Brazil’s Dance With The Devil by Dave Zirin

By 26 May, 2014

Brazil’s Dance With The Devil (subtitled The World Cup, The Olympics and the Struggle for Democracy) is a series of essays written by Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. The primary focus is on the World Cup and the Olympic Games but by necessity the theme embraces much of Brazilian history.

An out-of-wallet experience

The devil in question is neo-liberalism in the guise of the FIFA World Cup – 2014 and the Olympic Games (International Olympic Committee – IOC) – Rio 2016. Letting the games begin, in the Brazilian case, has involved starting up the bulldozers and levelling 20,000 homes belonging to the country’s poor. Zirin claims that “Across Brazil 200,000 people will be evicted as a direct result of the World Cup.” Even an undying optimist like Dr Pangloss might have to scratch his head at that. Instead, in the words of former US footballer and journalist, Jules Boykoff, what we are witnessing is the World Cup and the Olympics as “celebration capitalism” often built on “disaster capitalism”. Public-private partnerships in which the public pay and the private profit.

Getting reals on real estate

In tandem with this “urban cleansing”, which to all intents and purposes is property development and re-zoning without the poor, is the illusion that these vanity projects are there by popular demand. These processes are, of course, rationalised as the demolition of “high risk” or “designated for public use” areas – catch-all terms that justify any course of action.

Renato Cosentino, a member of the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio said: “At a time when Rio de Janeiro has a chance to show the world that it can overcome the social inequality that has marked it history, it is instead reinforcing that inequality.” Similarly, to marginalised communities, often brutalised by the Federal Police and now subject to a process of “pacification” by the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, news that the security and surveillance operation for the World Cup and the Olympics is called “Big Brother” can hardly be comforting. Marcelo Freixo, Rio’s radical mayoral candidate for Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL) concurs: “The truth is that the preparations are attending to the interests of big corporations and not of society.”

Political football

Public sentiment, as Zirin explains, is ambivalent at best and hostile at worst. “Many in Brazil see FIFA and the IOC as no different from Justin Bieber, whom the paparazzi caught stumbling out of a famous Rio brothel in October 2013 – nothing on their minds but how to take a piece of the country and leave some cash on the dresser on their way out of the door.”

The Brazilian state, on the contrary, sees both the Olympic Games and the World Cup as tangible signs that it has at last overturned the disparaging comment attributed to French prime minister, George Clemenceau, that “Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be.”

Back in 1995, when Michael Jackson and Spike Lee wanted to film a video (for HIStory: Past Present, and Future Book 1 aka Scream) in the Santa Marta favela, the government was less than keen. Brazil was bidding in 1996 for the 2004 Olympics and the last thing it wanted was someone to draw attention to the country’s poverty. As Zirin puts it: “Local authorities saw Jackson’s presence as the proverbial turd in the punchbowl.”

Brazil’s GDP growth rate hit 7.5% per annum under Lula (2003-2011), but it has since fallen to a 0.9% under his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and these “parties” are all set to leave Brazil with the mother of all hangovers. Zirin likens Brazil to a taxi whose meter is ticking over whilst it’s stuck in the most enormous traffic jam. If he’s right, the public (mostly the poor) will foot the bill.

As if in preparation for more straightened times to come, in November 2013, Brazil commenced the sale of some of the family silver by selling off Galeão (Rio) and Confins (Minas Gerais) airports to consortia lead by Odebrecht (a Brazilian construction company) and Changi Airport (Singapore), and Swiss Flughafen Zurich and the Brazilian highways operator CCR, respectively. The money accrued to the government amounted to US$9.1bn.

Private profit, public debt

Where have you heard this before? Everywhere. It’s the same rationale whereby multinational companies, too big to fail, reinvigorate their balance sheets by socialising their liabilities through the aegis of compliant governments sold on austerity.

The IOC and FIFA are getting the Brazilian government to jump through hoops. In the case of FIFA, this involves building stadia to “FIFA standard” which in reality means spending billions on projects superfluous to post-tournament needs. This is white elephant ranching on a grand scale. At US$15bn this World Cup will be more expensive than the three previous World Cups combined.

