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I came to Recife last year and took a public bus to the Ilha do Retiro to see the Sport-Ponte Preta game.

The ride was more memorable than the game. Passengers were thrown to one side and another as the driver careened round corners. People were quite literally shrieking with fear and begging him to slow down.

I took a taxi home as there was little public transport still running at midnight when the game ended.

On Sunday, I came to Recife’s sparkling new Arena Pernambuco to see Spain play Uruguay in the Confederations Cup. I was taken here and dropped off by an air-conditioned FIFA shuttle bus and got a nice seat in a beautiful stadium.

The two trips were both to see football matches in Recife but the only thing they had in common is 22 players, a ball and the trip along appalling roads filled with pot holes the size of televisions.

Much of the protests that erupted across Brazil last night are not against the World Cup per se. They are directed at the double standard of beautiful new stadiums being built for FIFA at a rush (and huge cost) while the government neglects much more necessary investment in hospitals, schools and sanitation.

This video was made by a friend and that sentiment is summed up by one girl around the 2:40 mark.

“We don’t have health, we don’t have education, we don’t have anything dignified,” she said. “The only thing that they gave us was a stadium.  If our child is sick we don’t want to take him to a stadium. We want education for our children and decent health. We don’t have this in Brazil.”

The protesters who took to the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities last night are to be congratulated on a significant victory.

Few people imagined that after the violent police crackdown on Sao Paulo’s protesters last Thursday an even greater number would come out in sympathy just four days later.

But they did just that and across Brazil hundreds of thousands of people, most of them peacefully, expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Exactly how many people took part in the protests is impossible to know. But estimates suggest 65,000 people took to the streets of Sao Paulo, almost twice that in Rio and smaller, but still considerable, numbers made their presence felt in Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Porto Alegre and dozens of other towns and cities.

The big question is what happens now. The protesters have the wind at their backs, so what will they do? They have called another march (in SP at least) for Tuesday night. Will they call more? Enter in to talks with authorities? As yet no one knows.

A lot of that depends on exactly what they want.

The unrest was originally sparked by a hike in bus fares and many of the protesters come from the Free Fare Movement, a group that wants free public transport for all. That’s an unreal demand. No serious country provides all its citizens with free public transport.

But since then the demonstration has expanded to include broader issues. One major complaint is the cost of hosting the World Cup and the Confederations Cup, the second of which kicked off in six Brazilian cities on Saturday.

The government is spending more than $3 billion on stadiums, some of them obvious white elephants but it hasn’t carried out many of the essential public transportation projects it promised.

One of the challenges facing the movement’s leaders is articulating a message beyond that of, ‘We want better treatment and more rights.’ And until they do that it will struggle to achieve anything concrete.

Anyone who has spent any time in Brazil knows that people are treated abysmally. As I said here last week, Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services. No one respects no one. Complaining is futile and the deck is heavily stacked against anyone who raises their voice in anger. (Which is one of the reasons a more generalized outrage hasn’t taken hold until now.)

Brazil deserves great credit for lifting 40 million people out of poverty over the last decade. But ironically, that class of newly enfranchised people might be a cause of the unrest.

–          More people can afford to buy cars and hundreds of new cars pour onto the streets of Sao Paulo each day. But the government hasn’t invested in infrastructure like roads or highways and public transport is underfunded and inefficient and an unappealing alternative.

–          More people can afford health insurance but the companies selling them not only provide a risible coverage, they fight tooth and nail to stop their clients from getting the treatment they are paying for, sometimes with tragic consequences.

–          More people have cable television but just try calling up and complaining about the service or trying to cancel it. The companies sadistically force their clients to jump through online hoops in order to hold them to costly contracts.

–          More people have cell phones and Brazilians pay some of the highest rates in the world. But calls frequently cut out, the signal is patchy, and after sales service is a joke.

–          More people have banks accounts but banks charge abusive interest rates – 237 % a year for credit cards – and they sneak additional charges onto bills, and treat customers more like waling wallets than valued customers.

–          Education is a joke. A tragic joke.

In short, there are lots of reasons why Brazilians should be angry.

The other big question is how politicians will deal with the crisis. What possible answers can they provide? Not only are they discredited, they cannot hope to provide quick solutions to resolve long-standing infrastructure issues.

