AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.
On 21 December 2013, Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) interviewed Brian Mier, an expatriate in Brazil who writes and podcasts about Brazilian society and politics from a critical, radical perspective. He is a regular guest on This is Hell!, an Irregular Correspondent as they say, and spoke about FIFA’s neoliberal stranglehold on Brazil (as well as on other past and future host countries) and the multivalent protests that have rolled through that country since last summer. We consider his analysis helpful in apprehending the more recent flare-ups that led yet again to spectacular headlines in alternative media last week.
Thank you to This is Hell! for supporting what we hope will be an ongoing collaboration.
The World Cup has turned into this monster; they’re coming into foreign countries and causing hundreds of thousands of forced evictions so that rich companies can benefit from building unnecessary stadiums.
Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is Progressive Brazil’s Brian Mier. He comes on the show every so often to tell us what’s going on, live from Rio de Janeiro. Brian, what’s your next [podcast] episode going to be about?
Brian Mier: It’s going to be about the subject I wanted to talk about today, which is the upcoming World Cup next year, next June and July in Brazil, and the neoliberal adjustments that are being made to Brazilian cities to facilitate it.
CM: The same thing seems to be happening in Qatar as well. They’re going to be getting the 2022 World Cup, and they have had workers die during the construction of those stadiums. At the rate that workers are dying at the Qatar facilities, they’ll have 4,000 dead construction workers by the time of the 2022 World Cup. This is in a place where they’re still in the infant stages of working on the stadiums, and people are already dying. What does this say about either international sport or about politics? What does this reveal to you, that both in Brazil and in Qatar, in preparation for the World Cup, construction workers are dying?
BM: It tells you about FIFA, which is the world governing board for soccer. In order to get a World Cup in your country, the government has to suspend all kinds of laws and create a kind of temporary dictatorship during the games, and suspend licitation laws and things like that in the construction of required stadiums.
It’s brutal. There’s not 4,000 people dying in Brazil, but a couple workers have died in the last two weeks, and it’s because of the pressure that FIFA puts on these countries to get the stadiums built as quickly as possible. The day that two people died in a stadium in São Paulo a couple weeks ago, the crane operator who caused the accident had been working 18 hours without a stop. That’s a typical example of the kinds of labor conditions you see on these FIFA projects.
CM: Not FIFA, but sometimes UEFA, the European Football Association, does really good things. When they’re fighting against racism, for instance, when they have teams play in front of an empty stadium because fans were yelling racial epithets. But now, the way that you’re describing FIFA, it seems like all they’re concerned about is the bottom line. Are they good on some things and bad on others, or is the anti-racism thing just a veneer to hide all the other horrible things that FIFA and UEFA are up to?
BM: First of all racism in sports as an issue is much bigger in Europe than in the U.S. I mean, you have people throwing bananas at black athletes and making monkey noises and things like that, which is disgusting. I believe that the soccer governing board stepped in, in these cases, to avoid criminal charges. Almost like how warning labels on cigarettes ended up protecting the cigarette companies from lawsuits.
I don’t think any organization is 100% bad or 100% good, and certainly the World Cup itself is a great event. It’s the most popular television event in the world; I’m a big fan of it myself. But what’s happened is the governing board that manages the World Cup has turned into this monster; they’re coming into foreign countries and causing hundreds of thousands of forced evictions so that rich companies can benefit from building unnecessary stadiums.
It’s turned into this construction mafia; in the case of São Paulo, for example, they didn’t need a stadium. They already have a couple really good stadiums, but FIFA refused to accept São Paulo’s newest and largest stadium as World Cup-worthy because they wanted to get involved in another construction project. For these construction projects, most of the materials come from Europe, from suppliers that FIFA partners with.
You see what happened in South Africa: you had several very expensive stadiums built in cities that don’t have professional soccer teams. And in Brazil now we have four stadiums being built in cities that don’t have first or second division teams, and these stadiums are costing a total of almost a billion dollars. The government and FIFA lied to the citizens about how much they were going to cost and who was going to foot the bill. It was originally supposed to be almost entirely funded by the private sector. Now it’s coming out that every project has overrun its costs, and all of the difference is being picked up by the taxpayer.
One of the stadiums, in Manaus: they’re saying they’re going to turn it into a prison after the World Cup is over. They’re building this $350 million stadium up there for six games, and then they’re going to turn it into a prison, and the taxpayers are paying for it. So people are getting pretty pissed off at FIFA and the government about this.
