The eyes of the world are turning to Brazil, a country gearing up to host the World Cup and grapple with protesters hoping to draw attention to their causes.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Physical education teacher Marcus Vinicius Menzes, 31, doesn’t even have enough soccer balls for all of his students at E.M. Dora Papaleo Elementary School in Nova Iguaçu, a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro.
“What is the goal of [the World Cup]?” said Menzes. “Where I play games with my kids… there is no gym roof or floor. It’s very bad. The floor is the same as the street.”
Menzes was among the nearly thousand protesters that took to the streets during rush hour on May 15, voicing their frustrations amid stopped traffic in Rio’s Centro, or city center, ahead of the city’s seven World Cup matches, including the July 13 final.
As drums and music beat down the main road of Avenida Presidente Vargas, protesters chanted, “No World Cup,” and called on FIFA to pay for their bus tickets — a nod to bus fare hikes that sparked protests across the country last June.
Meanwhile, a long line of security forces watched from across the street, ready to apply what they learned through special training with the FBI.
With a chorus of strikes from the labor unions of bus drivers, teachers and military police all culminating in the same week, Thursday’s events across 50 Brazilian cities marked the biggest show of protesters in recent memory.
Though calmer than last year’s waves of protests, which were rocked by clashes, vandalism and heavy-handed responses from security forces, momentum for large-scale protests has been building as the World Cup opener in São Paulo on June 12 draws near.
Spotlighting social problems
Most agree that with the world’s eyes turned toward Brazil, now is the time to spotlight the social problems gripping the country amid the $11 billion dollars reportedly being spent to host the event.
Menzes, who also participated in a one-day strike earlier last week, works part-time as a physical education teacher in two elementary schools in the Rio suburbs of Nova Iguaçu and Queimados.
With 40 to 45 students per 50 minute gym class, he said the classes are too big, limiting his one-on-one time with many of his students.
Calling the conditions at E.M. Dora Papaleo in Nova Iguaçu “very bad,” Menzes lamented that he has to buy many of his own equipment, like soccer balls, and there’s still not usually enough to go around.
As he marched toward City Hall alongside demonstrators, he said physical education and general teachers in elementary schools receive a monthly salary of about 2,800 to 3,200 Brazilian reals (about $1,264 to $1,444).
He described teaching as an “ugly profession” because of the pay, but he also noted that this depends on the city where a teacher works. He cited his own monthly part-time salaries at E.M. Dora Papaleo Elementary School as 1,500 reals (about $677) and at E.M. Dr. Francisco Manoel Brandão in Queimados as 1,700 reals (about $767).
“A lot of money is being spent on Maracanã and the stadiums [for the World Cup], but not [enough is being done for] the hospitals, the schools,” he said.
“The kids can’t be here, so we are. [We are] fighting for a better situation for them,” his friend, a physical education teacher from Nova Iguaçu, said.
Meanwhile, at the very beginning of the protest line where union workers, students and activists assembled in front of the main transportation hubs for the buses, trains and subways in Centro, Eron Morais Melo was dressed as Batman.
A regular on the protest circuit, particularly in the favela of Metrô-Mangueira in Rio’s North Zone — a site of forced evictions near the Maracanã stadium where residents have protested — Melo ran up and down Avenida Presidente Vargas. His cape blew in the wind as he held up various signs expressing anger toward World Cup spending.
Stopping often to talk with people and take pictures, Melo, who works in prosthetic dentistry, said that with all the attention now on Brazil, “We’re planning to protest the World Cup in a bigger way.”
“The idea of Batman here today is to inspire the people, to call them to the street, to fight for their rights and to start a new story in Brazil,” Melo said. “We want everybody to see that Brazil isn’t only the country of soccer, Carnival and samba.”
On May 12, just hours before a 48-hour bus strike in Rio de Janeiro — a follow-up to the previous week’s strike that was beset by vandalism — would bring Brazil’s second largest city to a near-standstill, a bus driver from the local São Silvestre bus company stood along his bus route with several other drivers.
“We are not going to work tomorrow until someone comes and really listens to us,” said the São Silvestre driver.
While many bus drivers that night refused to comment publicly, the São Silvestre driver agreed to speak but declined to reveal his name for fear of retribution.
