Brazil's Dance with the Devil

It was perfectly fair to enjoy the World Cup and carry on fighting for a better future, argues Orlando Hill

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil

Dave Zirin, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy (Haymarket Books 2014), xi, 246pp.

As a Brazilian who has lived in London for almost twenty years, I welcome Dave Zirin’s new book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil published by Haymarket Books. I can recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand this particularly complex country. As Zirin points out, Brazil is a country you have to ‘experience repeatedly, and every time you look you notice something that affects what you thought you understood’ (p.7). Or as Tom Jobim once remarked; Brazil is not for beginners.

What I liked most about the book is Zirin’s affection for Brazil, its people and football, which he has the annoying habit of calling soccer. The book takes the reader through five hundred years of the plundering of Brazil’s wealth by ‘adventurers, colonists and oligarchs’ (p.39). The book argues that FIFA and IOC are only the latest plunderers to visit Brazil.

This raises two questions: how do the Fédérational Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ‘bring a country together only to tear it apart’ (p.9), and why would a government that is the result of a trade-union insurgency which lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty even contemplate holding these world events.

IOC and FIFA deal with every country, no matter how unique, with exactly the same expectations and demands. ‘It is difficult to imagine countries more different than Greece, Canada, South Africa, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom’ (pp.147-8). Yet the demands in terms of infrastructure, displacement, security, corporate branding and public spending are similar. More worrying is that the fear of terrorism has provided a pretext for security demands that resemble those of an occupying army.

In London, during the Olympic Games in 2012, there were plans to place anti-aircraft missile bases on residential rooftops. In Rio, the army escorts the football teams from their hotels to the stadiums. In Zirin’s opinion, the IOC and FIFA have as much to do with sports as ‘the Iraq war was about democracy’ (p.165).

‘They are a neoliberal Trojan horse aimed at bringing in business and rolling back the most basic civil liberties’ (p.165). The people are initially proud to host the games ‘until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed-out stomach’ (p.212) and transform the country into ‘a profit orgy and a tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, (and) obscene public spending on new stadiums’ (p.212).

A positive aspect of the book is that it recognises that Brazilians were not just standing back and waiting until the cameras have gone to start protesting. People started protesting in advance and that is something historic. One would have to go back to the mass protests in Mexico City in 1968 which ended in ‘the slaughter of hundreds of Mexican students and workers’ (p.212) to find something similar. Zirin also points out the weakness in these protests of being a ‘catch-all for every grievance under the sun’ (p.213). This has enabled right-wing forces to infiltrate and hijack the protests transforming them into demonstrations against the Worker’s Party (PT) government and their policies of wealth distribution and public spending. In the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, president Dilma Rouseff was jeered, booed and sworn at by an elite that could afford the over R$900 (£300) tickets. 

Here lies my criticism of the book. Zirin describes Lula as a ‘neoliberal social democrat’ (p.66), but without any evidence. He tells us that ‘PT and Lula were avid participants in free-marketeering and international finance’ and was the ‘IMF’s “favorite president”’. However, on the same page he recognises that Lula did not ‘fit easily into the neoliberal mold’ (p.71). He offers plenty of evidence to support the view that Lula is a progressive politician.

Lula was elected in 2002 with 61% of the popular vote, but only a fifth of the seats in Congress. With this correlation of forces, PT was forced to accommodate the rich and powerful if it wished to tackle misery seriously, and bring millions out of abject poverty. Zirin recognizes that Lula inherited a country in crisis from his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), a true neoliberal. ‘Inflation had stabilized, yet more than one-third of the population lived under the UN poverty line – the highest rate of inequality in the world’ (p.68).

The protests against the world cup are in some ways paradoxical since Brazil has enjoyed very significant social and economic improvements since the country bid for the event in 2003. What Zirin fails to point out is that what was allocated for the ‘obscene public spending on new stadiums’ (p.212) was less than US$2 billion. By contrast, between the start of the construction of the stadiums in 2010 and 2014, the federal government spent more than US$360 billion on health and education programmes. In other words that is nearly US$200 in health and education programmes for every dollar spent on stadiums.

Brazil might be a country of great inequalities where the oligarchy is still powerful. And that is particularly true in the state of Rio de Janeiro, ‘the only region of the country where inequality actually worsened’ (p.79); what Zirin forgets to point out is that Rio is not under the rule of PT. However, Brazil has made great progress. According to a recent report by the UN Centre for the Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC) the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has dropped from 38% in 2005 to 18.6% in 2012.

This World Cup is also a demonstration of the rise in affluence among Latin Americans. This is the first cup in which Latin American fans out number Europeans. More people from Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia and Chile can afford the air fare, hotels and tickets. The infrastructure, both by transport routes and telecom cables, has improved allowing these fansto reach the stadiums.

Alexandre Lemos, Brazilian musician and political blogger, describes Brazil as playing the same match that was interrupted by the military coup in 1964. On one side there is a government headed by Dilma Rouseff with progressive and reformist proposals. On the other, there are oligarchs and reactionary capitalists supported by the traditional middle class that has always been subservient, prejudiced and aggressive. It is a battle of the type that moves history, decides the future and influences people’s lives and their happiness. The presidential elections in October will decide which direction the country will take.

Dave Zirin has his heart in the right place. He identifies the danger of the reactionary forces of using the World Cup as a protest against government spending and attacking the Workers’ Party. However, he fears that we might ‘get swept up in the World Cup (and) forget the nobodies who are swept away’ (p.215). That was not what happened. It was a great party, one of the best World Cups ever both in terms of games, goals and atmosphere. The ‘nobodies’ were not swept away. As those who were protesting against the privatization of public health services in Copacabana beach before the Brazil-Chile game said, ‘Let’s cheer for Brazil and defend public health.’

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.