Brazil, Defeat and the High Cost of Hosting the World Cup

Bidding for Trouble

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by ANDREW KENNIS

Rio de Janeiro. 

While smoking his tobacco pipe in front of his small cinder block home toward the top of his native Vidigal, a sprawlingfavela  overlooking some of Rio de Janeiro’s most luxurious neighborhoods, Jamil Jorge offered his thoughts on Brazil hosting the World Cup in the midst of the tournament: “The World Cup only benefits people and institutions with money, not people like me.”

Jamil had just finished meditating during a breezy ocean-side night at one of the many stunning lookouts that Vidigal offers. The public viewpoint lies at the foot of one of the many homes of none other than David Beckham–reflective of the uneven and volatile development Brazil has undergone over the last decade alone. Recent years have brought tens of millions into the middle class but left plenty of others behind, as suggested by a low 85th ranking in the United Nations Human Development index.

When asked about the FIFA (International Federation of Football Association, in English) and its motives in relation to the Cup, Jorge grinned and then made the universal gesture for money with his hands. “Someone is profiting from this World Cup, but it isn’t me … or our favela.”

Seven years ago when Brazil was announced as FIFA’s selected host country for this year’s World Cup, Brazilians celebrated in the streets. The country’s then forward-looking President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was in the midst of an economic boon that had catapulted the Brazilian economy into seventh place among the world’s largest economies. During the same time FIFA officials were greeted by what they proudly described to the media as “spontaneous celebrations” by Brazilians, polls revealed nearly eighty-percent support for the hosting of the Cup.

The subsequent announcement in 2009 that the Olympics would also be held in Brazil two years after the 2014 World Cup only compounded the excitement. By all accounts, Brazil was abuzz with anticipation.

In this election year, however, support for both hosting the Cup and the incumbent President Rousseff, who hails from the same Worker’s Party (PT) as her popular predecessor, have plummeted to low levels. Contrary to nearly anyone’s expectations, polls have demonstrated that most people in the very country that has enjoyed more World Cup victories than any other no longer wanted to host the tournament whose final match played out July 13.
Why the drastic change in public opinion, over a game Brazilians clearly adore?

Collapsing Promises

“It was like an earthquake. The ground shook violently,” Daniel Magalhaes told reporters huddling around the scene of an accident. “I heard a deafening sound. I looked and saw the collapsed overpass.”

Headlines around the world were instantly posted in the news media on July 3 when a bridge located in the host city of Belo Horizonte and near the Mineirao Stadium where World Cup matches were held collapsed on top of a bus and passenger cars in a gruesome scene captured by video. Hanna Cristiana Santos, a bus driver, and Charlys do Nascimento, aged 24 and 25 respectively, were instantly killed. Almost two dozen more people were injured. The construction company, the city announced, would pay for the funeral arrangements for the two families.

The Belo bridge collapse was not the only thing that collapsed. The very next day, Colombia’s defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga recklessly jumped into the air for a loose ball and came crashing directly down on none other than Neymar Jr., Brazil’s great hope for the World Cup. Neymar told his teammate, “I cannot feel my legs,” after suffering Zúñiga’s blow.

For many Brazilians, their hopes of Brazil winning the World Cup were significantly dented if not dashed altogether with Neymar’s and Silva’s exit. As it turned out, theseleção wound up suffering a historic defeat in the World Cup’s most lopsided knockout round loss ever. The Germans, who ultimately won took home the Cup trophy, mercilessly pounded against a brittle Brazilian defense and won 7-1. Adding to the cruel irony was that the defeat occurred in Belo Horizonte–the same place where the bridge collapsed.

The subsequent third place match added to the pain, as Brazil was humiliated again 3-0 at the hands of Holland. The match was played in Brasilia, a city that doesn’t even have a first division Brazilian soccer team and rarely can attract attendance to second division matches of more than a thousand people. Now the capital will have to struggle to find a use for the FIFA-standard stadium.

