Joel Covelli takes us inside the protests, the stadiums and the corporate world during the uprising in Brazil
The stadium seemed to shake.
I was only a few minutes late, but the massive eruption could only mean one thing: Brazil had already scored. I was running through Zone Norte to get to my seat for the Confederation’s Cup final match between Brazil and Spain. It was a night game, so I couldn’t see the favelas looming over the stadium, but I knew they were there.
When the stadium exploded in cheers, I stopped in my tracks. I looked around the night sky in Rio’s rough and tumble Zona Norte. I saw the massive police presence lining the entrance to the stadium. From outside, the stadium trembled with unbridled emotion.
I felt the roar of a nation.
A kid in yellow FIFA uniform scanned my ticket with a modern machine. I waked inside.
I’m not here for the protests, and I am not here for the football—though I have seen both.
I am in Rio de Janeiro working as a night-shift security analyst for a major multinational firm. It’s a summer gig (well–a winter gig in Brazil) and I guess they wanted someone with some experience in the region to help monitor what they had expected to be minor disturbances—you know, the occasional mugging, for example.
The FIFA Confederations Cup—a warm up for next year’s World Cup—drew to a close last night in Rio with a resounding 3-0 victory for Brazil over the reigning world champions Spaniards in the fully refurbished Maracaña stadium.
Inside, the stadium was electric. “Proud to be Brazilian,” was the chant. Other chants taunted Spanish players.
Its clear Brazil will win. I am surrounded by chanting, hugging, yelling and more chanting.
On the pitch, it may have been Neymar’s coming out party, but this tournament will be remembered for Brazil´s political awakening. Locals are already calling the tournament the ¨Copa das Manifestações¨ or ¨Cup of the Protests¨ after the largest political protests in the democratic history of the country.
As it has unfolded, my summer job in Rio has turned into a front row seat to the protests, the football, and the corporate response—sometimes all in one day.
4 PM – 6 PM Football: Estádio do Maracanã
It’s a one-kilometer walk from the subway to the stadium. Military police, with big armored black trucks and horses line both sides of the street along the way.
We are not in touristy Rio anymore. Prosperous, sexy Rio—that’s in Zona Sul. We have entered Zona Norte, home to over half Rio’s inhabitants and most of its poorest neighborhoods. Zona Sul has attracted but a fraction of the billions of investment dollars that have poured into Rio.
Up in Zona Norte, Brazil’s decrepit infrastructure is felt acutely. Moving from the favelas to the city center, where nearly 40 percent of the jobs are located, is a punishing exercise. The coin collector on the bus crawling towards the stadium says it takes her two and half hours to get to work, using a combination of trains and buses.
She says she doesn’t have time to protest.
The resplendent stadium itself contrasts with the looming red favelas that drip down the hills flanking the stadium’s side. Estádio do Maracanã is both new and old—a completely refurbished stadium built over the skeleton of a historic footballing site.
The old Maracanã stadium held an astonishing 200,000 people. There were no seats—fans would pack in and stand on the concrete. It opened in 1950 when Brazil last hosted the World Cup, and has since been home to the beloved Flamengo football club. 200,000 people standing, jammed in, singing–the old stadium was emblematic of Brazilian football.
Now completely redone, the stadium feels sanitized and corporate. It’s got the enormous hi-def jumbotron screen and speakers with crystal clear, booming sound. The PA announcer reads the goal scorer first in English, then in Portuguese.
It has Budweiser on tap.
“It’s not the old Maracanã,” says my local friend. The new Maracanã is still enormous (seating over 80,000), but it feels polished off. It’s the little things, like assigned seats. “We didn’t even have seats before,” says my friend. “How could you assign them?”
“We’re just trying to be European,” he adds.
The atmosphere inside is playful as the mostly Brazilian crowd cheered on a hapless Tahitian squad against the World Champion Spaniards. Any positive play for Tahiti was met with an ovation, while the Spanish are roundly booed for marking a parade of goals.
Brazilian passion for football rings clear, even in the playful support of an over-matched underdog like Tahiti. At the moment, however, it almost feels like a guilty pleasure. Many Brazilians are thrilled to be hosting the World Cup in 2014, but are outraged by the exorbitant costs of building and refurbishing stadiums—the bill exceeds US$3.3 billion.
Maracanã has a Roman-esc aura. The stadium will serve as a spectacular venue for the World Cup. But other stadiums will be tougher pills to swallow. More than $1 billion has been shelled out on stadiums in in Brasilia, Manaus, and Cuiaba—all cities without teams in Brazil’s top two domestic leagues. These will likely become white elephants.
The game draws to a close (mercifully, for the Tahitians). Fans quietly exit the facility. So the football stadium appears to no longer be a scene for hundreds of thousands of Brazilians to gather together to stump and chant and be heard. However, that evening it just so happened that that atmosphere could still be realized…just not in a stadium.
