18 April 2014

Countdown to crazy

The World Cup is approaching like a meteorite that we cannot shoot out of the sky. Everyone is in panic mode and there are palpable tensions in all of the World Cup host cities. No one knows how this tournament is going to work, if the airports will be able to handle the increased volume, if foreigners will be able to buy flights with foreign credit cards, if there are enough seats in the stadiums (because not even FIFA knows which seats it has sold), if the police are going to go on strike.

A secure off-world in the midst of Salvador
This week in Salvador the Bahia state military police went on strike and chaos ensued. More than 40 people in the metropolitan region were killed over 48 hours and there was widespread sacking of shops and grocery stores. This speaks to the precariousness of civility in Brazil. The governor had to call in federal troops to restore order. If after a decade of economic growth and full employment the only thing standing between generalized homicide and mad dashes for food and consumer goods is the military police, then the social project of Brazil is on the brink of collapse. But have you seen Salvador´s shiny new World Cup stadium?

The more that I think and research the 2014 World Cup, the less important the stadiums become. I have come to think of them as bois de piranha. A boi de piranha is a weak cow that is sent across a piranha-infested river ahead of the heard. The piranhas are distracted from the main course by devouring the sacrifice and the heard passes easily. The World Cup stadia account for less than 30% of World Cup spending. The other projects, most of them incomplete, are what are called “legacy” projects.

The Boi de Piranha in Recife

The Recife stadium project is a good example of this. Built more than 20 kilometers outside of the city center in the suburban city of São Lourenço da Mata (forest), the so-called Itaipava Pernambuco Arena is the leading edge of a multi-billion dollar real-estate vector called Cidade da Copa. The government has invested more than R$2 billion in transportation lines to get between the city center and the Cidade da Copa and the stadium itself carries a price tag of R$529,5 million. The publicly financed stadium has been privatized. The Cidade da Copa reproduces the same kind of spatial and social fragmentation that defined the current wave of Brazilian urbanism, one in which upper-middle and upper class residents live in closed condominiums in car-dependent landscapes. The transportation lines are not for the people that will live in the Cidade da Copa but for the lower-class service sector employees that will work as cleaning ladies, janitors, gardeners and security guards.

Back in Rio governor Cabal Cabral resigned his post so that his second in command could take the reigns and increase his chances of election as an incumbent. The federal military´s occupation of Maré has captured the attention of the international media at the same time that the wheels appear to be coming off the UPP model in some key areas such as Rocinha and the Complexo do Alemão. In places without UPP, the same model of counter-insurgency incursion into favelas continues. In the far wild west of Rio a 7-year old was hit in the leg by a PM bullet and a resident killed. Revolted residents attacked a BRT station and burned a bus in protest. The more we are told that things have changed the more they stay the same.

While I agree with my colleague Brian Mier that there have been significant gains in the overall well being of Brazilian society over the last twelve years, the World Cup may be tearing asunder the last remaining shreds of the Brazilian social contract. The recent events in Salvador are an indication of this. The very idea of the Cidade da Copa is further evidence that Brazilian elites are using the World Cup as a mechanism to distance themselves financially, socially and physically from the people and places that make them rich. The ongoing repression, exclusion and expulsion of the poor in Rio de Janeiro, while historically consistent, is evidence that the World Cup is being used to re-configure urban space to ensure the smooth exercise and accumulation of power.

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