They are in bed with the multinationals and conglomerates whose consistent mistreatment of and disdain for their customers is a complaint I hear every single day from Brazilians.

It is hard to see how they can provide quick and satisfactory answers to the questions above.

And last but not least, Are Brazilians going to see this through to the end?

Brazil is not a politicised society nor one where memories are long or protests lasting. In neighbouring Argentina, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest graft and they do it again and again and again.

Brazil’s media will play up the violence and they will play up the fear. If political parties try to hijack the movement it will lose its credibility. The middle class must get involved and stay involved.

If Brazilians really want to see change they will need stamina and resolve. They may have to shout themselves hoarse over and over and over again. If this is really going to turn into something lasting then Monday night is not the end. It is only the beginning.

Brazil is not a country where people protest. It is not a country of revolutionaries.

As Mauricio Savarese explains in this clear and didactive blog, Brazilians abhor violence and they avoid it all costs. If your cause embraces violence then you’ve lost. The only way to win in Brazil – and that means by getting the larger public behind you – is through peaceful protest and negotiation.

That’s one of the reasons the reaction to last Thursday’s protest and police violence in Sao Paulo are so interesting.

Lots of people are asking whether this wave of protests can really be over a 20 centavo rise in bus fares. (20 centavos is about 10 cents or 7 pence.)

Phillip Vianna in this CNN blog says “it is the uprising of the most intellectualized portion of society.” Marcelo Rubens Paiva in today’s Estado de Sao Paulo says the protests are “a collective revolt against the state that treats individuals as a nuisance, the enemy.” And the RioReal blog suggests that “the twenty centavos could represent a tipping point in Rio’s general panorama, as citizens wake up to authoritarian government and a longtime lack of dialogue.”

I’d love them to be right. Rubens Paiva’s definition of how the state treats its citizens is certainly spot on.

Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services in return. Their politicians represent big interests and treat voters with little more than contempt. Corruption is ingrained, a part of the country’s culture and fabric.

No one protests. No one gets angry. Anti-corruption demonstrations rarely unite more than a few thousand people. (Clicking a button on facebook doesn’t count as anger, or protest.)

Brazilians can’t be bothered taking to the streets because they know that unless the protests gain nationwide scope they will be ignored. And they know that won’t happen because most people don’t see the point. It’s a vicious circle. “Why bother demanding change; nothing changes so why bother.”

But there’s an awful lot of wishful thinking going on in some of the analysis. It is way too early to say last week’s protests mark a turning point. They could very easily peter out. If there is more violence then support will erode and the protesters will be marginalised.

Is this the start of something? Are Brazilians waking up? Have they finally decided enough is enough?

I certainly hope so and I do think it is inevitable, sooner or later. As incomes grow, people will start demanding better treatment.

When enough Brazilians can make the trip to Miami and see they can buy a white tshirt in GAP for $8 dollars, rather than pay $30 for the same inferior quality garment in Sao Paulo and Rio they might be shaken into action. Last week’s protests might be the first sign of that.

But I am not convinced that moment has arrived.

A lot will depend on the character of the next week’s protests. If they are hijacked by the same extremists, who often glob onto anything anti- then they will fail. The middle class will take fright and abandon them. And without middle class lending their voice en masse they are doomed.

If they can get lots of people out on the streets, from all sectors of society, and if they can demonstrate peacefully, even in the face of police provocation, then they might be on to something and the optimistic predictions of a paradigm shift might be realised.

Next week is going to be very interesting.

I just got home after wandering around the streets near my home and I have to say that of all the thousands of nights I’ve spent in Brazil, this was one of the more remarkable.

Not just because there are police helicopters overhead in my normally gentile neighbourhood. Not just because the main roads are blocked with burning rubbish. And not even because there is tear gas in the air and periodic bangs caused by the police firing off shock bombs and rubber bullets.

Still from Globonews coverage of the protests

Still from Globonews coverage of the protests

It’s all that. But what I really can’t believe is Why? Or rather How. How did things get so bad so fast? How did the state and municipal governments, and most importantly the police, let it get to this?

This is a protest over a small hike in bus fares that went into effect a week ago.