FIFA ended up bringing around $3 billion back with them to Switzerland and the total cost to the taxpayers of South Africa was $3.8 billion.
CM: One of the big problems that people had in South Africa was that this money did not ‘trickle down’ to the local economy because the construction workers weren’t South African. People aren’t getting construction jobs out of this; the people who are getting money out of this are the construction companies, the real estate developers, but certainly it’s not trickling down to the people.
And as far as bringing retail business [to South Africa], they said that a lot of merchants were pushed out of the area around World Cup stadiums unless they paid a fee to FIFA in order to be allowed to sell where they usually sell. Or they were being told that they could only sell products that were OK’d by FIFA. For instance because it was a Coca-Cola-sponsored World Cup, nobody was allowed to sell any products within a certain radius around the World Cup stadiums that were not Coke products. So to what degree will the World Cup actually help out Brazil?
BM: One thing is for certain: it won’t help Brazil in the way Brazil was promised by FIFA several years ago when they bid on this project. For example if you look at other World Cups, the tourism estimates are wildly exaggerated. They estimated that there was going to be half a million tourists in South Africa for the World Cup. It doesn’t make sense because the average game only sells about thirty or forty thousand tickets to foreigners. They hold a certain amount of tickets for locals. Why would you have all these people coming who can’t get tickets?
And now the numbers are in. The actual number of tourists that appeared for the World Cup in South Africa was less than half of what FIFA had promised. Less than 250,000. And there’s also evidence that they cooked the books, because a lot of people from Mozambique live in Johannesburg—it’s only an eight hour drive from the capital of Mozambique to Johannesburg, and there are always people going back and forth to visit their relatives and go shopping and things like that. And they counted them as World Cup tourists.
As far as job generation, there are construction jobs, that’s true. But these are temporary jobs and as you pointed out in the situation with Qatar, in Brazil the jobs aren’t very good because they’re unsafe, and there’s no employment guarantee after the games end.
As for the commercial benefits: we know that only FIFA-sponsored products can be sold within the so-called ‘Areas of Exclusion’ around the stadium and on six major avenues that FIFA chooses. And FIFA doesn’t have to pay any taxes on their product sales as part of the deal for getting the World Cup in the country, and most of that money just gets sucked back out to Switzerland. This was the case in South Africa, where FIFA ended up bringing around $3 billion back with them to Switzerland and the total cost to the taxpayers of South Africa was $3.8 billion.
CM: It reminds me of when Rio de Janeiro was fighting with Chicago to try to get the Olympics. It seems like the Olympics are above criticism in the same way that the World Cup is above criticism. Sure you and I criticize them, there might be community activists who are upset about it, or progressive columnists who are upset. But nothing is ever done about it and they just keep moving along without any criticism, without much oversight, without anybody talking about how they’re not democratic, how the Olympics have lost money [for the host city] over and over again.
To what degree, do you think, is this ever going to change? Are people going to realize we can’t have these people come in here and dictate to us how we’re going to change our tax structure, how we’re going to give them all these perks, how they’re going to go back to Switzerland with $3 billion while we are saddled with $3.8 billion in cost?
There are more and more cases of police brutality; police are shooting teenagers for smoking marijuana, and torturing people, taking bribes. Basically they’ve just created another kind of sub-standard living for poor people in Rio.
BM: It’s hard to say. FIFA is a very powerful organization, as is the Olympic Committee. But it seems like the criticism is growing stronger. From what I understand, FIFA is very upset about Brazil right now because of the protests. There were more than a million people on the streets during the Confederation Cup. Of course the protests weren’t entirely about the Cup and the corruption with the stadiums. But the Confederation Cup is like a test-run for the World Cup, they use some of the same stadiums, and people were out on the streets protesting in front of the stadiums. FIFA is very worried that next year there’s going to be a lot of protests in Brazil, and that’s why they have their security apparatus in full force.
Basically, security is privatized in these so-called ‘Areas of Exclusion.’ Sometimes it’s those former Blackwater private security companies. They come in with ‘non-lethal’ weapons and they ban any kind of protest activity. They have freedom to arrest people during the games. But even so, I think that FIFA’s beginning to get worried.
And that’s why the upcoming World Cups are in countries with very low protesting ability, like Qatar. What kind of protests are going to happen in Qatar? I’d like to see them happening, but that country is already locked down, security-wise.