Many observers before the World Cup agreed that one of the few ways that FIFA and the Brazilian government could salvage a losing public relations front when it came to hosting the event, was for Brazil to win the Cup on its home turf and in the same stadium where it suffered its most stinging historic defeat. Brazil lost to Uruguay in the 1950 final (known as the “maracanaço” to Brazilians, a reference to Rio’s Maracanã stadium, which then had a capacity to hold almost two hundred thousand people). But alas, there would be no final in Rio. Instead, Brazilians rioted in the city’s streets, where mass robberies were reported especially in the famous Copacabana beach district.

While no Brazilian expected the trouncing the team suffered against Germany, probably few Brazilians were surprised that one of the unfinished infrastructure projects promised for completion by the World Cup’s start wound up literally killing several of its own people. Fewer than 10 of the 56 infrastructure projects racking up billions of dollars in public expenses were completed on time for the tournament.

“Nearly nothing about hosting this World Cup surprises me anymore,” says Leonardo Silva, a 59 year-old cab driver who has long been working in Natal, a tourist-driven beach city that hosted the Me xico and United States matches.

On FIFA’s Terms
Before the World Cup started, the atmosphere in many cities in Brazil was noticeably dialed down from what one would have expected in 2007. One after another, local press accounts described the pre-tourney atmosphere as “lackluster” and “way less supportive than in previous World Cups hosted abroad.”

Widespread protests, attracting millions of angry people raging into the streets in cities across Brazil, surged a full year before the World Cup even began. International press coverage largely focused on a bus fare hike as what sparked the protests. Gil Castello Branco, the director and founder of Open Accounts, a Brasilia-based NGO that serves as a budgetary watchdog group over the Brazilian government, pointed out that the issues ran deeper than the bus fare hike and included the World Cup.

“You saw the protests last year, right, Andrew?” asked an impassioned Castello the day after the bridge collapsed. “The Brazilian people were demanding to get public benefits out of the event. They said they wanted FIFA-standard schools to be built for Brazilian children, just like the stadiums.”

The nation’s youth, who showed up in droves to protests last year and at the start of the tournament, continue to be a glaring developmental hole for Brazil. While close to 40 million Brazilians have left poverty during Brazil’s rapid developmental climb since the turn of the century, the youth are often left out of this picture when it comes to long-term and stable employment. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, close to 42% of young people have to depend on the precarious informal economy for a livelihood.

“Promising 12 stadiums in 12 cities to FIFA was too much to offer. These stadiums, especially in Manaus, Brasilia, Cuiaba and Natal, won’t ever be used to their capacity,” said Castello.

Other experts, such as Claudio Weber Abramo, the Executive Director of Transparency Brazil, echoed Castello’s sentiments. “FIFA makes its demands and then they arranged to have twelve different places to hold games. This was simply too much. In some of these cities, like Manaus, there was no professional football there whatsoever. It is ridiculous.”

Apparently, Brazilian officials did not pay heed to the words of one of Brazil’s most famous icons–singer, song-writer and poet Chico Buarque–who warned, “You cannot place your faith in a football stadium – that’s the lesson that sunk in after 1950.” He was referring to the belief that a shiny new stadium filled with Brazilian fans would lead the team to victory. His statement could be applied to the politics of hosting mega-sports events as well.

As early as the Confederations Cup, the World Cup warm-up tournament held in the host country the year before the big event, the press began reporting on worker fatalities and construction delays with cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Millions of Brazilians seemed to remember Buarque’s words when they took to the streets. Neymar, who rarely voices any political sentiments, announced on Facebook that, “From now on, I will enter the field inspired by this movement,” explaining further that he desired to see a, “Brazil that is more just, safer, healthier and more honest, which is the obligation of the government.”

Even the face of Brazilian football, the legendary Pelé, expressed sympathy with the protests and criticized the way public funds have been spent. “Money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals,” Pelé told the press this past May. “Brazil needs it. That’s clear. On that point, I agree with the protests,”

Plans to erect a 300-kilogram statue of Pelé before the start of the World Cup in front of the Maracanã stadium also stalled. The frustrated artist commissioned to finish the piece explained to the Times of India that the project was “politically abandoned” a few days after Pelé’s remarks.

