get out onto the street day after day, and are highly mobilised through social networking sites. However the protests resonate far more widely – from the upper middle class to the working poor. A recent poll shows over three quarters of the population being in support. (NB. This was a poll for São Paulo, not national)

2. In recent years Brazil has been touted internationally as one of the coming global superpowers. How do you respond to the suggestion that the protests are in part down to growing inequality in Brazil owing to its recent economic progress?

The funny thing is that by most counts inequality has not grown in Brazil. In fact according to the GINI index it is one of the few major economies in which inequality is coming down, even if it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. This is mainly due to rising incomes at the lower end of the scale. I would say inequality certainly provides the backdrop: it feeds a sense of injustice and unease not only among the poor, but many of the better-off too. However in an immediate sense I’d say it’s less about economic inequality per se than about a failure of economic growth to lead to improvements in areas that most people feel are essential to their quality of life: health care, education and, of course, transport.

3. Has the Brazilian government failed to include the public in the infrastructure development necessary to host the Olympics and World Cup?

The World Cup and Olympics are incredibly anti-democratic institutions. FIFA and the IOC form agreements with (in the case of Brazil at least) an elected government, but the contents of that agreement are never up for public discussion. They place extremely high, one-size-fits-all demands on the host nations regardless of local circumstances and then blame them if and when things go wrong. The way they act is somewhere between the way the IMF did here in the 1980s, demanding payments that many see as illegitimate regardless of the economic and social costs, and the argument you hear from highly mobile financial elites around the globe: “if you don’t give us what we want, we’ll find someone else who will”. The comments of Sepp Blatter, the FIFA President, who is currently in Brazil attending the Confederations Cup, bear this out. He said FIFA had not ‘imposed’ the World Cup on Brazil, and told protestors not to ‘politicise’ football. He has also said Brazil needs to ensure the instability will not affect the smooth running of the event, which sounds to me like the voice of an authoritarian overlord placing demands on a sovereign, democratic state. There is a constant agenda to depoliticise an intensely political issue.

4. What value, if any, do you believe staging the World Cup and Olympics will have for a) average Brazilians and b) Brazil as a nation?

Originally I think Brazilians bought into the idea of the mega-events, both in symbolic and economic terms. In Rio, where I currently live, there is an ambitious city plan covering areas like housing, transport and security and I think there was great excitement about the changes it would bring about. It looks great on paper, but, to date at least, the impacts have largely been negative. There has been huge housing speculation in wealthy and central areas, which has even begun to affect middle-class residents, particularly the young. Meanwhile three thousand families have already been removed from favelas to make way for sporting and transport infrastructure, and the final number could reach over 10,000. This is the first major favela removal programme since the height of the military dictatorship in the 1960s. Transport and security interventions are likely to have some longer-term benefit, but seem overwhelmingly oriented towards the strategic demands of the Games. New transport lines are focussed on connecting the venues, tourist areas and the airport. The favela ‘pacification’ (proximity policing) programme is similarly concentrated in central and strategic areas, while the outskirts are being left to fend for themselves.

The national economic benefits are highly questionable. I suppose there is a case for saying that hosting a successful mega-event raises the image of a country and attracts future tourists and inward business investment. But then again if there are major problems, as is already the case for Brazil, they can end up having the opposite effect.

5. Some protesters claim the World Cup and Olympics are vanity projects for the government – how much do you believe this to be true?

Yes I think they are. Although with all the reports they have written and publicity they have produced I think they’ve ended up believing their own myths. It is certainly the “Let them eat cake” issue. It shows that political and economic elites are living in a completely different world even from the middle class, let alone the poor.

6. If you believe the money due to be spent on the Olympics and World Cup might be spent more effectively for average Brazilians, where do you think it ought to be spent?

I am fortunate enough not to have to use the public health care or education systems here, but I have been assured that they are abysmal. I use the buses every day though and they are expensive, overcrowded, irregular and spend much of their time at a standstill. Brazilians deserve better. These services are not as sexy as the new infrastructure and policing policies, but are at least as important. I would like to see a ‘legacy’ component of the mega-events (FIFA too – which doesn’t even have one) that looks at the improvement of core services as well as just bricks and mortar.

7. How do you respond to the forced removal of indigenous tribespeople from their homes in order to create a Museum of the Olympic committee?

This was a classic case of people knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Genuinely unique places, the result of historical accidents and individual efforts and relationships, have to be removed to make way for identikit consumer spaces. This is not unique to Brazil, it’s a global phenomenon.