With salaries based on the amount of daily bus trips — regardless of heavy traffic — strikers were asking for six-hour work days, the São Silvestre driver explained. Otherwise, drivers could be stuck with 12-hour shifts because of rush hour traffic but still only paid for six hours of work, he said.
“Before the strike, they offered a 10 percent increase in salaries, but that did not meet our demands, [they did not] listen to us,” he said.
Noting that last year’s protests paved the way for a more “favorable” environment for strikes, Thiago Matiolli, a graduate of urban studies and a PhD candidate at the University of São Paulo, said the catalyst for the bus strike was bad conditions felt directly in the buses, such as the lack of overtime pay for bus drivers that must essentially “double” their journeys in order to pay their bills. He also cited the controversy surrounding the “double function” role for drivers, in which some companies expect bus drivers to take on dual jobs — driving while also taking fares and giving change — rather than having another person to help.
Events like the World Cup offer the working class a bigger platform to introduce their causes, Matiolli explained, adding that Brazil has seen local movements and protests built specifically around the soccer tournament, such as protests over forced evictions from areas where stadiums were built.
Even the São Silvestre driver said the bus drivers would use this opportunity to have their voices heard. He used the time that street cleaners went on strike during Carnival and got their demands met as an example.
When bus companies started to feel the crunch from the loss of drivers due to the strike, some bosses offered 80 reals (around $36) to drivers as an incentive to work. For the next strike, the driver says he heard the incentive pay would be bumped to 300 reals (around $136).
Just a few hours before the strike was set to begin, there were fewer riders than normal. But getting to work on the morning of the strike proved to be a headache for Gilmar Junior Fernandes.
Fernandes normally spends about 40 minutes on Bus 538 commuting from one of the city’s largest favelas.
“I tried to go to work but had no bus on the street,” said Fernandes, who works as a grounds assistant for a research team at an information technology startup in Botafogo — a neighborhood near Centro.
On the first day of the strike, he waited at a crowded stop with many other stranded riders trying to get to work. He ended up spending 20 reals (around $9) to get to work by mototaxi.
“If he [my boss] did not pay for me, I would not go for work,” Fernandes said.
On the second day of the strike, Fernandes bypassed the bus stop altogether and hailed a mototaxi. For his evening commute, he took a taxi home.
Though frustrated by his commute, he voiced his support for the bus workers’ strike. “But the problem is that when they decide to strike, many people get hurt because many people can’t go work.”
According to local media reports, 1.8 million people were impacted by the two-day public transportation halt.
“For me, the [strikes and protests] are all still hot and burning coals of last year’s firing [at the Confederation’s Cup] but without a centralized organization,” Matiolli, the PhD candidate, said.
The Confederation’s Cup, an event widely viewed as a warm-up for the World Cup, was at times upstaged by the country-wide protests and violence.
Calling it a delicate moment for Brazil — namely over the repeated criticism and failure around the preparation for the World Cup — Matiolli forecast continued growth in protests amid a “harder hand” of security forces in the coming weeks.
The event has come to represent more of an economics game than a sporting event, he adds.
As protesters continue to compare the $11 billion price tag for hosting the World Cup to the money spent on social programs and the rising death toll for stadium workers, it appears they will not let the event go quietly — even at the cost of Brazil’s image. Some on May 15 expressed hope that Brazil would lose the World Cup.
Deflecting continued hang-ups on soccer’s golden event, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who will be up for reelection in October, has insisted that her country is ready to host 32 nations, while also openly addressing the right for demonstrators to protest peacefully.
Meanwhile, according to local reports, Gilberto Carvalho, Rousseff’s secretary-general, has hit back at critics, saying that 800 billion reals ($363 billion) were spent on health and education over the course of four years, while 8 billion reals ($3.63 billion) went toward World Cup stadiums and 17 billion reals ($7.71 billion) for infrastructure that will benefit Brazilians in the long run.
But for teachers like Menzes, the impact of the 800 billion reals has hardly trickled down. Menzes and the group of teachers he marched with on May 15 remain steadfast in demanding that their voices be heard. They are prepared to protest every day during the World Cup if they have to, Menzes said.