The traumas and dramas of post-Cup, pre-Olympic Brazil

by Christopher Gaffney on August 25, 2014

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A decade of mega-events is unrecognizably transforming Brazil’s urban landscape, with the poor excluded and the benefits reaped unequivocally by the rich. 

Image by Edimar Soares for O Povo, taken during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Fortaleza.

Tied to a period of economic growth and political stability, Brazil has aggressively pursued a series of mega-events from the Pan-American Games in 2007 to the 2016 Rio Olympics. These events are used by the Brazilian national and local governments to showcase their economic prosperity and to promote the country as one that is on equal footing with global powers. However, with the comings and goings of the international sporting caravans, each requiring billions in public financing, the question remains: where is the benefit for the ordinary Brazilian that stays behind after the parade has moved on?’

For nearly a decade, major international sporting and cultural events have descended upon Rio de Janeiro. Starting with the 2007 Pan American Games, followed by the World Military Games, Rio+20, the Confederation’s Cup and World Youth Day in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively, this year’s FIFA World Cup and, to conclude a decade of mega events, the 2016 Olympic Games will be held in Rio too. To this list we can add Revellion (New Year’s) and Carnaval, both happenings drawing many hundreds of thousands of people.

Each one of these events is financed in full or in part with public money. Some of them leave behind infrastructure that is specific to the event and each comes with its particular demands and challenges. The events that have the most impact upon the city are undoubtedly this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

With a combined budget of an estimated US$40 billion, both events have been met with strong resistance as well as loud boosterism. Rather than having a clear, drawn-out plan as to how the hosting of these international sporting events would benefit Brazilians in the future, this question has been met with a careless “let’s wait and see” response. However, based upon experiences in the recent past, one prediction has proven true every single time: it will be the rich who benefit most, and the poor who will pay the highest price.

Human Rights for Sale

The legacy of the World Cup will vary depending on one’s position within Brazil’s socio-economic hierarchy. Wealthy Brazilians will look back on this decade of mega-events in an entirely different way than the average citizen, and thus the “legacy”, whether positive or negative, can only be framed in a wide array of class-specific analyses.

One of the defining elements of class distinction in Brazil is dependence on the state. The choice of the rich will always be for private health care, education, security and transportation. In neoliberal governance frameworks around the globe, the state is considered the provider of last resort. As education, transportation, environmental remediation and health care budgets are slashed and the private sector is favored, citizens are forced to look to the market for the provision of basic human rights.

One is entitled to clean water, good education, health care, mobility, leisure, and security to the degree to which one can purchase those “rights”. The World Cup has consolidated this tendency in Brazil and some of the most globally visible elements of this trajectory were the FIFA-standard stadiums, most of which have passed into private hands.

For wealthy Brazilians, the tournament will have very much been “worth it” (an economic calculus which we should also try to avoid) as they were able to see World Cup games in brand new stadiums that were constructed explicitly for their benefit. The upper classes in Brazil typically see the privatization of state-owned infrastructure as a step towards more efficiency and better service. These are, of course, the very same people who do not depend on the state for the provision of basic services. In post-World Cup Brazil, the Brazilian upper-middle and upper class will revel in their transfiguration from fans into clients.

The middle and lower-middle classes will likely feel that the World Cup was a wasted opportunity to materially improve their lives. Brazilian transportation, education, sewage, health and security infrastructure is notoriously poor and the World Cup has not been used as an opportunity to restructure cities in progressive and forward-thinking ways.

The vast majority of infrastructure projects associated with the World Cup did not pass through any kind of public contracting or permitting processes but were pulled out of the drawers of the civil construction firms that dictate public policy. Thus, the hasty insertion of major infrastructure into cities to attend to the short-term demands of the event and the medium-term interests of real estate speculators has wasted a golden opportunity to make use of unique political alliances and easy credit. As a result, billions of reais have flowed into the coffers of civil construction firms and bus companies under the guise of legacy projects.

The privatization of public transportation eliminates the public sector from taking responsibility for the expansion of mobility networks or the quality of service. On the contrary, the only guarantees in the contracts are for the profits of the private companies that run the transportation system. Many of the protests of 2013 and 2014 were focused around the disastrous state of mobility in Brazilian cities. The World Cup will have done very little to improve this situation.