I won’t go into the rights or wrongs of the fare rise – from 3.00 reais to 3.20 reais – as I don’t know enough about it. (Although I will say that protesters demanding free public transport for all are living in cloud cuckoo land.)

But what has become crystal clear tonight, even through the haze of tear gas, is that the Sao Paulo government has once again overreacted with a breathtaking brutality and incompetence. They never learn.

The police are military police and therein lies one of the main problems. Historically unprepared to deal with dissent and opposition and untrained to meet the demands of a democratic society, their first response is to reach for their batons or their guns.

I won’t get into any of the other cases in which Sao Paulo police officers have been accused of brutal overreaction. (But here’s three links to cases where they are accused of murder, here, here and here.)

The fact is that with a modicum of common sense and leadership from state and municipal authorities, tonight’s protest would probably have passed fairly peacefully.

The overwhelming majority of protesters were non-violent. They even chanted “Sem Violencia!” (No Violence!) But even if there were a few troublemakers (and that’s not unlikely) it wouldn’t justify such a heavy handed response.

Basic common sense dictates that unless protests are violent you sheperd protesters away from sensitive areas. You let them have their say and then wait for them to go home. You don’t send in the riot police, the cavalry, and fire tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed students.

What are these people thinking? Who was giving the orders? And perhaps most importantly, will they learn from their mistakes?

I am not holding my breath….

The Confederations Cup is less than a week away and preparations have been fraught, to say the least.

Only two of the stadiums were delivered on time and some of the others are still less than finished. The delivery of tickets has been chaotic. And huge question marks remain over airports and public transport.

But in the parallel world of Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo, a man who thinks public transport in London is as problematic as in Brazil, the preparations have been just hunky dory.

“I’d give us a nine (out of 10),” Rebelo said on a conference call with foreign media yesterday. “We’ve been able to deliver all the stadiums but we could have delivered them sooner to allow for the realisation of more test events.

“Apart from that, all the requirements were executed in accordance with expectations.”

Lord knows what mark he’d give himself for World Cup planning. Time will tell….

One colleague called me a misanthrope the other day. Another often refers to me as Mr Angry. A Scottish pal in Rio calls me Begbie (after the notoriously angry character in Trainspotting).

They all mean it in jest (I hope!) and I usually take it with a pinch of salt and a laugh.

VWBut there’s a lot to be angry about these days and I don’t just mean big banks destroying the livelihoods of millions just to make a few more pennies, or the spinelessness of politicians who have allowed them to get away with it.

Case in point today in Brazil, where Bradley Brooks from the Associated Press just published this sensational story about how big car makers in Brazil are routinely churning out vehicles that fail the same safety tests they wouldn’t dare fail in the developed world.

FiatBrooks’ story says that thousands of Brazilians dying every year in auto accidents that in many cases shouldn’t have proven fatal. He writes:

Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation’s often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a Brazilian death rate from passenger car accidents that is nearly four times that of the United States.

The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil’s five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests.

Manufacturers earn a 10 percent profit on Brazilian-made cars, compared with 3 percent in the U.S. and a global average of 5 percent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Only next year will laws require frontal air bags and antilock braking systems on all cars, safety features that have been standard in industrial countries for years. The country will also have new impact regulations on paper, at least; Brazilian regulators don’t have their own crash-test facility to verify automakers’ claims about vehicle performance, nor are there independent labs in the country.

ChevroletIn short, Brazil’s car makers are cutting corners and costing countless lives because it is cheaper to make poor quality cars than it is to spend more and make the cars as safe as they would in the US or Europe. And the government is quite happy to let them.

This in a nation where cars cost three times what they cost elsewhere.

Seriously, the question isn’t why am I angry. The question is: Why isn’t everyone?


Romario (cited in my story criticising the lack of a public transportation legacy) showing the red card in a cool piece of art in Sao Paulo

Romario (cited in my story criticising the lack of a public transportation legacy) showing the red card in a cool piece of art in Sao Paulo

I am often asked, What do think the World Cup will be like in Brazil in 2014?