There are fewer and fewer so-called ‘developed’ countries that are putting bids on these kinds of games. Chicago lost the Olympics. Why? Because people were protesting the Olympics coming to Chicago. Tom Tresser [of No Games Chicago] made a dossier about corruption on construction projects in Chicago and flew over to Denmark and presented it to the Olympic Committee, and that seems to be what pushed it over to Rio de Janeiro. I think as more people protest, and more people like you are talking about it on the air, and more people are talking about it on the Internet, it’s going to force FIFA to improve, to stop stealing so much money.
You see what happened in Munich a couple weeks ago. The citizens of Munich and surrounding towns in Bavaria were invited to vote on whether they wanted the Winter Olympics there or not, and they voted against it. That’s the kind of thing that sends shudders of fear through the Olympic Committee. I think this is a trend. I think you’re going to see fewer and fewer Olympics and World Cups in ‘developed’ countries, and more and more in these kinds of puppet dictatorships.
CM: Another stereotype that we have of Brazil is the gang problem, the problem in the favelas. Most people around the world, if they know anything about Brazil, that’s an image that they have of it. I heard that FIFA’s really upset about those gangs and the power that they have in some areas, and that Brazil sent in either police or some of these Blackwater guys, XE Services is what it’s called now. What happened with the clearing-out of Brazilian gangs to ‘pacify’ Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup?
BM: First of all, it is Brazilian military police that do this. They’ve created a system called UPP, which means ‘Pacifying Police Unit,’ that has occupied some of the favelas. Basically, favelas are slums; about 25% of Rio de Janeiro lives in these slums and historically they’ve been controlled either by drug gangs or paramilitary militias, and you need permission from gun-toting thugs to go in or out of the neighborhood. The state has no control in these areas. So what the government did, in and around the areas where the Olympics and World Cup are going to take place, and around the richest neighborhoods—because the slums are often on these mountainsides, right next to rich neighborhoods—they set up police stations. They’ve started patrolling the streets.
But the only function the police have is to make sure that no one’s walking around with guns. The drug-dealing continues, the drug gangs are still working there normally. There was just an article about Rosinha, which is one of the biggest favelas in Rio de Janeiro that’s been ‘pacified,’ supposedly, for a couple years. They say there’s still over a hundred street drug-dealing operations going on, managed by the drug-trafficking gang inside of the community.
And there’s more and more cases of police brutality; police are shooting teenagers for smoking marijuana, and torturing people, taking bribes. Basically they’ve just created another kind of sub-standard living for poor people in Rio. Now the poor people can decide between the military police occupation—a paramilitary right-wing death squad occupation—or a drug-trafficking gang occupation for the slum they live in.
And more and more of them are being pushed out of these slums near where the Olympics and World Cup are going to take place because they’re being gentrified now. The police stations opening up has enabled real estate speculation to come in, and the rent prices and house sale prices are doubling and tripling in many of these communities, forcing renters farther and farther out to the outskirts of town.
CM: One more thing I wanted to ask you about, Brian, before we let you go. Somebody sent me an email after your last appearance on the show. He said that any time you see a movie about Brazil, there’s always a shot of the favelas. And you get this impression from the media that Rio de Janeiro is 99% favelas and then maybe some nice houses up in the hills. He said that’s not the case, and that I should make sure you explain to people that while they are large, favelas don’t dominate Rio de Janeiro. So how prominent are the favelas?
BM: First of all, it’s a misconception in the media. Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, the so-called slums, make up 22% of the city’s population. Slum-like properties in Chicago probably make up about 20% of that city’s population.
Secondly, they’ve done studies that show 59% of the people living in favelas in Rio are middle class, 13% are upper class, and only about the difference, 20-something percent, are actually below the poverty line. What a favela really is, is just a neighborhood that was built by squatters, not following any kind of zoning codes, on squatted land. Maybe they don’t have legal rights—although they’re protected by the constitution, they might not have a deed to their land. They look shocking, but a lot of the people who live there are not poor. And even that is only 22% of the population. Rio de Janeiro is now the 31st-richest city in the world. And the difference between the rich and poor is shrinking in Brazil. It’s been shrinking for the last eleven years, since the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers Party] took power and tripled the minimum wage.
CM: I’m glad that you burst that bubble. I think a lot of people do have that image; all they think is that favelas are the entire town, and that the favelas are only full of the most destitute people who are desperate, who are gang members, who are drug dealers. I’m glad that you cleared that up for us. Thanks so much for reporting to us live from Rio de Janeiro and for supporting our show. I owe you a beer.
Transcribed and printed with the permission of This is Hell! Radio. Listen to the full interview here.