As the tournament got underway, the rap sheet of World Cup-related problems was already lengthy. Neil de Mause, co-author of Field of Schemes and a specialist in public spending utilized for private sports stadiums published an article online shortly after the World Cup began that highlighted the worst social and political problems caused by the World Cup:

• Spending on World Cup preparations ballooned to $15 billion, swallowing entire regions’ development budgets and helping spark widespread strikes over low wages.

• An estimated 200,000 people were evicted from their homes, either to make way for World Cup construction projects or because their neighborhoods were designated “high-risk” areas.

• Eight workers were killed in construction accidents during the rush to have new stadiums ready in time for the cup — despite which the stadiums were still decidedly not ready.

• Planned new schools, hospitals and other public projects that were initially promised fell off the construction agenda once the budget ran dry.

• The government spent an additional $900 million on police technology, including surveillance drones, to ensure that anyone upset about all this didn’t cause too much of a ruckus.

De Mause explained that these problems were part and parcel of a “sports model designed to socialize all of your costs so that you can privatize all of your profits. It is a lot easier to make a whole lot of money if someone else is paying your costs. That’s something you see whether it is the New York Yankees or the World Cup.”

Should these problems have been anticipated? Chris Gaffney’s answer is an adamant “yes.” Gaffney, a visiting Professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense, has been living in Brazil for a half a decade and studies the way mega-events, such as the World Cup, are run and managed.

“Public officials could have demanded FIFA to ask for more from their corporate patrons,” Gaffney explained. “But this isn’t about wise use in public money. It’s an extractive business model in which FIFA articulated its business interests and found willing partners among Brazilian governmental and economic elites.”

The picture of an “extractive” business model that Gaffney paints is similar to how Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, another specialist on mega-events, from the Oxford School of Business, describes in his research findings. Particularly when it comes to Olympic and World Cup spending, Flyvgjerg said that, “costs wind up being significantly higher than what was initially estimated… while on the benefits size, we found the opposite. We found that the actual benefits are lower. So you get this double whammy with higher costs and lower benefits, which any businessman would say is not a good situation.”

Flyvgjerg added, “We find in general that politicians like to build flashy monuments and certainly something like expensive FIFA-inspired World Cup stadiums are an example of that. Unfortunately, we find that it is very difficult for officials to find a sensible use for these stadiums after the World Cup is over.”

Not a good situation for the public, in particular, added Weber. FIFA “says I want this and that. That is their role. And they get what they ask for, at the cost of the public.”

The bidding and negotiating process behind what is offered, asked for and agreed-upon remains clouded in mystery and secrecy. Weber noted, “Everything is confidential. FIFA and the Brazilian organizing committee can and did hide whatever they wanted.”

That is the reason why, as Gaffney explained, “The bid book for Brazil hosting the World Cup has never seen the light of day. The bid was given by disgraced former FIFA Vice President, Ricardo Texeira, to FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in 2007 and the document never surfaced publicly.

What has surfaced since FIFA awarded Brazil the bid and the government began the preparations has been FIFA-related public spending and projects.

In 2007, Lula made lofty promises and voiced high expectations of public-private partnerships in the aftermath of Brazil being chosen as a host country. He promised, “Stadiums will be completely built with private money. Not one cent of public money will be spent.” During the same time, excited officials from the Brazilian Football Federation echoed Lula’s claim. However, because of the failure of public-private plans to ever come to fruition, public spending exploded and a significant paper trail followed, one that Weber and Castello have been closely following.

In the case of the country’s capital, Brasilia, a municipal auditor’s court released a 140-page report detailing over $275 million in over-spending for a $900 million stadium-building project for the World Cup host city. The stadium is the world’s second most expensive among soccer venues,standing in sharp contrast to the lack of a professional team to fill the seats there after the Cup ends.

