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Cheering for Argentina

Cheering for Argentina

Posted by Juan Gavasa on June 05, 2014

With a university degree and a flat in a smart neighbourhood of São Paulo, Ernesto Filho, a 33-year-old choreographer and dancer, is not your average Brazilian. He is, however, typical of the 1m people who took to the streets 12 months ago, in the greatest social unrest Brazil has seen in two decades.

The protests began on June 6th last year, with a small rally against a rise in São Paulo bus fares of 20 centavos (at the time, nine American cents). Over two weeks they morphed into a nationwide outpouring of dismay at shoddy public services, corruption, the cost of living, ineffectual government and much else. Since then politicians and pundits have been analysing the events, which unfolded as Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament for the football World Cup that begins on June 12th—and trying to work out whether they should brace for a replay.

For now the betting is against another round of mass demonstrations. Among paulistanos support for them has dropped from 89% at the end of June 2013 to just 52% now, according to Datafolha, a pollster. That shift reflects the changing profile of the protesters, says Christopher Garman of Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis firm.

Research has found that an overwhelming majority of those who took part in the first big protests were, like Mr Filho, under 35, university-educated or students, and protest novices rather than hardened activists. Most had little sympathy for established political parties. They were also better off than average. Normally a quiet bunch, this middle class rose up at first in response to brutal repression of the bus-fare crowd by ill-trained police. Images of journalists wounded by rubber bullets and innocent bystanders choked by tear gas prompted Brazil’s conservative press, which had called for a crackdown on public disorder, to perform an about-turn.

The authorities’ reaction, Mr Garman explains, inadvertently helped to reshape the protests. Policemen were told to restrain themselves; seeing their popularity plummet, mayors around the country rushed to reverse bus-fare rises. This galvanised organised social movements with traditional agendas and, often, links to political parties, to occupy the space left open by the retreating riot police. Violent elements such as “Black Blocs”, an anarchist group, moved in as well.

The fire last time

In the year since, the protests have become more overtly political, and more extreme—putting off moderates such as Mr Filho who had at first bulked them out. Again, the authorities have been partly responsible. After the initial panic, little changed. Talk of a constituent assembly, for example—an idea floated by President Dilma Rousseff in response to calls for political reform—came to nothing.

That convinced Black Blocs of the futility of peaceful protest, says Esther Solano of the Federal University of São Paulo. In February a cameraman covering a protest in Rio de Janeiro died after being struck by a firework set off by two of the group’s members. Violence and the presence of 100,000 policemen and 57,000 soldiers enlisted to keep the peace during the football championship are likely to deter many middle-class protesters.

None of which means the tournament will be entirely protest-free. On May 27th 2,500 indigenous and other militants confronted the police in Brasília, the capital. A few days earlier, in São Paulo, at least 15,000 homeless people blocked one of the city’s main thoroughfares at rush hour, clogging already congested streets in the biggest single protest since last June. Guilherme Boulos, a leader of the protesters, says he was encouraged by last year’s bus-fare reversals; his main demand now is for City Hall formally to hand over property that the protesters are occupying illegally. A huge rally to commemorate the bus-fare triumph is planned for June 19th, this time to agitate for a bigger prize: universal free public transport.

These demands are either too narrow or too radical to impress most Brazilians, who are consequently less willing to tolerate the considerable inconvenience caused by those who make them. At the same time, politicians are less likely to bow to activists’ whims if these are not backed by an outraged citizenry.

Bruno Torturra of Mídia Ninja, an activist news outlet, thinks the scale of World Cup protests will depend on how well the event is run, as well as on the performance of Brazil’s team on the pitch. Support for the tournament has already plummeted from 79% in 2007 to 48%. Should the national team be eliminated early, Mr Torturra reckons, more Brazilians are bound to question the extravagant expense, which the government puts at 25.8 billion reais ($11.5 billion), spending that has not yielded the promised public infrastructure. “Social movements are quietly cheering for Brazil to lose,” remarks one activist, “even to arch-rival Argentina.”

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