World Cup Protests Signal Democratic Progress for Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 12:  A protestor holds a 'FIFA Go Home' sign during an anti-World Cup demonstration in the Copa
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 12: A protestor holds a 'FIFA Go Home' sign during an anti-World Cup demonstration in the Copacabana section on June 12, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is the first day of World Cup play. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last night, on São Paulo's Paulista Avenue, a broad boulevard that is home of the financial district, crowds of people with competing agendas converged. On one side of the street, protesters carried a red banner that read "There Will Be No World Cup." They blocked a central bus artery during rush hour to denounce the World Cup, FIFA and the government. Among them were supporters of subway workers fired amid a wildcat strike that left the city's transit paralyzed for days. At a corner bar across the street, a crowd of soccer fans from around the world was becoming so large that they threatened to close traffic in the other direction. The mainly Croatian, Mexican, Argentine and U.S. fans took photos of the protesters and vice-versa, each group's presence in terms of noise, people and ability to jam traffic fed into one another: the protests were part of the World Cup, and the fans were part of the protest.

There is a lot of coverage of the protests and many questions about what they mean for the Cup and for Brazil, but one way of understanding them is to look to the last two times these events were held in Latin America: the 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup. In 1968 and 1970, the Mexican government pulled off the same pair of events Brazil is starting now: the 1968 Olympics and 1970 World Cup.

In 1968 Mexico City, as protests mounted ahead of the Olympics, student and worker demands for improved conditions grew into a denunciation of the government, which had been controlled at all levels by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since the 1920s. The PRI had presided over rapid industrialization, land reform and social welfare projects and it now saw the Olympics and Cup as events that would showcase their achievements.

The PRI rewarded its supporters but dealt violently with dissent. Ten days before the Olympics opened, gunmen atop buildings in the modernist district of Tlatelolco opened fire on protesters and killing hundreds. Rather than signaling Mexico's emergence on the world state, the events showed how thin the veneer of democracy was in Mexico and the lengths to which the PRI would go to maintain control.

In 1970, Brazil won the World Cup in Mexico as Brazilians experienced the starkest extremes of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985: amid repression, torture and disappearances, the regime had generated an "Economic Miracle" which relied on mechanisms that lead to a crippling debt crisis and hyperinflation. The regime used the soccer triumph as a metaphor for its economic successes and declared a five-day national holiday.

When the World Cup was held in Argentina in 1978, the country was ruled by a military junta, despots who systematically killed between 14,000 and 30,000 of their fellow citizens between 1976 and 1983 in a campaign known as the Dirty War. The matches in Buenos Aires took place within earshot of the regime's most notorious detention and torture center, the Navy Mechanics' School.

Henry Kissinger sat next to the dictators as their guest at the early matches. When it appeared that the Argentine team would not advance unless it won a game against Peru by an outlandish margin, Kissinger visited the Peruvian team's locker room during halftime. We don't know what he said, but the Peruvian team that fought the Argentines to a 0x0 draw in the first half, lost 6x0 in the second. Argentina advanced and months later a shipment of donated grain arrived in Peru from Argentina.

Human rights activists in Europe sought a boycott of the Cup, but no teams or players adhered to it. Still, between matches, journalists turned their cameras to the group of mothers protesting in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, silently walking in a circle, holding placards with images of their disappeared children and the written question "where are they?"

What is different this year is that the Cup is not being held in a dictatorship. To the contrary, since Brazil's emergence from military dictatorship in the 1980s, the country has built a robust democracy that in many respects puts the United States to shame: voting is mandatory, and all adults have the right to vote; vote counting is handled by special tribunals and above reproach; there are tough limits on the flow of money to campaigns, and to diminish the role of money, candidates get free airtime.

As a result, what the world is seeing in Brazil are protesters who are acting out of the impulse that built Brazil's democracy out of dictatorship, often being confronted by police whose tactics and training are holdovers from military rule.

The protests reflect anxiety that the economic gains of the past decade are slipping away amid a rapidly rising cost of living, as well as frustration that all of the hard work of building a democracy from a dictatorship has not garnered stronger gains in overcoming profound social inequalities. Protesters have juxtaposed the glimmering stadiums built to exacting FIFA standards with their poorly maintained schools staffed by underpaid teachers, and dilapidated hospitals where shortages of supplies and beds compound illness with indignity.

The Cup is a backdrop for strikes across Brazil. As the games kicked off yesterday, there were 17 planned protests across the country. Some are political, like the "Fuck FIFA" Bike Ride in Rio de Janeiro, while others are over bread and butter issues, such as Fortaleza's "World Cup for Who?" march. The Cup is the perfect backdrop for the strike: at no other time do transportation workers have so much leverage in their bargaining; in addition to the subway workers, bus drivers in many cities as well as airport workers in Rio de Janeiro have struck or threatened to do so. Alongside them, teachers, university faculty and staff, federal court system workers and many others are pressing claims for salary increases: the official inflation rate is six percent, though at the grocery store it seems higher. Any worker not getting a raise of at least that amount this year is effectively getting a significant pay cut.

Brazil's Cup is not a choreographed performance of order and progress (the slogan on Brazil's flag). Instead it is a noisy clash of goals and demands, fans and protesters, hopes and anxieties. This is what a Cup in a democracy should look like.