sports columnist for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. Zirin is the author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is entering its fifth day. The United States will play its first game of the tournament today against Ghana. Meanwhile, protests are continuing on the streets of Brazil. Many Brazilians have expressed fury over Brazil spending an estimated $11 billion to host the cup while the country’s hospitals and schools remain woefully underfunded. In a video taken by the Associated Press on Sunday, a police officer can be seen firing what appears to be a live pistol round at anti-World Cup protesters near Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã soccer stadium. Police have reportedly also used tear gas, rubber bullets and noise bombs to disperse demonstrators. We go to Rio to speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin, who was tear-gassed on Sunday while covering the protests. He is author of the new book, "Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is entering its fifth day. The United States team will play its first game of the tournament today against Ghana. Meanwhile, protests are continuing on the streets of Brazil. The demonstrators’ concerns range from public transportation fare hikes to inadequate wages, housing, education, security and healthcare, among other things. Strikes and the threat of strikes have emanated from almost every sector of Brazilian society, including airline employees, metro workers, teachers and homeless workers, to police and even the main federal employees union. Many Brazilians have expressed fury over Brazil spending an estimated $11 billion to host the Cup while the country’s hospitals and schools remain woefully underfunded.
AMY GOODMAN: As the World Cup commenced Thursday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was the target of crude chants sung by part of the crowd who attended Brazil’s victory game against Croatia. Rousseff, who is facing re-election in October, said she would not be intimidated by the crowd’s criticism.
PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Insults will not intimidate me. I will not be cowered. I will not let myself get upset by insults that cannot even be heard by children or families.
AMY GOODMAN: Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, was once jailed herself as a political prisoner. She went on to say, quote, "In my life, I have faced extremely difficult situations. Situations that pushed me to my physical limits. What I had to endure then was not verbal aggression, but physical aggression," she said.
Hundreds of demonstrations against the World Cup have erupted all over Brazil over the last year. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have accused the local police of using excessive force against demonstrators. In a video taken by the Associated Press Sunday, a police officer can be seen firing what appears to be a live pistol round at anti-World Cup protesters near Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã soccer stadium. Police have reportedly also used tear gas, rubber bullets, noise bombs to disperse demonstrators. Protest organizers said Brazilians will continue fighting for their rights despite the dangers they face.
THIAGO AVILA: [translated] Today we are here for health, education and public services. This is the cup of protests, and we are strong. Here we want to protest every day that there is a game. This is the first one, but we can say that we are not scared to go into the streets. The streets today are the most important place in the city, and going into the streets is the most important democratic exercise at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we now go to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where we’re joined by Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. Dave is the author of several books on sports, including, most recently, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He is in Rio covering the 2014 World Cup. He’s joining us from outside Maracanã Stadium.
Dave, yesterday, you, yourself, were tear-gassed. Can you describe the scene?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, absolutely. If you look behind me, you see Maracanã Stadium. That is arguably the most famous soccer stadium on the planet. And last night it was hosting its first World Cup game in 64 years. And in protest of everything that FIFA and the World Cup are bringing to Brazil, a demonstration of about 500 people marched down the street to my left on Maracanã Avenue. The goal was to get as close to the exclusion zone around the stadium, a several-block radius that prevents people without tickets from even walking the streets of Brazil.
Now, I ran ahead with my cameraman, Zach Zill, about two blocks ahead to be able to capture what would happen when the protesters met with police. And about a block and a half in front of the protesters, I saw a series of riot police come out of these wagons, and they were dressed in full regalia—gas mask, shields, all the rest of it. And they started beating their shields in rhythmic fashion. About 200 tourists were sitting at an outdoor cafe, and they started to chant for the police, a soccer chant. They started to say, "Oé, oé, oé, policía." And then the police fired tear gas about a block and a half towards the protesters, yet they got their trajectory wrong, and the tear gas landed just about a hundred yards in front of them, and then a headwind blew the tear gas onto the tourists, sending 200 tourists scattering, who were cheering for the police just moments ago, scattering in utter panic. The tear gas blew on me, as well.
And at that point, the police got their trajectory correctly. They fired, by my count, two more canisters of tear gas, concussion grenades, as well, which then served to disperse the 500-person protest and later was the incident that the AP reported of an officer actually firing live ammunition. That I did not see, but frankly, I wasn’t seeing a great deal at that point anyway.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dave, this whole issue of the protests, especially of the destruction of favelas near some of the major stadiums that were constructed, could you talk about that?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, absolutely. Right to my right, literally a five-minute walk from Maracanã Stadium, which, remember, is the Sistine Chapel of international soccer, is a place called Favela do Metrô. Favela do Metrô was the home of 700 families. Right now it is the home of no families. It has been—completely been knocked to the ground. All it is now is a couple of storefronts and lots of rubble, rats, waste. I mean, it’s an absolute calamity. And you see little pieces of what used to be people’s homes—broken dolls, furniture, all the rest of it. And the plan was to knock down the favela and build a parking lot. That parking lot has yet to be built. It’s just piles and piles, mountains of rubble.