7 PM – 11 PM: The Protests
Moving from the match back to the protests felt like an undercover operation. I planned to meet friends and colleagues, some from Sao Paolo, that were already in the protest. Our employer had asked us to avoid the manifestations, but as a passionate, life long student of the region, this was too much to ask. My friend—a Brazilian—still couldn’t believe this was finally happening.
We shot text messages back and fourth in hopes of finding one another. Though we were in close vicinity, this took nearly 20 minutes. We were lost in hordes of people that had gathered around the central metro stop. We would later learn that roughly 250,000 people were protesting within this 3km stretch of downtown Rio.
I was surprised to learn bartender would be at the protest.
The international media focuses on the young, hip protesters. The new middle class—the university students. But the bartender was none of those things. Well into his 60s, I knew him as the man who served up breakfast at the boteca down the block.
I was not surprised that I did not see Jose, my building’s doorman at the protest. “I understand why people are mad,” he had told me the night before. “But why now? Why when the world is watching? It’s sending the wrong picture of Brazil. Why not wait a few weeks?”
The scene itself resembled what one might have expected at the football stadium (and maybe it was akin to the atmosphere of the old Maracanã the day of a big game). National pride was ubiquitous as many protesters wrapped themselves in the Brazilian flag. I felt a palpable sense of collective effervescence stemming from the protesters’ shared indignation.
Chants alternated from festive jabs at the government (“FIFA standard hospitals and schools!”; “More Bread, Less Circus”) to tense repeated calls for “no violence” when the military police were near.
The mobilization is all the more striking in a country famous for its political apathy. Cariocas (as Rio´s inhabitants are called) are known for a laid back, ¨do it tomorrow¨ attitude. Amidst the hustle, a friend from Rio remarked that this was the most organized he had ever seen Cariocas in his entire life.
Political corruption has long been so pervasive in Brazilian politics that many voters simply accepted it as an immutable part of life. There is no better example than the former mayor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf who was found guilty of diverting millions of dollars’ worth of public funds (¨malufar¨ is actually a verb in the informal Brazilian lexicon meaning ¨to steal public funds¨). Yet he remains popular. ¨Ele rouba mas faz¨, explains a colleague, which roughly translates to ¨he steals but gets the job done¨. Maluf remains a federal deputy to this day.
When asked, most demonstrators declared themselves to be “party-less” or against all parties, suggesting that the mobilization is an indictment of Brazil´s entire political class rather than of president Dilma Rouseff or her Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) specifically.
Perhaps the only public figure being cast in a positive light at the protests is the chief justice of Brazil´s highest court Joaquim Barbosa. Some placards read ¨Barbosa for President in 2014¨. Barbosa become famous after 25 politicians were convicted of corruption and money laundering as a part of the mensalão–a congressional bribery scheme administered under Dilma´s predecessors´PT government.
At about 10:00, I began my trek to my night post as a security analyst. My friend decided to join because as we approached the prefeitura (city hall) we were told that the protest was turning violent.
11 PM – 7 AM: The Corporate world
After quickly returning home to change, I hopped in a taxi to get to work, which is located on the second floor of a glass tower overlooking Botafogo beach. When I arrived just after 11, staff was gathered around the television watching the BBC news. Images of confrontations between protesters and police were front and center.
Protesters were shown hurling rocks at the police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. This was not just the scene in Rio but in cities throughout Brazil, including all six cities playing host to Confederations Cup. As the night progressed, the news showed widespread vandalism to local shops and government buildings committed by groups of hooded individuals.
Of course, I cannot discuss my employer specifically. But it is safe to say that no one in Brazil expected this. With protests multiplying over the past days, our office scrambled for intel on scale and location. There are competing requests for military escorts; long-planned guest visits are canceled. Corporate sponsors throughout the city sought swifter government reactions to ensure easy passage to matches. A good portion of my nights were spent scouring social media for information and mapping out alternative route plans in and out of stadiums.
Suddenly political risk has been tossed in as a factor for investors already frustrated by the Custo Brasil — the implicit economic costs of doing business in Brazil.
A Hard Day’s Morning
But you don’t need facebook to understand the frustrations. Exhausted, I leave work at around 7AM. The sun has already risen as I slump into a taxi. The driver has far more energy—he wants to talk. “We pay high taxes just to make rich public sector workers richer,¨ he says.
Brazilians have come to the realization that they deserve and require a more transparent and responsive government. With the new, billion dollar sound systems in stadiums like Maracanã, politicians should hear the message loud and clear.
Joel Covelli is a Latin America specialist currently completing a dual degree program in Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and law at the University of Ottawa