The issue: What do we really know about Brazil?

Brazilian carnival,  caipirinhas ,  favelas and Brazilian wax. But what else do we know about the country where ‘our boys’ will be playing football this summer? And why have the Brazilians not yet been struck by football fever? We asked Lee Pegler, an expert on Brazil.

Text: Thessa Lageman

Brazil is organising the 2014 World Cup this summer and will organise the Olympic Games in two years’ time. Can the country handle this? The World Cup is about to begin and a number of the football stadiums have yet to be completed.
‘Countries simply want to host major events. But it’s true that it’s more than they can handle. I’m actually more concerned about the Olympic Games than about the World Cup since they will be held in one city only: Rio de Janeiro, whereas the World Cup will be spread over twelve different cities. When a large number of activities are concentrated in one place, all kinds of things can go wrong.’


Why do they build these stadiums at the very last minute? The Minister of Sports said: ‘Brazil is like a bride who is late for her wedding, yet the wedding will go ahead all the same’.
‘Almost everything is done at the last minute in Brazil. I also experienced this while I was working there. But at the end of the day it all comes together. The delays can also be attributed to the fact that Brazil’s infrastructure is still rather backward. Its roads and harbours are of poor quality. The port of Rotterdam is therefore advising Brazil, amongst other things, on the construction of new harbours.’


Does corruption play a role? 
‘Probably, although it’s difficult to say to what extent. Brazil has traditionally been dominated by powerful families who own companies and large plots of land, and who have a great deal of political clout. Because this structure has been around for so long, it’s very difficult to change. The lack of a clear government programme is a result of this. These strongly clashing interests have a negative effect on policy development and implementation.’


Is there still much poverty in Brazil? 
‘Brazil has recently grown in self-confidence: we are one of the BRIC countries (the developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China; ed); our country is doing well. However, our economy is lagging behind those of the other BRIC countries. Brazil achieved an economic growth of 8 percent in 2010, but this has since dropped to a mere 2-3 percent. Although there is more extreme poverty in India, that country’s middle class is larger than that of Brazil. The contrasts are enormous, especially between the industrialised South, where the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are located, and the North, which is by and large much poorer. The rich are getting increasingly richer. However, there are also enormous differences within the cities themselves; for example, the well-off live right next to the poor in Rio de Janeiro.’


Have they managed to clear and clean up the slums for the WC?
‘Over the past few years, vast districts have been developed throughout the country to house the  favela dwellers – the Brazilian equivalent of Vinex (new housing) districts. However, there are still many slums. And there’s often insufficient new housing. And some of these districts are located too far from where people work. Some slum dwellers do not want to move out of their old neighbourhood at all. Others do, because the new houses are an improvement (e.g. better plumbing).’


Although Brazilians are normally football-mad, they haven’t yet been gripped by football fever, despite the fact that their president has called on them to be ‘hospitable and cheerful’.
‘Actions are needed of course, not just words. People have had enough of the euphoria. Billions are being spent on the new stadiums, while healthcare and educational facilities are poor, and the cost of living and public transport are high. People say “We want FIFA-quality hospitals and schools.” I can see their point.’


Was that the reason why over two million Brazilians took to the streets last summer?
‘Yes, although many different groups took part: people who were opposed to the high cost of public transport, to the oppression of gays, student groups, you name it. The protests were held in most Brazilian cities.’


Were the demonstrations put down by force?
‘Not really, certainly not in comparison with previous years. The head of the army in Rio de Janeiro gave a televised speech last summer in which he emphasised that the army forms part of civil society. You could tell that he was containing his anger, that he knew the army could no longer seize power, as happened in the past. Demonstrators are now given greater opportunity to express their thoughts. Interest groups have gained in strength. However, there were also those who took advantage of the situation, for example by looting shops.’


Will Brazil get something out of the World Cup, or will the people just have to pay the price? The costs have now increased from €2.3 billion to €3.4 billion.
‘Let’s hope there will be positive effects, but these are always difficult to measure, as shown by all kinds of studies. This very much depends on how such an event is organised. You really need to have a clear vision, linked to a social programme. Some stadiums, for example in Recife, are virtually in the  middle of nowhere . Although football clubs will be allowed to use them after the World Cup, they will not do so if the distance is too large. The six-lane motorway or railway providing access will then have been constructed in vain. However, the economy may grow if, for example, businesses receive more orders and the tourist trade picks up as a result of the World Cup.’

Is it safe for football supporters or tourists to visit Brazil? The crime rates have been high for many years, and in Salvador, where the Dutch team will play on 13 June, there were dozens of casualties in April after a police strike
‘In relation to the size of its population, Brazil’s crime levels are not that extreme. However, if the number of visitors increases, the number of incidents may also increase. Many Brazilians, especially those of the middle classes, are quite concerned about their safety. For example, they have their children taken to school by a driver and housemaid. I think that’s a little exaggerated, although there are poor districts which should be avoided after sunset – incidentally, this also applies to certain districts in Rio de Janeiro. I myself have never been robbed in Brazil, but I have been beaten up once in Amsterdam.’

What’s the worst that can happen during the World Cup?
‘I’m particularly concerned about to what degree the citizens will be allowed to say what they want. I think there are going to be a large number of demonstrations. The country will be put to the test in a big way. I hope the level of repression will not increase, that the police will not use violence disproportionately. This often happened in the past, like in São Paulo in 1992, when over a million people marched for peace and democracy and seventeen people were shot dead in prison. You can see many examples of injustice in Brazil, but it is of course a country of great contrasts: it is both rich and poor, traditional and modern. You also come across many great expressions of creativity, tolerance and passion.’


What are Brazil’s chances of winning the World Cup?
‘I think they’ve got a chance, since they’ve got a fantastic team with a high level of creativity. I hope they’ll win. Although I’m not an expert in football, I’ll watch the games. By the way, the Brazilian team has a great deal of respect for the Dutch team. They’re called the “mechanical oranges” -  laranjas mecânicas – because of their structured playing style.’



tuesday 24 june 2014 (week 26)

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.

Lee Pegler (1958) has lectured and carried out research at the International Institute of Social Studies (part of Erasmus University Rotterdam) in The Hague since 2003. He was born in Canada and holds Australian and Dutch nationality. Pegler studied economics and sociology and obtained his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He travelled to the Latin-American country (for the first time) for his dissertation in 1992, during which time he also learned Portuguese. He has since visited Brazil every year for research, consultancy work and various projects. He carries out research into, amongst other things, the rights of workers and global supply chains between Brazil and the Netherlands. He previously advised the Australian public authorities, and now advises the World Bank and International Labour Organisation.