“How cohesive is Brazilian society?” a Canadian radio announcer asked RioRealblog yesterday morning.
Now there’s a good question.
Soccer has always been Brazil’s strongest glue, as noted in this excellent New York Times article about the ongoing unrest nationwide.
Soccer is what Brazilian politicians turn to, when addressing a crowd, a way of saying “We’re all in this together, we share something”. Different from the United States, major Brazilian cities have several soccer teams, each one representing, in a sense, a particular group. In Rio, these are Vasco, the Portuguese team; Fluminense, the choice of the elites, Botafogo, for cool folks, and Flamengo, everyman’s club. When faced with a fan from a competing team, cariocas will make a humorous dig as a way to tone down differences.
Given the centuries-old differences in Brazilian society, people here are experts at defusing tension. Soccer, humor, music, Carnival and the beach all come into play.
In the last decade, economic differences have been lessening. It’s this change which powers the protests: without sufficient education and health you can’t effectively keep on growing an economy, and without that, the young people in the streets won’t have the jobs and lifestyles they want. The economic boom now coming to an end has pointed this up; the bus driver who lost control of his vehicle last April during an argument with a passenger, allowing it to flip off an overpass, wasn’t sufficiently prepared for his job, as is the case with most of his maniacal colleagues.
So now, the most common slogans protesters have been chanting propose to trade the 2014 World Cup for better education and health care. And the protests are the new glue. Almost anywhere in Rio this past week, you could chat with a stranger about the demonstrations and find many points of convergence.
Chanting “Sem violência” isn’t enough
But no one knows how long the protests will last, or for how long the euphoria can paper over some very real differences — evident in both the footage of masked young men wrecking public and private property all over the country (aired nationally and internationally) and video and reports of police who, in Rio, are said to have hunted down protesters in the streets of Lapa (mostly shared on Facebook, but also on the O Globo site) and to have gone overboard in their use of tear gas and pepper spray.
(Who are they? Angry drug traffickers? Simple hoodlums? Testosterone-fueled sons of traditional middle class families, ticked off at having to share their piece of the economic pie with newcomers? In São Paulo, one arrested vandal has apparently turned out to be not only an architecture student (who by rights should be thinking more about building things, than destroying them), but the son of a small bus company owner. “All bandits,” blithely commented a carioca this morning at a local gym, referring to those who trashed a Mercedes-Benz dealership yesterday, in Rio’s West Zone. Reportedly, the rioters were from Cidade de Deus, a pacified favela.)
Clearly, Brazil will have to develop something new to bring and keep the nation together. Ultimately, the solution will be the time-honored strength and dependability of government institutions.
But, when so many of those who now occupy them are corrupt, self-centered and secretive, how can the institutions be changed? It will take, for example, a Congress-approved constitutional amendment to bring district representation to federal, state and municipal government — a necessary condition for political accountability.
Beyond the protests, bridges are needed, as President Dilma Rousseff recognized in her speech last night. The protesters want “more”, she said, and to provide this, she’ll be meeting with governors and mayors to create a pact for better public services, with a focus on urban mobility and education. “Citizenship [sic— maybe she meant the citizenry?], not economic power, is what must be heard in the first place,” she added, saying she’ll also be meeting with protest leaders and others.
Many groups, such as Catalytic Communities, have long been advocating for this; at last, the issue has become central
Civil society can and does also build bridges to more participatory government. In Rio, the local chapter of the Institute of Brazilian Architects (IAB) has at last taken on a policy-making role. According to O Globo newspaper, last week the IAB hosted a meeting among Providência favela residents, architects and government officials that resulted in the decision to allow 16 families slated for removal to remain in their homes. That experience, in turn, has led to the creation of a mixed Housing Committee, composed of IAB members, Providência residents, and representatives from the Rio de Janeiro Architecture and Urban Planning Council and IPPUR, the Regional Urban Research and Planning Institute, among others. The Committee will, according to the newspaper, evaluate other proposed urban interventions.
“The IAB applauds the decision, fruit of a productive dialogue,” IAB president Sérgio Magalhães (who today also published this heartening op-ed piece) told O Globo. “Interventions in favelas must be carefully undertaken, as this is a place where families have built their homes through generations, with a great deal of effort– and any action must consider social and even emotional issues. Good contemporary urban planning practice recommends this.”
And now, the bola, as they say, is with us — and we’re winning over Italy, in the second half, 2-1.