For Weber, even with the revelations of the scathing Brasilia audit report, there are still sharp limits to what is known thus far. “The actual totals on over-spending on stadiums and corruption related to it is already bad and it will be much worse than what people know and think right now.

Carol Campos, a 22 year-old Brazilian woman who attended many of the protests against the Cup, railed against another lavish stadium built for the Cup up in Natal. She asserts that the expensive arena will have no clear use after the Cup.

“It really is a beautiful stadium, if you see it from the sky, it looks like a sand dune, which are typical here in Natal. But the thing is, it’s a crazy situation. They built a whole stadium for four games. Four games!”

Bidding for Trouble?

The bid for the 2014 World Cup, which by FIFA rules had to be held in Latin America this year, had one entrant: Brazil.

Some experts speculate that the reason why Brazil had no competition on the bid for the Latin America-designated FIFA rotation is that there’s a political cost for politicians wanting to build flashy monuments bearing their name, in addition to the economic costs. In political terms alone, and certainly in Brazil’s case, hosting mega-events has proven to be risky and unpredictable. The way matters are shaping up for President Rousseff as of late is a strong case in point.

Brazil’s close association with FIFA and its slowing economy have not won political points for President Dilma Rousseff. During the current World Cup, FIFA has stirred controversy. After being booed in a Confederation Cup appearance with President Rousseff, its president NAME decided not to even participate in the opening ceremony CHECK. Scandals regarding reports on bribery being a factor in Qatar’s successful attempt to win the 2022 World Cup bid. The awarding to Qatar raised the eyebrows of football observers the world over, in no small part because of the scorching desert-like temperatures in Qatar during the summer months the Cup is held. Other scandals included one where a FIFA official was implicated in a Brazil-based ticket-scalping ring that reaped millions of dollars in resale profits, and an alleged match-fixing scandal, implicating players and possibly officials from the Cameroon squad.

In Brazilian politics, an Associated Press investigation published last month revealed that companies receiving publicly funded and FIFA-related construction projects turned around and raised their election campaign donations to the same public officials who awarded those contracts. In some cases, donations leaped by over 500% higher than their previous donations.

President Rousseff’s approval rating fell to a paltry 38% in April 2014 and at the start of the World Cup, was hovering around 34%. Nevertheless, Rousseff’s closest challenger for the October presidential election is still many percentage points behind her in terms of how they are polling.

While President Rousseff may be able to weather her lowered popularity in the face of a disastrous World Cup, governments – particularly those of newly developing or under-developed economies – may now think twice about hosting the World Cup.

Such second thoughts may be particularly weighty if the people in the host nation have any political decision-making power over the decision.

Andrew Kennis writes for America’s Program, where this story originally appeared.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/15/brazil-defeat-and-the-high-cost-of-hosting-the-world-cup/

 

Overcrowded Holding Center for Migrant Children

Under mounting pressure from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, Border Patrol officials on Wednesday finally let reporters visit two processing facilities where hundreds of unaccompanied migrant youth are being detained.

Some 900 children are being housed at a former warehouse in Nogales, Arizona, which was recently outfitted to handle an unprecedented surge of mostly Central American child migrants across the US-Mexico border. Another facility in Brownsville, Texas, is holding around 500 children, double its intended capacity. The Los Angeles Times described conditions there as “overcrowded and unsanitary.” CBP is required by law to turn over any migrant children to the Department of Health and Human Services within seventy-two hours of detaining them. Officials at the Nogales and Brownsville facilities told reporters they are struggling to meet this requirement.

Earlier this month, the White House requested $2 billion to handle the surge of migrant youths, which President Obama has declared an “urgent humanitarian situation.” US Customs and Border Protection reports that around 47,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since October 1, 2013, nearly double the amount of last year. A majority of the migrant children arrived from Central American countries, seeking refuge from rampant violence or hoping to reconnect with family members already in the states.

