Middle-Class Brazilians Are in No Mood to Party
The cost of the World Cup isn't why they're upset; 6% inflation and a weak economy is.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY - June 15, 2014.
When Brazil was awarded the right to host the 2014 World Cup almost seven years ago, the nation's soccer fanatics were elated. But none more so than Brazil's political class, which understood that the tournament would mean a rash of federal spending all over the country.
Yet hosting the World Cup isn't turning out to be a winner for President Dilma Rousseff, who took office in 2010 and is up for re-election in October. Polls now indicate she may fail to garner the 50% plus one that she will need to avoid a runoff—and a victory in a second round is far from certain. Why this is so is worth parsing.
In 2007 then-president Lula da Silva —also of the Workers' Party—was at the headquarters of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, in Zurich when the hosting decision was announced. He seized the moment like any good populist: "Soccer is not only a sport for us. It's more than that: Soccer for us is a passion, a national passion." He then promised that Brazil would do its "homework" to make the country ready.
Brazil spent some 25.8 billion reais ($11.3 billion) to deliver on Lula's pledge and despite countless cost overruns and delays, the 12 stadiums are ready. On Thursday in São Paulo, third-ranked Brazil opened the tournament with a 3-1 victory against 13th-ranked Croatia.
Brazil is hoping to erase the painful memory of a final-match loss to Uruguay in 1950, the last time the country hosted the World Cup. If the home team wins it all this year, there will be a party like never before.
Yet for almost a year many middle-class Brazilians have been complaining bitterly about the government's decision to host the tournament. In a recent Pew Research Center survey 61% of respondents disapproved, which seems contrary to the feverish love Brazilians have for soccer. As it turns out, this sour attitude has little to do with the World Cup.
The headline news has focused on public protests against the lavish stadiums. Yet keen observers will note that antigovernment street demonstrations which began big and largely peaceful have since dwindled in size while becoming more disruptive and dangerous. That's because the middle class, which rejects the violence, has learned that it has little control over where extremists take things. The killing of a photojournalist during a protest in Rio de Janeiro in February may have been the last straw.
The small hard left remains on the streets, clashing with police. All along it has been behind the roadblocks and property damage that the uninitiated mistakenly interpreted as a popular cry for a violent uprising. These organizers and instigators know that Brazil's politicians will go a long way to avoid using force. They also know that the World Cup provides an international showcase for their collectivist grievances, which are bound to find sympathy in the salons of Paris and New York.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (C) reacts during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group A preliminary round match between Brazil and Croatia at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 12 June 2014. European Pressphoto Agency
That's why they have bused homeless people—and Brazilians in indigenous dress holding bows and arrows—to the stadiums. The government has deployed riot police and used tear gas in some places to keep the peace. In a country where it is not hard to find someone to pay you to show up to a protest and someone else to pay you to go away, mobilizing a menacing group can be a good business.
Public-sector unions aren't about to be left out of the fun. Subway workers demanding higher wages in São Paulo went on strike last week. The union called off the strike the day before the opening match but said it makes no promises about the rest of the month. The ground staff at Rio de Janeiro airports went on a partial strike opening day.
Ms. Rousseff can handle unions and mob organizers—they only want money. As to re-election, she will count on party patronage, her cronies in business, and the large constituencies her government has built by expanding entitlements.
Outside of her control, though, is the rising middle class. It has put down its placards and left the streets but its discontent remains palpable. Brazil, as one resident put it to me, "is not in a party mood."
The stadium spending is the least of it. The real problem is that Lula and Dilma promised a dynamic new Brazil flush with opportunity, and Brazilians dared to dream. Now 12 years after Lula took office, jobs are hard to come by and inflation at more than 6% devours purchasing power. In April real gross domestic product contracted 2.3% year over year. Regulation and taxes crush entrepreneurs while the government finances Cuba. The only reliable daily news out of Brasilia is the corruption scandals, and the only people getting rich seem to be party hacks and their business partners.
Brazilians know that something is wrong that soccer games will not fix. Their gripe is not with the World Cup. It's with Dilma.