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Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: Dave Zirin on the People’s Revolt Challenging 2014 World Cup

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In his new book, “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy,” sportswriter Dave Zirin tackles the growing unrest in Brazil in the lead-up to one of sport’s biggest spectacles. Thousands of police officers have joined bus drivers for day two of a massive strike in São Paulo, just weeks before the World Cup is set to begin. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people have occupied a lot next to one of the arenas that will host the World Cup’s opening match. They call their protest “The People’s Cup” and are opposing the nearly half a billion dollars spent on the stadium, even as their communities lack adequate hospitals and schools. Demonstrations throughout the country have called attention to similar concerns. Zirin joins us to discuss the protests rocking Brazil, as well as the biggest sporting controversy in the United States — the NBA’s attempt to oust owner Donald Sterling over his racist comments about African Americans. Zirin is a sports columnist for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Brazil, where thousands of police officers joined bus drivers for day two of a massive strike in São Paulo, just weeks before the country is set to host the World Cup. The workers are demanding better wages. They were met by tear gas when they faced off with strikebreakers. This follows last week’s walkout by military police in Recife, another World Cup host city, which drew a crackdown by National Guard and Army troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people have occupied a major lot next to one of the arenas that will host the World Cup’s opening match. They call their protest “The People’s Cup,” and they are opposing the nearly half a billion dollars spent on the stadium, even as their communities lack adequate hospitals and schools. Demonstrations throughout the country have called attention to similar concerns.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. He’s been following all this closely for his new book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He is going to Brazil to cover the games.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dave. I hope you had a good 3:30 in the morning train ride from New York to Washington, starting your new show on WPFW in Washington. Talk about what’s happening in Brazil right now.

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely. Like a friend of mine who’s living in Brazil right now, my friend Dylan, he just emailed me to say that the word “FIFA”—and that’s the acronym for the international world soccer organization—the word ”FIFA” is about as popular in Brazil as FEMA was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In a recent online poll in Brazil, only 22 percent of people in the country are even going to root for Brazil during the World Cup. I mean, the amount of dissatisfaction with what FIFA has done in conjunction with the Workers’ Party is reaching historic heights. And, Amy, you and I have discussed these issues around mega-events for years—the displacement, the debt, the militarization of public space—and yet this is the first time, really since 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, that you have seen mass demonstrations in advance of the event itself. And that’s what makes this historic, and that’s why the whole world is watching Brazil right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dave, but what about this, that you have a situation where two administrations of supposed—of Socialists, Workers’ Party, have been involved in the expenditures and the preparations for this cup?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, that’s a very interesting part of this, because one of the things that the Workers’ Party has done, first under Lula and then under Dilma—those are the two respective presidents—is they have made efforts to fight inequality. The Bolsa Família program, that guarantees an income to the poorest Brazilians if they take their kids to school and to regular medical checkups, has cut inequality everywhere except for Rio, where inequality has actually gotten much worse.

The problem is that first Lula and then Dilma told the country very explicitly that the World Cup was not just going to be a soccer tournament; it was going to walk hand in hand with even more developments, more money, more employment, more opportunity for people. And when folks see the gap between the promises for the World Cup and the actuality of what it’s bringing, and in the context of actually much smaller growth rates in the country than existed even three years ago, that’s what’s really fueling a great deal of the discontent, because when you see a stadium being built for $500 million, and there’s no food on the table, there’s no healthcare, and education has gotten, by many measures, worse, then it breeds the kind of anger that you’re seeing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, in São Paulo, thousands of families have occupied an area near the site of the World Cup’s opening match. Outside the stadium last week, protesters called for more spending on housing, health and education.

SIMONE PEDRA: [translated] It is shameful, really shameful—not the stadium itself, but the fact that so much was spent on building the stadium, which has pushed up prices of rent in the area, and while there are no health services in the region. We don’t have a basic doctors’ surgery or a hospital. Why is that? Because they chose not to spend the money on health or education, but on these works, which have only worsened our housing problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, if you could talk more about that?

DAVE ZIRIN: No, absolutely. I mean, this occupation is so interesting, right next to where the opening games are supposed to be in São Paulo. It’s very interesting for two reasons. I mean, first of all, the stadium itself is not finished with its construction, and there are real questions whether the stadium will be ready for the opening game of the World Cup. The other part that makes this extremely interesting is that you’re seeing the way the Workers’ Party is using both carrots and sticks as a way to quell the protests in advance. Like, they are telling the folks in both the homeless and Landless Workers’ Movements—they’re the folks doing the occupation next to the stadium—that they’ll talk to them about maybe using that empty lot to build more public housing, while at the same time also sending in the police with the rubber bullets, with the tear gas, and also trying to pass legislation to make demonstrating a crime akin to terrorism.