CBP officials took reporters on highly controlled tours of the Brownsville and Nogales facilities, in which visitors were prohibited from bringing cellphones and sound recorders, or speaking with any of the children. Only two photographers, one for each facility, were allowed to bring a camera. Here are some of their photos:


Some 900 unaccompanied children are being held at a converted warehouse in Nogales. Border Patrol officials set up the Arizona facility after a similiar processing center in Texas ran out of space. (Reuters/Ross D. Franklin/Pool)
Nogales
Female detainees sleep in a holding cell. According to The New York Times, children held at the Nogales facility are allowed just forty-five minutes of outdoor time a day. (Reuters/Ross D. Franklin/Pool)

Child detainees are escorted to make phone calls. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Child detainees wait to use a portable restroom, as a World Cup match plays on a suspended television. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

http://www.thenation.com/blog/180331/what-overcrowded-holding-center-migrant-children-looks?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=email_nation&utm_campaign=Email%20Nation%20%28NEW%29%20-%20Headline%20Nation%20Feed%2020140619&newsletter=email_nation

Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

by Vik Birkbeck on June 17, 2014

Post image for Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

The Homeless Worker Movement occupied a building in Rio, helping to shelter thousands — but in the run-up to the World Cup they were violently evicted.

 

Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It’s been five years since Brazil celebrated its selection by FIFA to host the ongoing 2014 World Cup. The announcement was made in great style on Copacabana Beach, packed with thousands jumping, dancing and in many cases partying all night — in what many would consider to be true Brazilian style. FIFA clearly thought that this was the safe choice in its gradual march around the globe, bringing recalcitrant nations and continents into its orbit. Brazil, after all, is the prototype football-crazy nation, where the whole country grinds to a halt to watch its squad in action. So who could possibly imagine that four years later millions of people would be marching through the streets not only of Rio and São Paulo but also Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, Goiania, shouting Não Vai ter Copa! (‘There won’t be a World Cup!).

The original impetus for the massive demonstrations of 2013 was a nationwide rise in bus fares, but with the upcoming Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup, public attention quickly focused on the vast sums being invested in stadiums and the infrastructure for the tournament. The “FIFA standard” of the new stadiums was contrasted with the recurrent problems of public transport, health and education. The double whammy of also being selected to host the 2016 Olympics engendered a wildly ambitious restructuring and development plan in Rio de Janeiro.

On December 5, 2009, the Strategic Plan of the City Government announced by Mayor Eduardo Paes presented as one of its core aims the reduction of the total surface area occupied by favelas (shanty towns) by 3.5%, purportedly because they were located “in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, conservation areas, or areas of public utility.” But as a banner carried by a protesting victim of this eviction policy read: “When rich people live in the South zone, it’s called a noble area, when poor people live there it’s called an area at risk.”

Graffiti on the walls of Metro Mangueira by the Moroccan-French artist Pleks Kustom (photo by author).

Even the beloved Maracana stadium, an international icon of Rio’s identity, had to be entirely reconstructed in line with FIFA directives. In the process the geral — the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans — has been abolished, effectively excluding the poorer part of the population from attending games. Watching live football is now the privilege of the “whites”, the upper and middle-class spectators who are able to pay more for the right to watch the game sitting down. In the process of reconstructing Maracana, the developers hit on a perfect scheme for earning more money by knocking down the surroundings as well to make space for a massive parking lot and shopping mall.

The destroyed surroundings of the stadium included Friedenreich School, one of Rio’s best municipal schools (in a country which ranks 78th for quality of education); Lanagro, Rio’s only laboratory for analyzing foodstuffs (while Brazil has the highest consumption of pesticides in the world and all corn and soy plantations are genetically modified); the Olympic-standard Celio de Barros athletics complex and Julio de Lamare water-sports complex (both newly reconstructed at vast expense for the 2007 Pan-American Games and used for training Rio’s Olympic athletes); Metro Mangueira, a poor community built 34 years ago by the construction workers of the Rio underground, hence its name; and finally Aldeia Maracanã, a multi-ethnic indigenous community created in 2006 around the abandoned 19th century building, which had long been associated with indigenous culture and which housed the Indian museum for over twenty years.

