The Politics of Violence and Brazil’s World Cup (Anthropoliteia)

JUNE 30, 2014


The editors of Anthropoliteia welcome Sean T. Mitchell with the latest entry in our forum Security in Brazil: World Cup 2014 and Beyond.

A June 19, 2014 São Paulo protest called by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) to protest transport fares and conditions, but mischaracterized internationally as an “Antigovernment” and “World Cup” protest. The banner in front reads, “There will be no fare.” Photo. Oliver Kornblihtt/ Midia NINJA

On Failure, Violence, and the World Cup

Not unlike the 2010 hoopla anticipating that year’s South Africa World Cup, the breathless expectation of failure and security breakdown that characterized much international coverage of the lead up to Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, now, midway through the month-long event, seems to have been illfounded.

When reporting wasn’t merely what Meg Stalcup characterized on this forum as fluff—which much of it was—pre World Cup coverage in the global north press was overheated and macabre.  Why?

The last year has seen the emergence of large scale Brazilian protest movements of clear importance, and the World Cup has been a target of their criticism.  But the macabre emphasis on violence and failure has obscured much more than it has illuminated about these movements, and about the real violence and social conflicts in contemporary Brazil.

To understand why so much coverage has taken this lurid form, it helps to look at historical representations of peace and violence in Brazil, as well as contemporary politics in Brazil and abroad.

First, consider this: in the run up to Brazil’s World Cup, The New York Times described the “highly modernistic improvement” in stadium security technology designed for the “highly excitable public” and the “huge crowds possible in this soccer-mad country.”  The same year, The Washington Post lamented that “Brazil has for several years been miring deeper into a real crisis characterized by inflation” and a “breakdown” in “national equipment.” The paper warned of a country that had “outgrown its transportation system and power resources,” of “impoverished hordes” in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and that “the cost of living, already high, is going higher each day.” There was mention of elites hoping that a president, “swept into power by the underprivileged,” could “maintain a reasonable restraint on the masses.” Without such control the country might suffer “violent swings to the left, then to the right,” producing “chaos” that might prevent the country from setting “its economic house in order.”

Despite clear similarities with recent Anglophone reporting on Brazil, these articles were not from Brazil’s World Cup year of 2014, but from 1950, when Brazil also hosted the event.  The “highly modernistic improvement” to Rio’s Maracanã stadium was a moat, designed to protect players from spectators—somewhat lower tech than the “Robocops” of today’s sensational headlines.

The list of economic and political woes in The Washington Postarticle fits neatly with recent coverage of Brazil in the Anglophone press.  But the president in question was the newly-elected former dictator, Getúlio Vargas, not today’s soon-up-for-reelection former revolutionary, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil’s PT (Worker’s Party).  Like Dilma, Getúlio inherited a political program vastly popular with Brazil’s poor, but faced discontent, political turmoil, and the imperative to assuage fears of socialism among elites in Brazil and abroad.

When I went looking for 1950 reports about Brazil in the US press, the pickings were few, a dramatic contrast to the live video feeds, social media posts, and news reports of all kinds we are assaulted with today.

I will be in New York until I fly to Brazil on the night of the World Cup final.  I’ll send in a few posts in this series on the aftermath of the Cup and on the (very different) topic of the book I’m currently finishing over the next few months, so I draw heavily here on those media.  But, mindful of Jonathan Franzen’s warning that “free and universally accessible” information devalues many kinds of research (If you’re reading this, you can Google this stuff yourself), I will do my best to put some of the reporting we have been getting in a broader interpretive context.

The key point as I see it is this: in conversations in New York, I have been struck by the much greater continued focus on violence and failure than in (virtual) conversations with people in Brazil.  The other night I had a discussion with a group of well-meaning New Yorkers wrongly convinced that massive battles between protestors and police are ongoing outside most of the stadiums.  A few days earlier, I tried in vain to argue against the likelihood of stadium collapse with a man who thought such a disastrous event likely.

