Contrasting Brazilian and Argentine World Cup Reactions May Be Rooted in Police Tactics

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Written by Mary Utermohlen, Editorial Intern
After World Cup euphoria ended, Brazil and Argentina slowly returned to their struggling labor issues with different responses, each with varying results.

In the months preceding the World Cup, Brazil saw the largest and most frequent protests that it has experienced in a century or more. After Brazil’s 7-1 defeat by the Germans, many watchers expected a renewed show of defiance by soccer-obsessed Brazilians angered by their team’s utter failure to deliver after so much was spent in preparing for the games. In the weeks after Brazil’s loss to Germany and another embarrassing game against the Netherlands, the country remains relatively silent. Riots have been virtually nonexistent; protests have been limited. What happened to all the anger and frustration that was so clear before the tournament? Should the team’s disappointing performance not add to that frustration?

According to some Brazilians, people are afraid to return to the streets. The Brazilian government has increasingly turned towards intelligence operations to infiltrate and pre-empt protest movements. Throughout the games, police detained dozens of people “with a history of committing vandalism during protests” in an attempt to stop any riots in the planning stages.

Furthermore, police and rioters themselves have become increasingly violent. Protestor Amarildo de Souza was tortured and killed by police last year as a part of a ‘pacification’ program to clean up Rio’s streets before the Cup; a TV cameraman was killed when a protester’s flare exploded close to his head.

The only protest that managed to proceed on the day of the final match consisted of about three hundred protestors that attempted to walk towards the stadium from a mile away. The protestors demonstrated against police repression and Brazil’s weak health care system. Several hundred police officers quickly dispersed the crowd using tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. At least six people were injured, including a photojournalist and a police officer. One of the protestors, Erin Morais de Melo, said, “The Cup is ending but the problems remain. The central issue is the need to improve public services, our weak education system, health care, and security.”

Another Brazilian, Gilson Bruna da Silva, even pointed towards Brazil’s losses as a good thing, given the state of the country; “I’m a lot happier now than I would be if Brazil had actually won. This was the best possible outcome because otherwise we would have forgotten all about the problems plaguing the country right now.”

Clearly, Brazilians have not forgotten. However, it appears that the government’s crackdown on protest movements and large police presence has been effective in stopping riots in their tracks. Rebecca Tanuta, a student who helped to provide medical assistance to injured protestors, said, “The protests haven’t been that big because treatment of protestors by police, and how they are covered in the media, is very negative. People are afraid to go out onto the streets, or they think protestors are just hoodlums.”

By contrast, Argentina experienced large riots after losing by only one point in the final. What began as a large celebration of Argentina’s impressive performance around the Obelisk in Buenos Aires became a riot after drunk young people—a large portion of whom were wearing masks—climbed onto a TV news van and ripped off its antenna. By the end of the night, violence had broken out in a number of other regions in the capital and in La Plata.

Although Argentina is saddled with its own problems, it certainly has not experienced protests on par with Brazil in the past few months. It appears that Argentinian police simply were not expecting or prepared for rioting after the final, certainly not to the extent that Brazilian police have been for the entirety of the Cup.

With this in mind, it seems likely that Brazil would have experienced riots as well had their security forces been less prepared. As the situation played out, most Brazilians chose to express their embarrassment through humor, rather than through drunken rioting.

Still, as the 2014 World Cup increasingly becomes only a memory, Brazilians will be closely watching their government, particularly with the presidential election only months away. The Homeless Worker’s Movement, or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto (MTST), is an example of a portion of the population that remains quiet in anticipation of better opportunities in the future. The group represents an encampment of nearly four thousand families, a large percentage of whom were forced out of their homes after drastic rent increases in Sao Paulo during the preparation for the World Cup. The encampment lies only a few kilometers away from the Arena Corinthians, a stadium built for the World Cup. MTST was responsible for organizing a number of large protests, particularly in the week leading up to the opening match. Amidst concern that protests would remain for the duration of the tournament, the government managed to strike a deal with MTST after promising to build low-income housing on the land of the encampment.

Since the agreement, MTST has refrained from organizing any protests; however, thousands of families are still living under tarps, within the shadows of a multi-million dollar stadium, without access to running water or electricity. If the government fails to follow up on its promises, MTST cannot be expected to maintain its current silence. The protests will begin again.

Photo: Clément Jacquard (cc).