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Dave Zirin, author of “Dancing with The Devil”, on why Brazilian protesters are fighting against the sport they love

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

AP is reporting that the Brazilian police and hundreds of protesters have come clashing with each other just hours before the World Cup.

Joining us today to talk about what’s going on is Dave Zirin. Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of The Edge of Sports Radio. He authored the book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

Thanks for joining us, David.


PERIES: It’s the most popular sport in the world that ordinary people who have a ball and a field can actually play. What’s going on in this sport and in Brazil today?

ZIRIN: Well, Brazil we’re seeing something that’s really without a historical precedent, and that’s people protesting the disruptions that come with the World Cup before the games actually take place. See, everywhere the World Cup goes, particularly in the period since 9/11, is a hypermilitarization of public space, the incredible explosion of debt, and displacement of, usually, the poorest people in the country. Now, this took place in South Africa. I saw it with my own eyes. And there were protests after the fact, when the bill came due, the fall after the World Cup. But in this case we have the people of Brazil in the country that loves soccer like no other actually protesting in advance and raising issues which, frankly, should have been discussed years ago.

PERIES: So, from what I understand, Dave, there is nurses, security guards, bus drivers, everyone striking. What are they striking about?

ZIRIN: Well, I mean, what has–every instance has its own issues. I mean, certainly there are very different issues in terms of the hospital system in Rio, which is very poor, and the education system, which is much better when you get to the high school and collegiate level, but is terrible by all accounts, by all observation, at the elementary school level. So the issues are very different. But what is synthesizing them all is the seeing of just billions of dollars in public funds go into building unnecessary new stadiums for the World Cup, not to mention infrastructure projects which are largely geared to wealthy tourists coming in for the World Cup, as opposed to these pressing concerns of health care, education, and the like. And that is why you hear these slogans where people say, we want FIFA-quality wages, we want FIFA-quality schools–a direct reference to FIFA’s just mind-thudding, metronomic demand, where they keep saying, well, your stadiums aren’t good enough, we want FIFA-quality stadiums.

PERIES: You said these fields are–or, actually, stadiums are not necessary. Why?

ZIRIN: Well, because Brazil has had very successful and very active soccer leagues for almost a century, and they have been using the fields that they have both for the 1950 World Cup, the Pan American Games, the Confederations Cup. I mean, so many soccer tournaments have been played in Brazil, both of the national and international nature, the idea that new stadiums were needed is really something that has more to do with the demands of FIFA and the demands of the real estate industry in Brazil, which is very powerful.

PERIES: And so the stadiums are being built for the rich, really.

ZIRIN: Yeah, and really–and for people who aren’t from Brazil as well. I mean, that’s what’s so galling to people. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950, I mean, it was a place where thousands upon thousands of working-class Brazilians were able to enter and actually view what was happening. This time, not only will they not be able to afford a ticket; there’s going to be hundreds of police officers cordoning off entire zones around the stadium to prevent their entry.

PERIES: So what is really unique about Brazil here is that the PT government, who’s supposed to be a left-wing government, led by Dilma, she is–was considered a /ɡoʊˈrija/. She was a fighter, she was a revolutionary, a, you know, leftist leader that came to power, and people celebrated that. But she seems to be swept up in this neoliberal, you know, sports take on what’s going on. And Brazil in particular has, you know, really had some very good policies of alleviating hunger, and people say that, you know, it has addressed housing and so on with her government and the Lula government. So is the protests that are going on right now legitimate?

ZIRIN: Very legitimate. I mean, let’s take a step back for second. I mean, first of all, it’s been quite a few decades before Dilma was anything resembling what we would describe as a radical or a revolutionary. Those were the days of her youth, and we’re going back almost 40 years to reach for that description of her. Second of all, I mean, she was the very centrist finance minister under Lula during, like, the period where Lula was known as the IMF’s favorite president.

I think you’re absolutely correct, and this should be said as a factual point, that both Lula and Dilma have done a great deal to address extreme poverty and extreme starvation that was taking place in Brazil. But that being said, they funded these programs through the benefit of an explosion in their stock market, an explosion in their trade relationship with China, and the fact that the international markets and currency speculators parked their money in Brazil throughout the 2000s because the United States was mired in spending $1 trillion in Iraq. So their stock market went up almost 600 percent in the 2000s. I mean, just think about that for a second.

And they used–this is why it’s called sometimes neoliberalism with Brazilian characteristics, because the government used a lot of that neoliberal windfall for the purposes of aiding the poor, which is something kind of unusual on the global stage, and they should be commended for that. But that being said, once the economy slowed down–and the economy may be in recession in Brazil right now–what that meant is that all of these programs which people took to be, like, a social safety net, I mean, it just eviscerated overnight, like, not unlike–think about, like, the housing market in the United States in the 2000s, I mean, and think about if that was actually your social safety net, just one day gone. And so for people in Brazil, that’s what’s fueled a lot of the anger, because the World Cup in the Olympics were supposed to be about projecting Brazil on an international stage as a new world power, and instead it becomes this thing that’s actually a symbol of a set of priorities that have left the poorest Brazilians behind.

PERIES: So walk us through that process. Here you had–you know, the world was praising that Brazil actually sustained the 2008 financial crises and managed to come–managed not to be affected by it. Lula was, you know, boasting about it, how it had not affected Brazil. He said, you know, what crises, what, you know, depression at the time. How did Brazil sustain itself through the financial crises? And then what’s happening now in terms of its economy?

ZIRIN: Well, it sustained itself through the financial crisis through three primary ways: one, trade with China; two, a real estate speculative boom, which as we know in the United States is not something you really want to bet the house on (pardon the expression); and the third way was the discovery of oil and the mining of oil offshore–a huge growth in oil drilling [incompr.] to take place Brazil, much to the ire of environmentalists who actually used to be part of the Workers’ Party, a key part of the Workers’ Party Coalition. And environmentalists are pretty much excluded now from the Workers’ Party. So all of these things allowed Brazil to ride through the recession, to the point of which that you had Tim Geithner praising Brazil for leading the United States out of the recession during the first term of the Obama presidency.

But, I mean, this is like old expression goes: markets go up, markets go down. And Brazil is in what can be seen as just an inevitable and not even that drastic market fluctuation. But that market fluctuation, what it’s done is its had a shock effect on all of the social programs that were funded by the boom. So instead of the creation of these kinds of public programs, these programs were underwritten by the influx of tax money and taxing private capital. And once that money dried up, I mean, what you’ve seen is inequality increase in Brazil after inequality had lessened in Brazil over a great period of time.

And with the increase of inequality, that also means more power for the oligarchy in Brazil. And so many of the oligarchs are tied up in the lucrative real estate industry. And they look at the World Cup and the Olympics as an opportunity to seize land from the poorest people in Brazil, the people who live in the favelas and actually developed that land, which has accentuated the displacement issue in Brazil at this time.

PERIES: Dave, thank you so much for joining us. And I also want to remind you and our viewers to please watch The Real News’ Brazil coverage, that we have a reporter and a correspondent on the ground, Jihan Hafiz, who’s been doing some amazing reporting.

So thank you to Dave for joining us today.

ZIRIN: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.