I mean, it’s gotten so extreme, Amy, that Pelé, the Brazilian soccer legend, spoke out against the World Cup spending and what’s been ignored in Brazil. I mean, people have to understand that Pelé, one of the great athletes of the 20th century, is also one of the most aggressively apolitical athletes of the 20th century. I mean, Pelé speaking out against the World Cup is like Michael Jordan speaking out against Nike sweatshop abuses. It’s a wild scene. And it says something that the smoke of the tear gas has even gotten into the eyes of Pelé himself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned Pelé. During a lecture, he said, quote, “It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been. … Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals. … Brazil needs it. That’s clear.” It is an astounding statement—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —for, as you say, someone who shuns the political limelight.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, and even more so, I mean, if folks know the history of Pelé, the other—another Brazilian soccer star named Romário once said famously about Pelé, “He’s a poet when his mouth is shut.” In other words, he’s a poet on the pitch, yet when Pelé has opened his mouth on political issues over the years, it’s been to buttress the Brazilian military dictatorship, it’s been to justify poverty in Brazil. I mean, he was jeered roundly a year ago for—during the mass demonstrations in Brazil during the Confederations Cup, for saying that the demonstrators should wait until after the World Cup to have their voices be heard, and should instead be getting behind the national team. I mean, people were just like, “What planet are you on saying things like that?” And the fact that Pelé has shifted and is saying political statements about World Cup spending—I mean, Pelé was arm in arm with Lulu when the World Cup was won by Brazil, arm in arm with Lula at the International Olympic Committee when Brazil was awarded the 2016 Olympics. And so, him turning on the World Cup and on the spending priorities, it just speaks to how pronounced the crisis is in a country that’s the fifth-largest economy on the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention, I mean, we were watching today the escalator footage from a subway because of the bus strike, the frightened masses that are trying to go up and down these escalators, hundreds of protesters there.


AMY GOODMAN: Despite being South America’s largest city, São Paulo’s metro system has only about 46 miles of track for millions of commuters. And what this means for even more people coming in for the World Cup?

DAVE ZIRIN: And it’s worth mentioning that transport was one of the main issues that the Workers’ Party said would be remedied by the bringing in of the World Cup, once again tying economic development to a soccer tournament and not reaching those expectations. What makes the bus strike really interesting is, first and foremost, 2.5 million people stranded. In other words, a very successful bus strike. But also the bus strike is happening in opposition to the union leadership, the union leadership very tied to the Workers’ Party themselves. So what it amounts to is what we would call a wildcat strike attempting to really enforce the opinions and will of the workers on the Brazilian government. And their slogan, Amy, is so interesting. The slogans for many of the strikers is: “We want FIFA-quality wages.” And that’s a direct reference to the fact that when FIFA came into Brazil—heck, when FIFA goes into any country, they always say, “We want FIFA-quality stadiums. Any stadiums you have are not good enough for us.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dave, I wanted to ask you about a sports brouha here, right here in the United States. I wanted to ask you about the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has been banned from the league for making racist comments about blacks on a leaked audio recording. Sterling is refusing to pay the $2.5 million fine he’s been assessed by the NBA. He faces six charges in a hearing by the league set for June 3rd, including allegations that he encouraged his girlfriend to say he was not responsible for the comments on the tape. The leaked recording will be used as evidence in the hearing. In this clip, you can hear Sterling say he is upset his girlfriend posted a picture on Instagram with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and tells her not to publicize her association with African Americans.

DONALD STERLING: Why should you be walking publicly with black people? Why? Is there a benefit to you?

V. STIVIANO: Is it a benefit to me? Does it matter if they’re white or blue or yellow?

DONALD STERLING: I guess that you don’t know that. Maybe you’re stupid. Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. It does matter, yeah! It matters. How about the—how about your whole life, every day, you could do whatever you want? You could sleep with them. You could bring them in. You could do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that, and not to bring them to my games.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, earlier this month, Donald Sterling was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He talked about Magic Johnson.

DONALD STERLING: What has he done? Can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson, what has he done?

ANDERSON COOPER: Well, he’s a businessperson. He—

DONALD STERLING: He’s got AIDS. Did he do any business? I’d like—did he help anybody in South L.A.?

ANDERSON COOPER: Well, I think he has HIV; he doesn’t actually have full-blown AIDS. But—

DONALD STERLING: Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV and—is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. But what does he do for the black people?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Donald Sterling in his version of an apology. Dave Zirin?

DAVE ZIRIN: There’s a question that hangs over this, Juan, which is, if this guy is such a vile racist—and he is a vile racist—why did the NBA coddle him for 30 years? Why were his decades as a slumlord terrorizing people of color, the poorest people of color, in Los Angeles not grounds for his removal, yet insulting Magic Johnson on tape is? That’s a question the NBA is not answering. That’s a question we’re keep going—we’re going to push them to answer in the weeks to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s going to happen with the player—with the owners? What is the decision they have to make?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, they’re going to throw him under the bus, through the bus, out of the bus, whatever they have to do, because he is bringing such economic harm to the league, sponsors leaving in droves. Yet they still have to answer this question: If he is so terrible, why did they do nothing for so long?

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, we want to thank you for being with us, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM and a new sports show on WPFW, Pacifica Radio in Washington, where you’re headed next. Dave’s new book, just out, is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. We’ll be speaking with him when he is in Brazil covering the World Cup.

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