My colleagues on this forum have done an excellent job analyzing the real conflicts surrounding Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and repression of dissent around the stadiums has been draconian.  This post should not be misunderstood as undermining the importance of these conflicts and that violence.  As Ben Penglase has shown in this forum, the characterization of young dark-skinned men in Rio’s favelas as potential criminals serves to legitimate highly militarized policing of those spaces.  Similarly, the lurid, often unrealistic, focus on Brazilian violence that I continue to encounter in conversations in the US (and in a style of reporting best described as violence porn), does not so much illuminate the conflicts in Brazilian society as it  helps to legitimate the repression of dissent.

So why, prior to the World Cup, did violence and failure become such central tropes in foreign representations of Brazil, even though some Brazilian sources could have offered a useful counter-perspective?

The Myths of a Peaceful and a Violent Nation

To begin to answer this question, I’ll note that there has been a deep shift in the ideas about peace and violence that have circulated about Brazil over the last half century or so.I did my best in the introduction to emphasize the many similarities between reporting in 1950 and 2014; now I’ll emphasize the equally significant differences.

The 1950 New York Times article about the moat didn’t do a lot to stir up fear, and, unlike contemporary reports, mentioned no dangers greater than rowdy sports fans.

The 1950 Washington Post article (published after that year’s World Cup) clearly referenced many of the fears of a Washington Postreadership worried about “socialism” in Latin America after the election of a populist Brazilian president, similar to fears voiced in the international press during the early years of Brazil’s PT governance (2003 – the present).  And the thrust of the Post article, awkwardly entitled, “Brazil’s ‘Socialism’ Probably Will Be a Relative Thing,” was to console Cold War-era readers that the president elect “wants foreign capital to help on the long-term national improvements that must be made.”

It is here that clear differences with the present emerge.  The Postrelied on a cultural analysis to come to its mollifying conclusion.  In a polar inversion of recently dominant representations of Brazil as an especially violent country, the article described a Brazilian national inclination to peacefulness. “The ‘adaptability’ of Brazilians helps them solve their problems with far less violence and stress than most peoples,” the article soothed.

This conception of Brazil as a uniquely peaceful country is one with a long history, although, at least in elite circles, it has mostly fallen into eclipse.  Some of the main tropes of the myth are that Brazil achieved independence from Portugal without the bloodshed that characterized independence throughout the Americas; the country abolished slavery without a war (abolition came to Brazil after all other countries in the hemisphere, in 1888); the Brazilian military has not engaged in military action against foreigners in South America since the brutal Paraguayan War (1864-1870).

Contemporary English language readers may be most familiar with a closely-related myth generally called, “the myth of racial democracy,” the idea that Brazil has long had uniquely friendly and peaceful race relations.  But if casual readers are familiar with this myth, it is likely because they have seen or heard it critiqued.  Like the myth of Brazilian peacefulness, “racial democracy” enjoys some life as a popular ideology. But, in scholarship and middle and highbrow journalism, it is invoked almost exclusively to be debunked.

If I can take the general impressions held by my more interested US undergraduate students as a guide, the idea of Brazil as a violent and racist country, along with hard-edged popular culture such as Baile Funk, and City of God, have now completely surpassed the mid-20th century conceptions of peacefulness, racial democracy, and the soothing Garota de Ipanema, and Carmen Miranda as sources of internationally circulating clichés about Brazil.

The causes of this broader cultural shift are beyond the scope of this essay, though I will write about them in the future. Suffice it to say that the myth of peaceful Brazil is as faulty as the now-dominant polar opposite of violent Brazil.  For a nation without significant external enemies, yet with high levels of urban and police violence and one of the world’s major small arms industries, one could, if so inclined, build a case for either myth.

I’ve written a paper with anthropologists, Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva (currently in peer review), in which we show how representations of Brazil in the global north (especially the United States) frequently swing between utopian and dystopian poles, in part because the nation is just similar enough to the United States to serve as a conveniently blank slate.  The myths of violent and peaceful Brazil follow this general pattern very closely.

The Failure of the World Cup?

Narrowing down on more recent history, why has the Anglophone global north press been so concerned with violence and failure when writing about the World Cup, when they stray beyond “fluff” and simple sports reporting?