Jan-Marten Hoitsma, a project manager brought in to make sure Natal’s stadium is finished on time and under budget, explained: “There are no big football teams here – the biggest team gets gates of around 5,000 and we’re building a 42,000-seater World Cup stadium.”

As for the Maracanã, Zirin quotes football writer and academic Chris Gaffney speaking of the sacrifice of the old inclusive stadium for an arena built for the ephemeral delectation of a few “modern day Caesars”. A stadium which once held 200,000 will now hold 75,000 – for those who can afford the tickets. “The Sistine Chapel of football” is being rendered into something “as sterile and antiseptic as a hospital bathroom.” If previous World Cups are anything to go by, many of the VIPs will struggle to remember that football is a game of two halves.

Football crazy

Zirin isn’t the first to question these circuses and he isn’t going to be the last. In the Brazilian example, like many before it, the natives are restless. In a country where disparities in wealth are stratospheric, there is growing popular resentment.

In Natal, graffiti rich in irony says: “We want ‘FIFA standard’ hospitals and schools” or “We want ‘FIFA standard’ work.” Many of those employed on these jamborees are over-worked and paid less than the minimum wage. They may not be dropping like the Nepalese workers preparing for Qatar 2022, but the various projects have been beset by deaths, accidents, strikes and construction failures, not least of which was when rain, yes, rain, brought down the roof at Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador, and a crane crashed onto the Arena Corinthians in Rio killing two.

Romario, star of 1994 World Cup contrasted the preparedness of the government to go that extra mile for FIFA when the public are lacking basic transport and amenities. “They found a way to get rich on the World Cup and they robbed the people instead.”

Hyperinflation, poverty and asset sales

Before Lula took to the stage, the Cardoso administration got inflation down to single digits. But it came at a price. It was funded by keeping wages low and by cutting social services. By the time he left office in 2002, “Brazil was the most unequal country on earth” with 31% of the population living below the UN poverty line. Brazil was then walloped by the global downturn. In the end it needed a US$41.5bn bailout from the IMF to stay afloat. Despite a post-bailout slump, enthusiasm for neo-liberalism remains undimmed.

Cardoso’s plan had made Brazil fit for international investors. Government spending dipped and sovereign assets such as those industries developed under Vargas, oil, steel, mining, car-making and telecoms, were hived off to pay off debt and benefit private investors.

Brazil in the time of Lula

No one can dispute that Brazil has made progress, yet some, such as sociologist Chico de Oliveira, have said: “The fate of the poor in Brazil has been a kind of apartheid, and Lula had ended that. But equitable or inclusive progress remained out of reach.”

A reappraisal of Lula, which Zirin undertakes, is very much in order. After all, if the World Bank, IMF, WSJ and Economist can look on with admiration, something must be wrong. The evidence for the mismatch is the 2013 protests, the worst display of popular disorder since the military dictatorship ended. The Brazilian public knows tokenism when it sees it.

It is clear that the mold hasn’t been broken and 500 years of oligarchy, corruption, inequality and the continuance of economic suzerainty are still present. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist, whom Zirin quotes throughout the book, says in not so many words that Brazil is always on hand to enrich other countries.

Cosmetic surgery

Lula, as heir to Cardoso’s Plano Real, merely continued where his predecessor left off but with burgeoning Chinese demand for soya, iron ore and cattle and the discovery of 80bn barrels of oil to keep him company.

The statistics look impressive. In 2009, around 1 million people had been lifted out of poverty; infant mortality was down by 40% (50% in the impoverished North East); the minimum wage had been raised by 50%; the stock market was booming as Brazil went from 15th to 4th for inward investment; Brazil leapfrogged France and Britain to become the world’s 5th largest economy and whilst still primarily a supplier of commodities, it now accounted for 60% of Latin America’s industrial production.

Air on a G String

However, Zirin works through the nuts and bolts of his achievements and whilst lauding it as a start, reveals it to be but a statistical blip just slightly better than negligible.