Metro Mangueira is emblematic of the many evictions carried out or planned in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. It was once an orderly, close-knit community and, although poor, the houses were solidly built by construction-workers. In October 2010, employees of the City Council started informing the inhabitants that their community was “at risk”, marking their houses with crosses and numbers, reminiscent of the Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos. The 107 families who accepted were moved to Cosmos, some 45 miles away, causing enormous hardship for those with jobs or schools nearby. The City Council tractors then moved in to demolish the newly abandoned homes, leaving huge holes and piles of broken masonry, opening the community to drug dealers, prostitution and a plague of rats and mosquitoes.

As a result, the official explanation used to justify the eviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With families and individuals occupying the ruins and rubble of the demolished homes, the area was soon transformed into a risk zone. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, with the World Cup in sight, the demolition trucks moved back into the community. Instead of a real option for those about to be evicted, the city council proposed to register them in the federal programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) which subsidizes low income families to acquire houses. Although federal, this program is administered by city councils in each state. There have been no new public housing developments in the central area of Rio, so the register is just a piece of paper. Popular resistance to the demolition of Metro Mangueira lasted several days and led to a large contingent of military police attacking young and old alike with pepper spray, bombs and rubber bullets.

Resistance during the final eviction of Metro Mangueira (photo by Paula Kossatz).

Before the advent of Google Maps, maps of Rio de Janeiro depicted the older, more traditional areas of the city and the newer expansions towards Barra and Recreio while the rest of the area was apparently uninhabited space. Google maps dealt a serious blow to this bucolic image of the Cidade Maravilhosa (‘Wonderful City’) by revealing that all available space in the urban area — hills, valleys, rough ground — was occupied by favelas. The reaction of much of the elite was a sense of betrayal, but it’s impossible to sweep these satellite images under the carpet. Suddenly everyone was forced to admit the favelas‘ existence.

After the draconian austerity measures and structural reforms imposed by the IMF during the debt crisis of the 1980s, the favelas had spread rapidly as more and more people were driven to the cities by the expansion of industrial agriculture. In their new urban dwellings, the inhabitants lingered in a sort of limbo-state, as an auxiliary labor force at wages insufficient to adequately feed their families, let alone pay for housing. Signs of the acute housing crisis in Rio are reflected in the number of people — even entire families — sleeping in the streets in the city center, while new favelas continuously spring up in every available space.

So when at the beginning of April 2014 some of the leaders of the Movement of Homeless Workers identified a large building and surrounding yard and out-houses which used to belong to the former telephone company Telerj, and which had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, they quickly set about occupying the area. Thousands of families invested their minimal resources into buying planks to construct huts in the area which in the space of a week was occupied by ten thousand people. Although the occupants of the Telerj building included pregnant women, elderly people and thousands of children from babies to adolescents, no real attempt was made to identify the occupants or investigate their necessities.

TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, was quick to denounce the “invaders” as criminals, flying over the area for aerial shots of the “invasion.” The telephone company that took over from Telerj — Oi — had never occupied the building, which was going to be sold to the city government and which was destined for the ‘My House, My Life’ program. However, with the impasse of the occupation, the “owners” soon appeared and a suit for reintegration of the property was rushed through the courts. On Wednesday, April 9, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the occupation had been carried out by organized professionals, implying criminal intent, and declared that the area should be “disoccupied” and returned to its owners. The mayor went as far as stating that “really poor people who need houses don’t stake out their plots with planks and construction materials.”

Rubble is all that remains of the Metro Mangueira community (photo by author).

