Brazil – a country seemingly out of love with itself

 

With the advent of the opening game of FIFA’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil looming on the horizon, I find Brazilians in a pensive mood, or according to some estimations, downright depressed with itself.

I have spent the past few days meeting intellectuals and protesters in Rio to learn more about their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming World Cup, the protests, and their thoughts on why the situation is as it currently is. In those discussions I’ve encountered a litany of complaints about the country’s infrastructure, lack of historical perspective, and much debate as to why the image Brazil projects of itself in the world is so important. It struck me that many of the people I spoke to seem to think that Brazil is in a rut because it doesn’t deserve any better, yet privately they’re upset about that because they really want a better life for the lower classes.

Allan Melo, a tech journalist who just left his job at O Globo, has an interesting explanation for his compatriot’s quandary:

“The public discussion in Brazil mostly focusses on everything that’s wrong with Brazil, the corruption, the World Cup overspending, the bad schools, the botched favela pacifications. Meanwhile, we don’t hear any good news about what’s happening around us. For example, there’s a spectacular exhibit on the works of Salvador Dalí that just opened here in Rio at the National Art Museum. The fact that a Brazilian Museum could attract such an important exhibit is an important news story, but there are no news crews out there reporting on the opening, interviewing people on how they felt about seeing this beautiful art. We hear about Da Vinci exhibits opening in New York, but nobody tells you about that happening here. This gives people the impression that this country can’t get anything right in comparison with other countries”, he says.

“I know from friends in Buenos Aires that they have protests happening there every single day about a broad variety of issues, yet we only hear about protests in Argentina if they concern a very important topic. We may hear about high unemployment in Spain, but we don’t hear at all about economic difficulties in Greece, Italy or elsewhere in Europe. People here think it’s all working perfectly well. In part that is due to the language barrier, as people can’t read or listen to news in other languages and get a different view that way, but we don’t hear much from Portugal either,” he continues.

So, then why not use the World Cup as a distraction from all that? After all, Brazil is very good at football and widely expected to win even this tournament. “Because,” Allan says in a surprising answer, “football isn’t everybody’s lives. Football is used by the politicians to project an image abroad, but Brazilians aren’t as patriotic as it may seem. We suck at celebrating ourselves.”

Most people I’ve spoken to seem to agree that hosting a World Cup could be a good thing for Brazil, once it is actually ready for it. In their eyes that means that the country’s infrastructure is working, poverty has been successfully combatted, and schools give every Brazilian a chance at a productive and constructive life with an education that allows them to compete on an international playing field. “The cup and the Olympics came at least 20 years too soon”, Victor Galdino, a member of Rio’s Pirate Party chapter, explains. “People here think our country is not good enough as it is, and that’s why the foreign perception of what’s happening with the protests is so sensitive. By having the World Cup now, we’re just building castles in the sand.”

Infrastructure building in Rio are underway, as for example the government is building a whole new Metro line, which connects the tourist areas of Leblon and Ipanema to the city’s centre which currently can only be traveled to by bus or taxi, but the project is severely behind schedule, with people questioning whether the construction will be ready even for the 2016 Olympics. Tourist attractions, such as the cable car to the top of the Sugar Loaf are being upgraded, but again, won’t be ready for tourists visiting the World Cup.

Meanwhile, stories making headlines abroad right now circle around a horrific photo posted on the Facebook page of the Police unit entrusted with “pacifying” Brazil’s favela areas, showing a slew of dead children lying in the street in their own blood (this was posted in February 2014, btw, so this didn’t happen recently), as well as this video by Danish journalist Mikkel Keldorf, alleging that death squads march around the favelas, murdering unwanted street children, even if they were not known criminals.

I don’t have any first hand evidence to prove or disprove Keldorf’s claims, but since the police themselves posted the photo, with a caption that indicates they were proud of their achievement, its veracity is hard to dispute. In talking to several members of Rio’s Pirate Party however, I have gained some insight into the situation inside the “pacified” favelas, that make Keldorf’s claims seem credible.

As a brief background, on what the “pacification” of a favela entails: In 2008, the Brazilian government started the creation of the UPP, Unit of Pacifying Police, with the goal of reducing crime in the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. Usually, the army would first go into a neighbourhood, drive out the criminals (often drug traffickers), and then install a UPP in the favela which patrols the streets and maintains safety for its residents. Some successes have been reported, such as a reduction in murder rates, but other problems appeared, such as an increase in kidnappings and rising crime in other parts of the country. “The criminals leave when the army comes,” Victor Galdino explains. “They go elsewhere and continue their business from outside the favela, but the business model is still in place. They just push around the problem.”

However the presence of the UPP is making life difficult for those still in the favelas. “The UPP is micromanaging people’s lives,” Galdino says. ” The UPP is searching people’s bags as they come and go from their homes, searching the homes while people aren’t home and treating everyone like a potential criminal. Sometimes situations escalate, and that’s when both officers and favela residents get killed.” The killing of a UPP police man by an enraged crowd seems to be what sparked the shootings of the children in the photo linked to above.

I have not yet had the opportunity to visit a favela myself and get a first hand impression of the situation, but am working on investigating this further.

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