The implication is that the Bolsa Familia – a re-branding of a Cardoso initiative with added extras – is a sop to dampen demand for serious political action on Brazil’s gaping inequalities. Indeed, the costs of funding payments to 13.8m families or 50m people (dependent on school attendance up to 17 years of age, regular medical and dental check-ups and vaccinations); the implementation of the Credito Consignado (credit to those previously excluded) and the expansion of education to include 700,000 poor students, amounted to just 3% of GDP. Professor of Anthropology, Marcus Alvito, sums it up in typically Brazilian style: “Statistics are like a bikini. They show much, but they hide the most important parts.”

Between 2006 and 2008, the number of Brazilian millionaires increased by 70%. Whereas those on twice the minimum wage pay 50% tax, those on 30 times the minimum wage pay just 25%. The oligarchy which has dominated Brazilian social, economic and political life for 500 years is doing very nicely.

Democracy deficit disorder

Brazil is not dissimilar from the rest of the world’s democracies; it is very difficult to vote for a party or parties who pay any more than lip-service to the demos, especially if they are poor. Popular movements, such as Lula’s PT, morph over time into vassals of a less democratic and accountable power – capital.

As the 2013 protests and opposition to the World Cup and Olympics illustrate – and what footballers like Neymar and Hulk have alluded to – is that the public’s wishes and concerns are ignored. What is popular isn’t politics, i.e. unless the pressure for change is constant, it will always be diluted, diverted or curtailed. It’s nice having an election every four or five years, but if the result merely enshrines stasis it rather defeats the object.

Curiously, given their respective political trajectories, both Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, have been harder on organisations like the landless peasant movement than their right-wing predecessors. Lula didn’t meet the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) until 2005. He effectively bypassed it and now it is somewhat sullied by its previous association with the PT and Central Uniao de Trabalhadores or United Workers’ Federation (CUT).

At its height the CUT, which Lula formed in 1983, had a membership of 30% of the working population. This has since fallen to 17%. The PT, now aligned with corrupt politicians like Fernando Afonso Collor de Mello (impeached in 1990) and José Sarney (supporter of military coup in 1964), is not beyond accusations of corruption itself. Indeed, real estate developers and the construction unions are the big contributors to the PT and members of the party – among them, José Dirceu (head of Cabinet), Delubio Soares (Treasurer) and Antonio Palocci, finance minister – have had to leave office for accepting bribes, vote buying and involvement in prostitution.

Faster, Higher, Stronger, Richer

Zirin’s critique is ruthless. He doesn’t spare footballing icons such as Pele, Ronaldo and Bebeto and he is particularly scathing about the corrupt and avaricious sports potentates such as Avery Brundage (ex-IOC, dec’d), Juan Antonio Samaranch (ex-IOC, dec’d), João Havelange (ex-FIFA), the “reptilian” Sepp Blatter (current president of FIFA) and Ricardo Teixeira (ex-president, Confederação Brasileira de Futebol – CBF). It’s a rich assortment of those who believe or believed that sport is above (certain) politics and shouldn’t concern itself with such niceties as equality, probity and integrity.


This excellent collection of essays also takes a potted but highly informative look at the history of slavery in Brazil and its legacy; the peculiarities of Brazil’s change from Portuguese colony to independent state ruled by an exiled Portuguese King; the British Empire’s one-sided trade arrangements with Brazil; a superb chapter on Socrates, the captain of perhaps the greatest team never to win the World Cup; the dictatorship and second-coming of Getulio Vargas as “father of the poor” and the man who sold an area of land nearly the size of New England to US businesses for just US$0.07 an acre; the rise of Lula and the Workers Party (PT) and environmentalist Chico Mendez’s realisation that the battle was less about trees than the future of humanity.

With little over a month to go to the World Cup, spare a thought for 90% of Brazil’s professional footballers – those not exported to Europe – who earn around US$90 a month.

Brazil’s Dance With The Devil is available from Amazon

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