When protesters seize a transport hub in a protest against fare increases, allowing passengers to travel free for a short time, you can understand why Brazil’s authorities are preparing to establish an armed camp for this year’s World Cup.
Brazil is a social tinder pot, a county where endemic corruption and decaying public services constantly drive people on to the streets. Spending billions on a football tournament has proved the last straw for many.
As the comparative stately 48-hour Tube strike drew to a close in London, a march in Rio was heading for the city’s Central Station in protest against fare rises of nearly 10%."We want Fifa-standard hospitals too," marchers shouted, making reference to the high standards demanded by the World Cup organisers for the event's venues.
As they reached their destination, some activists leaped over the barriers and before long a crowd had taken control of the station. The riot police showed up and in the clashes that followed, many were injured. They included a cameraman who was apparently the victim of a police tear gas grenade. He suffered terrible head injuries.
Last year, similar protests that began in Sao Paulo grew into a nationwide movement against corruption and excessive spending ahead of the tournament, which begins in June. Local authorities were forced to withdraw fare rises. Since then, the state has created a mass surveillance programme, no doubt with a little help from the United States.
According to a Reuters news agency report, the security forces are using undercover agents, intercepting e-mails, and monitoring social media to try and keep one step ahead of the protests. President Dilma Rousseff's government is terrified that actions could severely disrupt the tournament. Protests are being planned in all 12 cities that will host matches.
The state is ostensibly targeting the anarchist-inspired Black Bloc members, but the surveillance is taking in all anti-government protesters. Agents are said to have infiltrated the movement and are no doubt acting as provocateurs with the intention of getting activists arrested before the World Cup kicks off.
Ironically, Rousseff herself was the target of the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964-85. A genuine case of poacher turned gamekeeper. She is also mobilising at least 100,000 security personnel across Brazil for the World Cup itself. That’s twice as many as were deployed for the 2013 Confederations Cup which drew mass protests. As well as police and military, members of the elite National Force unit will be “ready to intervene where necessary”, according to Andrei Rodrigues, special secretary for security and safety at major events.
Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation business school who has researched the group and interviewed its members, says the Black Blocs "believe that the Brazilian political system is broken and that it doesn't represent them". said. "As long as the government doesn't address the main issues, people are going to keep protesting," said Alcadipani. "Nothing has changed since last June."
Actually what has changed is the Brazilian economy. A slowing growth rate – the economy shrank in the third quarter of last year for the first time since 2009 - has prompted global investors to pull out their cash, causing the real to depreciate by nearly 20% against the dollar in the last year. That makes imports much dearer for ordinary Brazilians. Abnormally dry weather could threaten agricultural produce and exports, deepening the crisis.
Brazil may be one of the favourites for the tournament but, to coin a phrase, it’s kicking off all over the country and football is likely to take second place to a continuing social upheaval in the world’s fifth largest country. The system is not only broken – it can’t be fixed.