In Brazil, the notoriously poor conditions of state-run infrastructure have facilitated the association of the word “public” with “belonging to nobody.” This is one of the reasons why Brazilians who can afford to escape public services do so at the first opportunity, and it is but one of the ways that middle class Brazilians can distinguished from the lower classes. More evidence that World Cup spending was targeted towards the elite were the contrasting investments in airports versus passenger rail service. The former received more than R$5.6 billion, while there was not a single real invested in intercity rail transportation.

Sacrificed for the Greater Good

The lower classes have been left both better and worse off with the World Cup. As within all levels of Brazil’s socio-economic scale, the diversity of social positions within favela communities and in lower-class, formalized neighborhoods makes it very difficult to generalize winners and losers.

However, in the realm of sports, one thing is certain: there will be a generation of poor children in Brazil that will never get to see a professional football match in any of the iconic Maracanã, Minerão, Castelão stadiums, or on any of the traditional football grounds of Brazil that have been reconstructed for the World Cup. Ticket prices for Brazilian football matches have increased 300% in ten years and are the most expensive in the world relative to minimum wage. The people’s game has been taken from them.

In the favelas themselves, and in particular in Rio de Janeiro, the arrival of the mega-events and the pacification process has radically altered political, social and economic dynamics. Most Brazilian cities have seen a sharp rise in real-estate values since 2009, when FIFA announced Brazil as World Cup host. This rise has been particularly acute in the “pacified” favelas of Rio de Janeiro: rents have increased by as much as 400% in some places.

While the majority of favela residents own their properties — even if they do not have legal title — they will not have benefited from a rise in rents. The only way they can benefit from the urban transformation projects is through increased access to manual labor in the civil construction sector. This extra money has generated a construction boom of sorts in the favelas as families are able to build extra square footage, which in turn increases the value of their property.

In the larger economy of a given favela, this additional constructed value benefits landlords and hurts small residential and commercial renters. That is, those who were in a position to benefit from price increases and entrepreneurial activity before the World Cup (and Olympics) will be those who benefit during and after.

The tens of thousands of families that were removed from their homes for World Cup-related infrastructure projects are the biggest losers of the month-long tournament. Hastily conceived and executed road building projects are to blame for the majority of these removals. In a country in which the poor have limited access to institutional democracy, those in the way of “order and progress” are simply considered collateral damage, sacrificed for the greater good.

Every World Cup host city, except Brasília and Manaus, expelled residents from their homes to execute publicly financed road projects that were managed by extra-legal authorities whose projects were largely exempt from environmental impact studies and due diligence in contracting. The state of exception that dominated the preparation for and realization of the World Cup radically impinged upon the constitutionally guaranteed right to housing. The stories are as innumerable and tragic as the human rights violations are grotesque.

Securitization, Evacuation and Fetishization

The differences in urban legacy predicated on class position also apply to the realm of public security and human rights. Brazil mobilized more than 150,000 armed police and army personnel and more than 50,000 private security guards for the World Cup. This means more jackboots and guns on the streets, in stores, around stadiums and in public spaces. It also means more data collection, less transparency and more aggression.

Before the World Cup final, dozens of activists were arrested as a preventative measure, and more than 25,000 armed security personnel were on high alert in Rio de Janeiro. Throughout the tournament, the police were under clear instructions to use maximum force against protesters. This security apparatus is intended to be part of the spectacle itself, but it acts very differently upon different populations. As ever, the presence of the state in the form of armed military police has its most devastating effects on young, black men.

The governor of Rio de Janeiro state called in the Brazilian army to “pacify” the Maré favela complex on the eve of the World Cup. The expanding pacification program in Rio de Janeiro is a hugely controversial and woefully partial measure to secure the city, its infrastructure, and its image for mega-events. The rapid up-scaling of military force in Brazilian cities brings to mind the military dictatorship. Journalists are beaten while covering protests; civil rights are suspended for the extraordinary conditions of the event.

The problem is compounded by the fact that cities are being managed so as to have an extraordinary event every year, every month, every week. The preparatory period for these events is filled with a sense of urgency, and the events themselves carried of within political regimes of exception. The positive results are always in the future, a “legacy” that will be forthcoming if we are only patient and gullible enough to wait for the delivery of a more just city, a better society.

