It is perfectly understandable why Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has come out swinging. Given that strikes, land occupations and protests are ripping out across the country in advance of the World Cup; given that, according to a Pew Research Poll, 67 percent of the country is dissatisfied with her handling of the tournament organizing; and given that Dilma faces an election later this year, she is fed up and ready to play the conspiracy card surrounding the turmoil gripping the country. As Agence France Presse reported in an article about the transportation strikes rocking São Paulo, “Rousseff charged Friday that there was a ‘systematic campaign’ against the World Cup and her government ahead of October 5 elections in which she is seeking re-election. A leftist political prisoner during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, she said that even in the darkest days of regime abuses, ‘we did not confuse the World Cup with politics.’”
Where to begin? First and foremost, it is certainly true that every political force in Brazil is attempting to benefit from the anger that has erupted around the country. For example, the transportation strike in São Paulo is being led by a union allied with a center-right opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. It is also true that all the establishment political parties running against Dilma this October want to steer discontent over disastrous World Cup planning toward an electoral mandate against her Workers Party, with rhetoric about “fighting corruption” in government and the unions. They also want people to ignore the fact that they have the backing of many of the big construction firms benefiting from the World Cup stadium boondoggles, infrastructure money-pits, and displacements. On the left, organizations such as the Central Sindical e Popular (CSP) are taking this moment to call for more strikes and occupations and asking why “huge sums” are spent on the football world cup while there is a “lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport.” They point to a recent poll where “55 percent of the Brazilian population believes that the world cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for the working people.”
Yes, every political organization with a pulse is seizing this moment in Brazil, and frankly they should be sued for political malpractice if they aren’t. But the cold truth is that “systematic political campaigns” are not the cause of dissatisfaction in Brazil. The spending, corruption, displacement and militarization surrounding the World Cup does that just fine without any help from anyone “riling people up.” In other words, “outside agitators” is not a charge that is going to stick, not when malnutrition and inequality plague the country, while stadiums are constructed in the middle of the Amazon.
Yet the part of her statement that crosses the line from shameless to craven is when she asserts that during the days of dictatorship, “we did not confuse the World Cup with politics.” This is simply not true. The examples are legion of Brazil’s dictators clutching onto soccer success like a talisman to ward off revolt from below. As I wrote in my book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil,
After Brazil’s victory in the 1970 World Cup, the military dictatorship pulled out all the stops to use the national team to solve what journalist David Goldblatt calls “the problem of securing popular legitimacy.” Addressing the nation, military dictator of the moment Emílio Garrastazu Médici said: “I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development. I identify the success of our [national team] with … intelligence and bravery, perseverance and our technical ability, in physical preparation and moral being. Above all, our players won because they know how to … play for the collective good.”
Médici was so ham-handed in his efforts to ride the popularity of Brazil’s team that many on Brazil’s left rooted for the country’s opponents. Medici repeatedly attempted to use the team as a way to symbolize Brazil’s economic miracle. Even as his government rounded up political dissidents, it also produced a giant poster of Pelé straining to head the ball through the goal, accompanied by the slogan Ninguém mais segura este país—“nobody can stop this country now.”
During the “darkest days of the dictatorship”, when Dilma herself was subject to torture by the regime, the World Cup was the autocracy’s most effective political tool. Perhaps Dilma and the Workers Party are just angered that the World Cup is still a political tool, but in 2014, it is not their tool alone. It’s being used as an implement against neoliberalism, state power and against the imperatives of the oligarchy. Once again, it is perfectly understandable why Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has come out swinging. Unfortunately, in taking on the masses of Brazil armed with nothing but historical revisionism, she is fighting blind.