Brazil: a country of jangled nerves

As the World Cup opens, few Brazilians are heading for the beach to samba: behind the stereotype is a country which has accumulated a perfect storm of social and economic insecurities.

Hungry child graffito Round ball or square meal? Street art that went viral in BrazilJust a few years ago, all the headlines coming out of Brazil were positive.

Huge oilfields had been discovered off the country’s coast, suggesting it would take its place among the world’s top producers. With Russia, India and China, Brazil was one of the BRICs—an economy to watch. Millions had been lifted out of poverty and its cash-transfer programme, Bolsa Familia, was seen as a model for tackling inequality.

A country blessed with resources was led by a president known universally as “Lula”, whose very life-story—escaping poverty in the arid north-east—seemed to reflect that promise. However popular he was at home, not many Brazilian politicians grab the international limelight; yet his US counterpart, Barack Obama, saluted Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as “my man”.

Brazil was opening embassies, offering solutions (not always welcomed) to international problems and pushing its long-held ambition for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. As the icing on the cake, it seemed, Brazil was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Uncertain

Fast forward to 2014, with the world’s top football tournament about to open, and one finds a much more uncertain country.

For a start, in a place often seen as the spiritual home of football, there has been a sometimes-simmering, sometimes-blazing resentment over the cost of staging the World Cup. Many promised infrastructure prospects were not delivered on time and delays in finishing the stadia were seen as embarrassingly emblematic of domestic corruption and bureaucracy.

Perhaps it is because Brazilians’ expectations had been raised so much that they seem so disappointed with so many things. Angst-ridden parents vent their frustrations over the quality of education available to their children: the less well-off must make do with poorer schools, they say, while the rich have access to private education and those given a leg up have an easier path through free third-level colleges to qualifications and job prospects.

The health system struggles to meet basic needs and in many hospitals conditions are terrible with long queues. In the shanty-towns, drug dealers carry arms that wouldn’t look out of place in a war zone and around 50,000 people die violent deaths each year. The better off live behind security gates and high walls, some travelling in bullet-proof cars.

Economic growth of over 7 percent in 2010 has slowed to around 2 percent and politicians across the spectrum are mostly regarded with contempt. Brazil will choose a new president later this year and while Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s anointed successor, seems likely to win re-election, her lead in the polls has slipped. The main opposition candidates, Aecio Neves and Eduardo Campos, are not making huge strides but between now and October they will be chasing hard.

Discontent

Almost exactly a year ago, more than a million Brazilians took to the streets to show their discontent about a wide range of problems, from corruption to increases in public-transport fares.

The protests have diminished and have become less spontaneous, with more focused political groups—among them homeless and indigenous campaigners—making specific demands. Meanwhile, the presence of Black Bloc protesters with an anarchist agenda has led to confrontation in a society where the police easily resort to force, sometimes blatantly excessive.

Policeman with baton at demonstration Heavy hand: policing a demonstration at the Confederations Cup. Fernando Enrique C de Oliveira / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The government would say to all this that overall there have been huge strides—and no one would argue that running a country of continental proportions and 200m people could be easy. Billions of dollars are being set aside for projects linked to urban mobility, transport and airport modernisation. Jobs have been created and tourism given a shot in the arm. World Cup visitors will not take away these projects in their suitcases and the legacy will remain for the Brazilian people, says Rousseff.Brazilians have not been painting the streets yellow and green to mark the World Cup with anything like the fervour of previous tournaments. They haven’t lost the passion for an event their country has won more often than any other but the vast expenditure and emerging questions about mismanagement and inflated spending have left a bad taste. And in Rio the long-promised clean-up of pollution in the beautiful Guanabara Bay, which the government now says will not be realised as promised, heralds more problems with the Olympics.

In addition, to confront a shortage of doctors, thousands of Cuban medics were invited to plug gaps in the country’s health system, in the teeth of opposition from the medical establishment. And, in the country’s most high-profile corruption case, the Supreme Court, led by the feisty Joaquim Barbosa (one of few black Brazilians to reach the highest level of society), jailed more than 20 politicians, including leading members of the ruling Workers’ Party—a riposte of sorts to those who say Brazil is synonymous with impunity.

Ill at ease

Even so, the World Cup kicks off in a country ill at ease with itself, puzzling a watching international community which associates it with the “beautiful game”.

Noting that Jerome Valcke of Fifa was travelling around in a bullet-proof car with police escort, one Brazilian newspaper asked him if he was afraid of being attacked. And there will be a heavy presence of police and soldiers on the streets throughout the tournament.

Tear gas and confrontation marred the Confederations Cup, the warm-up competition last year in Brazil. It seems hard to imagine that trouble can be avoided this time round either, although the scale is hard to predict—small and controllable, the government will certainly be hoping. It is trying to lance some of the most painful political boils, reportedly reaching out to include the homeless movement in a major programme of public house-building.

A stellar performance by the national team may well lift the public mood. But, spurred on by social media, Brazilians are debating their problems and their future more profoundly than at any time since democracy replaced military dictatorship in 1985.

Undoubtedly deeply proud of their country, they are equally frustrated by its failings and seem unconvinced that anyone is offering the right answers. Long after the World Cup is over, that discussion will continue—and many Brazilians have already shown that, if the answers are inadequate, they have the determination to take the argument to the streets.