So what was the solution for all this “criminal activity”? At dawn on April 11, 1.600 heavily armed military police invaded the area. Sleeping women were kicked awake, huts were knocked down, everyone was sprayed with chemical spray — not from the usual hand-held canisters but from massive cylinders the size of fire extinguishers, which the police carried in backpacks. All members of the press, whether corporate or independent, were expelled from the area and even one of the Globo reporters was arrested by police on the spurious charge that he was “throwing stones.” Occupants allege that four infants succumbed to the chemical spray and rumors circulated that one of the reasons for keeping reporters out was to prevent them from witnessing the fatalities.

The sheer number of people involved, the fact that noone had time to create a real register of the occupants of the building, and the pandemonium that ensued makes it impossible to corroborate the facts. Nonetheless, the photographs and videos of independent reporters on the scene bear witness to the terror of the “disoccupation.” Testimonies of many of those involved reveal that these are people who have already been evicted from other areas in recent demolitions and evictions, while others are victims of the rising prices engendered by the militarization of the favelas.

The occupation and subsequent eviction of the Telerj building, just as the destruction of the Metro Mangueira community, is exemplary of the complete disregard for right to housing of Brazil’s poorest people. On the one hand, entire neighborhoods are demolished to make space for parking lots and shopping malls, and on the other many favelas have been occupied by militarized police forces (UPPs). This means that communities lacking any form of public services are basically placed under permanent curfew, which goes under the dubious title of “Public Security,” and any kind of protest is treated as a criminal uprising.

The contagious spirit of the mass protests that have been rocking Brazil over the past year has also found fertile soil in the favelas, where the death of every young person murdered by police is another rallying cry for popular resistance. As the current wave of anti-World Cup protests shows, the genie is out of the bottle — and it will take a lot more than violent evictions and police repression to silence the awakened and indignant multitude.

Vik Birkbeck is British by birth but is a long-time resident of Brazil. As a media activist she has been filming and photographing popular culture and street movements since the eighties. All the photos in the article are by the author.

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

Brazilian workers clash with police on eve of World Cup

By Rafael Azul

10 June 2014

With just days to go to the June 12 opening of the World Cup football (soccer) tournament in Brazil, the country has been shaken by a series of strikes and protests, including a six-day walkout by transit workers that has paralyzed the country’s largest city, São Paulo, with a population of nearly 12 million people.

São Paulo Metro strikers [Photo: Oliver Kornblihtt / Midia NINJA]

The authorities have confronted the transit strikers with naked repression and violence. Military police shock troops have been deployed against workers’ picket lines and demonstrations, employing tear gas, rubber bullets and sound grenades against strikers and their supporters, dozens of whom have been arrested.

A São Paulo labor court, in an unprecedented Sunday session, ruled the strike “abusive” and illegal. A mass assembly of transit workers voted the same day to continue the walkout in defiance of the court ruling and of the threat from the state government that all strikers who failed to return to work on Monday would be fired.

A meeting between union officials and representatives of the São Paulo state government Monday afternoon broke up without any agreement being reached. Brazilian media reported that the union had been willing to accept a wage settlement below the 12.2 percent hike it had demanded, but insisted that the firing of some 60 strikers for actions on the picket lines be withdrawn.

São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who was the 2006 presidential candidate backed by the Brazilian right, took a hardline position that there was “nothing to discuss,” i.e., that there would be no wage offer other than 8.7 percent originally offered, and none of those who had been fired would be given their jobs back.

Transit officials claimed Monday afternoon that 29 percent of the workforce was on the job Monday and that 50 out of 65 train stations were open, but with limited service.

The union held an assembly late Monday in which workers voted to suspend the strike until Wednesday, when they are to meet again to decide whether to resume the walkout—on the day of the World Cup’s first game—if their demand for the rehiring of the fired strikers is not met.

The transit strike follows similar actions by teachers in both São Paulo and Río de Janeiro, bus workers and other sections of the working class. These strikes have been accompanied by mass demonstrations across the country rejecting the vast expenditures on the World Cup amid mass poverty and inadequate government spending on education, health care, housing and other basic necessities.