My stock answer goes something like this:

“Visitors will have a great time. It is a dream come true for any real football fan to see the World Cup in Brazil and they will be made very welcome by Brazilians. In addition to the games themselves, they can enjoy beaches, music, nightlife, the lot. But when they all go home, the average Brazilian won’t have a lot to show for it. Authorities are not adding the public transportation links they promised, airports will still be a mess and communications will still be deficient. And we’ll still be paying way over the odds for everything.”

I wrote a long piece for Reuters that came out today about public transportation and how cities and states all over Brazil are breaking their initial promises to provide trams, express bus lanes, highways and metro lines in time for the World Cup.

The story says that,

     Although exact numbers are still changing, at least a dozen of the 49 original projects have changed completely and won’t be ready by the time the tournament kicks off off on June 12, 2014.

    Five cities – Brasilia, Fortaleza, Manaus, Salvador and Sao Paulo – won’t have the promised tram lines, express lanes for buses or metro links ready, according to Brazil’s Federal Audits Court.

    “The much discussed social legacy looks like it won’t get off the drawing board,” Romario, a former World Cup winner who is now a lawmaker in Brazil’s Congress, wrote last month in a newspaper column. “Almost all the transport projects are behind schedule, some have been put back and will be opened only after the World Cup and others have been cancelled altogether.”

This is one of the big tragedies of the 2014 World Cup.

The second is that more people aren’t demanding that those responsible for the broken promises be held accountable.

If you knew the escalators at Rio’s international airport needed replacing then when would you choose to rip them out?

Would you look for a quiet time in order to cause the least inconvenience to passengers or would you do it right in the middle of carnival, the time of the year when the airport is busiest?

No prizes for guessing that officials in Rio have scheduled to replace 10 of the airport’s escalators the week of carnival, when half a million people are expected to come through the building.

(I am not making this up. See details in this morning’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.)

This struck me as too ridiculous to be true so I called Infraero – the body that runs the Galeao airport – and they confirmed the Folha story. Fourteen of the 58 escalators have already been replaced and they are replacing 10 more right now.

Why not wait a couple of weeks and do it after the carnival rush is over, I asked.

We are following the established timetable, the Infraero official replied.

Portuguese speakers might like this link, to O Globo columnist Artur Xexeo’s December column entitled: “The Worst Airport in the World.”

Almost a year ago I write a piece for Time magazine about how poor construction and Rio’s lack of oversight may have contributed to the tragic collapse of a building in the old centre that killed several people.

Mayor Eduardo Paes sarcastically attacked me for suggesting such things and local newspaper O Globo defended the city against outside criticism. (See my blog here.)

Well, today O Globo has a front page story about how the city’s buses can’t use the brand new bus lanes built for the Olympics because they are falling apart. (See O Globo’s picture below. Link to the story is here, in Portuguese.)


The BRT bus lanes were completed in the middle of last year and are one of Rio’s main public transport projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Experts quoted in the story blame poor construction for the potholes and said it was probably done cheaply to save money, even though the costs of maintenance are much higher once completed.

It’s infuriating, not to say scandalous, that public money is so repeatedly wasted in this way.

As I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor last year, there is

“ongoing concern about construction and infrastructure in South America’s biggest nation – and the world’s sixth-biggest economy. Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built or over budget, or all three.”

With the World Cup just 17 months away and host cities rushing to get stadiums and infrastructure projects completed those warnings are more and more salient.

Celebrities, either through talent or opportunity or luck, or a mixture of all three, live charmed lives doing what they love and getting paid huge sums of money for it.

Dira Paes, drink driver

Society fawns over them and many people, especially the young, look up to them as idols.

Brazilian soap opera actress Dira Paes (right) is one of them. Romario is another. Mano Menezes, the manager of Brazil, is another. Actress Carolina Ferraz is another. Singer Djavan is another. Former Flamengo and Inter Milan player Adriano is another. And there are plenty more.

What do they all have in common apart from the fact they are very rich and hugely admired? They all refused to take breathalyser tests when stopped by police.

Paes was the latest and like most of these jokers she swore she wasn’t drunk. She complained that Brazil has a zero tolerance for people who drink and drive.

More than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents in Brazil last year. Between 40 percent and 75 percent of those deaths are alcohol related.

Are those statistics not clear enough?

Is it too much to ask that cosseted celebrities like Paes and Menezes and Adriano set an example?

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