And we spoke to some of the people there, workers who were actually charged with clearing it out, so hopefully the parking lot could be ready in time for the 2016 Olympics, which, of course, are going to be held in Rio with Maracanã, the place where the opening ceremony will take place. What was pretty—what was very upsetting about it was in—with my translator, Theresa Williamson from Catalytic Communities, speaking to the workers themselves, is that they all lived in favelas, so they were favela favelados themselves, and they were the people who were hired to actually knock down the favelas and then clear the areas, which just—it’s a shame and a sin. And we asked them how it felt to be favelados knocking down the favelas of others, and they said—they used a word in Brazilian which does not have an English translation, but they said, "It made me feel strange in my heart to have to be in that position."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dave, what happened to the 700 families that were removed? Were they relocated or given benefits of any kind?
DAVE ZIRIN: That’s the right question to ask, Juan, because this is the lesson that a lot of people from Brazil are drawing. The first 100 of the 700 families were removed literally within 24 hours after Brazil was awarded the 2016 Olympics. They were removed at gunpoint. Their things were thrown out into the street. They were just gone. The clear-out, what they call the cleansing, had begun. The other 600 families took note of this and started to organize. And they organized protests. They sued the city. They pooled their money to hire attorneys. Attorneys work pro bono, as well. There are a lot of people who actually are standing with the favelados in Brazil, despite their years of oppression and marginalization. And those 600 families were actually given rent vouchers and located just a couple of miles away, which is about as good a deal as you’re going to get from the Brazilian government.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn, Dave—
DAVE ZIRIN: It’s still a tragedy, but the lesson—oh, sorry, sorry. Go ahead, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to turn to a favela resident who helped coordinate the People’s World Cup. This is Sandra Moja, coordinator of one of the favelas in downtown São Paulo.
SANDRA MOJA: [translated] We have the Copa Buena. In the Copa Buena, no one has to pay, and everyone plays. It’s free. The World Cup, poor people don’t go. No one can pay to go to the World Cup in Brazil, even though we are Brazilians. We don’t have anything more to say about the World Cup. It’s better that we organize the Copa Buena, which is free. We, the people, have to be our own community. If you wait for the government, you won’t get anything.
AMY GOODMAN: That was favela activist Sandra Moja speaking to SubVersiones.org. How would you describe a favela, Dave, for those who aren’t familiar?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, a favela is a community. The tragedy is that oftentime—and you’ll see this in the most mainstream of U.S. press—is that it’s translated directly as a slum, which couldn’t be further from the truth, if you look at the U.N. definition of "slum," which means destitute, and even joyless is how it’s described. I mean, favelas are places where people create their own makeshift communities. And favelas exist because Brazil has had some of the strongest squatters’ rights laws in the world for a century. I don’t want to sound like I’m glamorizing the very real poverty and real challenges, but these are active, vibrant cultural centers that really make up—that really set a kind of cultural capital for all of Brazil, or what we think of as Brazilian, so much so that a sports bar in Milwaukee even set up a fake favela as a way to bring in World Cup fans to drink and watch the World Cup. That’s its kind of cultural capital. The problem, of course, is that they don’t benefit from creating that cultural capital, which I think will sound very familiar to people in the United States when you think of communities of color that have created the culture that they don’t necessarily get remunerated from.
But that being said, there are also people in Brazil who have lived here for decades and have never set foot inside a favela, look at the favelas with tremendous contempt and disrespect. And the government has attempted to use this as an opportunity to take the land. And that’s what’s so important for people to know. Rio, in particular, is undergoing a real estate speculative boom. The land that the favelas are on are incredibly powerful. And the World Cup and the Olympics provide what is known as a state of exception, to grab the land, remove the favelados and develop it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Dave, I wanted to ask you about that, given the fact that these—both the World Cup and the Olympics were brought to Brazil by Lula, perhaps the most popular president in the history of Latin America and a Workers’ Party leader. And at the same time, Brazil has seen a shrinking of the gap between rich and poor during first the Lula and the Dilma Rousseff regime.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, how do you see this surge of protests occurring at the very time that supposedly income inequality has been reduced to some degree in Brazil?