The security apparatus is designed to protect the event, its infrastructure, its sponsors, dignitaries and the fans and tourists who are able to afford the party. When we see the white elites of Brazil posing in front of tanks and robocops on their way into the shopping mall-esque stadiums, we witness the fetishization of weapons of mass destruction. The right to consume is guaranteed by the state. Human rights are guaranteed by your ability to consume. The exercise of democratic rights, to protest, to freely circulate, to assemble — the right to the city — are curtailed by those same forces. The two-kilometer “zone of exclusion” that radiates out from FIFA stadiums is not offset by a “zone of inclusion” anywhere else.

Physical, Economic and Political Restructuring

In Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of Brazil’s global mega-event production, the alignment of city, state and federal political forces stimulated investment and created a hegemonic discourse of legacy, urban development and valorization. As we approach an election cycle, this alignment is fraying somewhat, but the funding for the projects has been guaranteed so power and wealth can accumulate.

The extraordinary situation of preparing the city for a decade of mega-events has ushered in a state of exception that suspends ordinary paradigms of urban planning, security, construction and circulation. The privatization and militarization of public space, rampant real-estate speculation, exemptions to environmental regulations and zoning laws, illegal land grabs and rule by mayoral decree have defined the trajectory of the city since construction for the 2007 Pan American Games began in 2005. The 2016 Olympics will be the apogee of exceptional urban governance that will define the shape and texture of the city for the next generations.

Each of these events has brought increasing stakes for civil society. Having used each one of the previous events as a testing ground, the 2016 Olympics are being used as an excuse for the physical, economic and political restructuring of the city. Physically, major transportation lines are being directed to the residential suburb of Barra da Tijuca. Barra is the main site of the Olympics and is a closed-condominium, car-dependent landscape where the upper-middle classes have taken “refuge” from the expense and chaos of the traditional residential redoubts of Rio’s Zona Sul. The city government has called the Barra da Tijuca region a “natural zone of expansion”, but by design it is one of spatial fragmentation and social exclusion.

Economically, the Olympics are continuing with long-established traditions of public subsidy for private profit. The best example of this is the Olympic Village. Two of Brazil’s biggest civil construction firms, Andrade Gutierrez and OAS, formed a consortium to build closed-condominium residences for the 15,000 athletes who will compete in 2016. To do so they took a R$2.33 billion loan from Brazil’s Caixa Economica, a state bank.

After the Olympics, the consortium will be able to sell the apartments on the open market and use the profits to repay the loan. They will have risked no money of their own to build the Olympic Village yet will profit immensely from the real-estate deal. This scenario repeats itself endlessly across the Olympic landscape of Rio de Janeiro.

Politically, all of this makes very good sense for Rio’s elites. The current mayor comes from Barra da Tijuca and has civil construction and real-estate firms as his biggest campaign financiers. The tight and opaque relationships between big business and big government turn the Olympics into an excellent opportunity to make money and to consolidate political alliances. The lack of transparency in planning, bidding, financing and accounting for the Olympic projects makes it difficult to follow the money, but the general trend in all mega-event hosts is a consolidation of power and wealth at the top. In a city as unjust and unequal as Rio de Janeiro this is especially troubling.

The post-event utility of the mega-event projects is obviously questionable and may serve to distract from bigger debates of urban restructuring. The privatization of the Maracanã stadium is a tragedy for public life and culture and is indicative of the larger tendencies in the city.

The nearly complete absence of benefit from the 2007 Pan American Games appears to have been entirely forgotten. There is no facility remaining from that event that can be used without major upgrades. The Olympic Stadium was closed in 2013 for fear of a roof collapse; the velodrome was destroyed and a new facility must be built; and the swimming facility does not meet IOC requirements. The Maracanã underwent a R$330 million reform between 2005-’07, yet suffered a R$1.2 billion renovation for the World Cup and will likely need more public money for the Olympics.

Worryingly, the same people in charge of the Pan-American Games are heading up Rio 2016 — but now they are dealing with bigger projects, working under more pressure and with less time. How, then, can the result be any different?

Christopher Gaffney is an academic geographer who has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2009. His research explores the wide-ranging impacts of sporting mega-events on cities. He is editor of the Journal of Latin American Geography and will be joining the Geography Department at the University of Zurich as a Senior Research associate in January 2015.

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