First, there is major political unrest in Brazil, and the World Cup is part of this. The deaths, physical displacement, and many other human costs of the preparations for the event, along with the waste and private appropriation of needed public funds have catalyzed public dissent. The mega events of the World Cup and 2016 Olympics are being used to favor real estate interests and the neoliberal restructuring of major cities. Moreover, FIFA acts as rapacious dictator while issuing alarmist warnings about Brazil’s preparation.  All the while, the World Cup has provided the pretext to turn major parts of Brazil’s large cities into effective police states.

But contemporary protests are about more than just the World Cup, as has already been shown in this forum.  Despite this, the political concerns of the protests have been lost in international coverage that emphasizes the World Cup, on the one hand, and unspecified “anti-government” forces, on the other.  For example, the one year anniversary of the massive nationwide June 19, 2013 protests were marked by some violence and by violent police repression, but this much-circulated piece from Reuters featured the words “World Cup” in the headline and multiple uses of “anti-government” before coming to the buried lede of the movement for free bus fares, which sparked those 2013 protests and these protests one year later.  Similarly, this piece in Time about the same protest, featured a photo captioned, “protest against 2014 FIFA World Cup,” and alleged that the protests were “Antigovernment riots” merely “ostensibly calling for free public transit.”

To put this in perspective, on the day put out the third video in their extremely popular “Chaos in Brazil” series (which includes some good journalism, despite the Vice-style lurid headlines and horror movie music), some 50,000 people were protesting in London against austerity. As my friend, the Rio de Janeiro based geographer, Brian Mier (who has done some high quality reporting for Vice himself), put it: “That’s around 50 times larger than any anti-World Cup protest that happened last week. According to the type of analysis in places like CNN about Brazil, this must be a sign that British society is crumbling at the foundations.”

But there’s a much stronger market for stories about Brazilian “society crumbling at the foundations” than there is for such stories about England.  As journalist Lawrence Charles lamented from Brazil, “the only stories editors across the world are interested in fall into the Angry Violent Brazilian Who Might Mess Up The World Cup category.” So macabre and sensational stories are the ones we get.  There’s a post-colonial and geopolitical logic to this: I predict more international hand-wringing about Brazil’s 2016 Olympics and Russia’s 2018 World Cup, but not about the prosperous and NATO-aligned Japan’s 2020 Olympics.

Additionally, in this Brazilian election year, analyses of the event and its consequences are inevitably shaped by partisan politics in Brazil.  As political scientists João Feres Junior and Fábio Kerche have been arguing, the most powerful news sources in Brazil (Folha de São Paulo, O Estado de São Paulo, O Globo, Veja, and Época), are systematically biased against the PT (Worker’s Party) government that has been in charge of Brazil’s executive since 2003, shaping impressions of the nation’s politics domestically and abroad.

I think these scholars are right about this.  Yet, their argument leaves open a significant question.  The major Brazilian media have been positioned against the PT since the party’s founding in 1980. Yet for most of the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil’s PT, and its 2003-2010 President Lula, were beloved by institutions of global north governance and media, despite the party’s enmity with Brazil’s major media organizations.  This global north affection seems to be on the wane under current PT president, Dilma Rousseff, with foreign and Brazilian major media swinging into closer alignment.

In a future post, I will offer some reasons for this shift.  The answer lies in more than the downturn in Brazil’s economy, the differing policies and personalities of these different presidents, and Brazil’s emerging protest movements, I will argue.

For now, I will end with the suggestion that English language readers consider decontextualized accounts of Brazilian violence with some skepticism.  Brazil’s new protest movements are clearly historic, and their police repression is real, but we do them no favors by taking internationally circulating violence porn at face value.

Sean T. Mitchell is assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. His ethnographically-based work focuses on the politics of inequality, particularly in Brazil. His work also touches on science and technology studies; race and ethnicity; war and violence; governance and citizenship; social movements; and the politics of expertise. He is coeditor of “Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency” (Chicago 2010), and is currently completing a manuscript, “Space and Race: The Politics of Inequality at Brazil’s Satellite Launch Center.”