DAVE ZIRIN: That’s a great question, although I will add that inequality has been reduced everywhere except for Rio, the site of the Olympics. But that’s absolutely the right question. I mean, the way to answer it is that Lula fought for and won both the Olympics and the World Cup when the Brazilian economy was humming along at a 7 percent annual growth rate. I mean, the cover of The Economist was the Christ the Redeemer statue, famously on Rio, actually blasting off like a rocketship. And it was thought that, OK, Rio is now a new world power. It barely felt the 2008 recession. And—Brazil, I’m sorry, is a world power. Brazil is now the fifth-largest economy in the world. And the World Cup and the Olympics would be what announced Brazil as this new world power.
There was only one problem, of course, and that’s that the economy went into slowdown. And when that took place, FIFA and the IOC, frankly, could not care less. Brazil had made its commitments for infrastructure, for security, for new stadiums, and that had to be seen through. And that’s what’s been so galling to the people of Brazil, is that the expectations were raised so high, and yet these events are coming, the money is still going into them, yet the very money for social services that were really paid for by exporting to China and by the discovery of oil—effectively, by neoliberalism—that kind of stuff proved to be very illusory. So people are feeling like they’re falling back right at the moment when the stadiums are being built.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Sócrates, a very well-known soccer player in Brazil?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, Sócrates, of course, he was the captain of the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team. That team did not actually win the World Cup, but it is arguably the most beloved team in the history of Brazil. Sócrates passed away a couple of years ago, way too young. And we miss his voice terribly because Sócrates was also someone who was a proud radical. He considered himself a socialist. During the dictatorship in Brazil, his team, Corinthians, actually organized themselves as a socialist cell, even though they—as they were a championship winning team and as they played to packed arenas, they were also wearing anti-dictatorship slogans on their headbands and their jerseys. They were voting on team substitution issues, voting on team strategy. And they were so popular, though, that the dictatorship could not touch them.
Now, before Sócrates died, even when Brazil was humming along at that 7 percent growth clip and was on the cover of The Economist, Sócrates was issuing very dark warnings about what the World Cup and the Olympics could bring, particularly because he said it seemed like the World Cup was going to shut out the poor of Brazil, exactly what the favela organizer from São Paulo said in your clip that you played earlier, that the World Cup was going to be for tourists and for the wealthy and that it was actually going to hurt the development of Brazilian soccer because it was going to alienate people from soccer. Sócrates’s words proved to be prophecy, and it is to our collective loss that he is not still with us today to be able to speak about this as the World Cup has returned to Brazil.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dave, in terms of the people actually attending the games, to what degree, from what you’ve been able to—I’ve seen some stadiums in some of the games that really aren’t very full.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To what sense are the ordinary folks of Brazil or of Latin America able to attend these games?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, definitely, Latin America, of course, has huge disparities in rich and poor, and this is a destination point for Latin America. Inside last night’s game, which was of Argentina against Bosnia, the game that was played at the Maracanã, was filled with tens of thousands of Argentinians in the stands, there to cheer on the great Lionel Messi. And this is part of what you see here, is that you see Brazil being this destination point for what’s called World Cup tourism. It’s incredibly expensive to be able to even just find a place to stay in Rio right now. You need to be able to have thousands of dollars of disposable income. To even get inside the exclusion zone, you need a similar amount of money. And for Brazilians, there’s of course a wealthy strata of Brazilians; they are following around the World Cup, as well, like people might follow around a Grateful Dead concert, to the 12 different cities where there are World Cup games. Yet the problem is, as you said, ordinary Brazilians, very unlike the 1950 World Cup which Brazil hosted and was packed with ordinary, regular Brazilians, working-class Brazilians, those are the folks who are being left behind—very symbolized by the Maracanã, which used to sit 225,000 people back in 1950, was filled with one-tenth of the population of the city of Rio, now only sits 75,000 because of the existence of luxury boxes that ring the top.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Dave, the elections are—the presidential elections are in October. Dilma Rousseff, very unpopular now around soccer, is still leading in those polls. The significance of that? And the corruption of FIFA?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the significance of Dilma still leading in the polls is because the alternatives to Dilma are people who aren’t connecting with the mood of protests, simply because the people who are most likely to compete with Dilma tend to be to the right of Dilma. And they’re trying to make the issues with the World Cup and FIFA issues about corruption, and they’re not talking about the real estate people who are really underwriting a lot of this, because a lot of those same corporate interests, big media interests, are also supporting those right-wing candidates. And I think that’s why most political observers here see a very damaged Dilma still winning re-election in October.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave FIFA to another discussion. Dave Zirin, thanks so much for being with us, author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. He’s standing outside of the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks so much for joining us.
And a very special congratulations to Steve Martinez, our producer, whose sons Edward and Alex graduated eighth grade, and congratulations to Sofia, as well.