Organized by the International Football Federation (FIFA), the tournament, which takes place every four years, brings in the national teams of many countries. The football tournament is expected to generate US$4 billion and over US$2 billion in profits for FIFA and the Cup’s corporate promoters. This record sum is roughly twice the revenue generated at the South Africa games in 2010.

Authorities claimed to have “learned the lessons” of the protests that rocked Brazil a year ago, when demonstrators fought pitched battles with security forces outside stadiums hosting the so-called Confederation Cup, which serves as a rehearsal for the larger World Cup tournament.

The government is spending close to $1 billion on organizing a huge repressive force, including an army of 57,000 troops and 100,000 police and security agents to protect the games primarily from social protests and strikes—though inevitably terrorism has been raised as a pretext.

The buildup to the tournament was a major factor in the mass demonstrations that brought millions into the streets of Río de Janeiro, São Paulo and other cities a year ago. While those protests were triggered by threatened transit fare hikes, the demonstrators pointed to the public expenditure of 18 billion reais (US$8 billion) that the government had budgeted for building and upgrading stadiums and airports, while education, health care and other human needs were neglected.

In the wake of last year’s mass protests, the Workers Party (PT) government promised to comply with the demands for improved education, health care and housing. However, since then, President Dilma Rousseff has failed to make good on these promises and instead has repeatedly made use of federal security and military forces to repress strikes and protests.

The military police have been employed as an occupation force in the favelas (shantytowns), including the Maré complex of 15 favelas in Río de Janeiro, which straddles the route between Río’s international airport and the wealthy tourist districts.

As early as 2009, the government had begun building walls around Río de Janeiro hillside slums (favelas) in preparation for their militarization in anticipation of the World Cup. Having failed to resolve the social issues, the government has made use of the police. Government security forces have killed over 5,600 Brazilians since 2007, many of them in the occupied favelas.

This is the second time that the FIFA cup is being held in Brazil. The first was in 1950 and marked the resumption of the games following their suspension during World War II.

Brazil at the time was a nation in the process of rapid industrialization. War-imposed shortages had stimulated domestic production, spurred by government import-substitution policies. Millions were abandoning the countryside and settling in the coastal cities and the industrial south. Plans would soon take shape for creating a new capital, Brasilia, in the center of the country, in large measure to isolate the government from mass strikes and social struggles. Even though more than half of the nation’s inhabitants were in poverty, living standards and life expectancy were on the rise, infant deaths had declined, and more Brazilians had access to medical services.

Despite this accelerated growth, successive governments were unable to resolve long-standing social and regional conflicts and free the country from the stranglehold of US imperialism. The latter played a crucial role in imposing, in 1964, a brutal military-fascist dictatorship that lasted until 1985.

Sixty-four years have passed since the 1950 World Cup. In contrast to that earlier event, this time the country is in the midst of economic decline. For many Brazilians, their country is moving in reverse. A poll released last week showed that 72 percent of the population are dissatisfied with the way things are going, compared to 55 percent a year ago.

In 2003, when FIFA announced that Brazil would host the championship, a PT government, under former union leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, had come to office and had raised expectations that Brazil, along with the group of so-called emerging economies known as the BRICs (including Russia, India and China), would find a path to increasing economic growth and greater social equality.

The PT model of “Lulalism” or “Brasilia consensus,” consisted of free market policies, privatizations and de-regulations combined with populist demagogy and minimal assistance programs for the most impoverished layers of the population. It was promoted as a free market alternative to both the “Bolivarian Revolution” of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and to the “Washington consensus” of savage cuts in social programs. The government was to deregulate businesses and privatize state industries, and create a Central Bank independent of the government but under the control of global financial institutions, while still devoting some resources to social programs.

In the end, neither Brazil, the BRICS, nor the rest of the emerging economies proved stronger than the world capitalist crisis and the deterioration of global commerce and the collapse of world commodity prices, due in Brazil’s case to a drop in orders from China.

The world price of iron ore, for example, up until recently Brazil’s main export product, has fallen by more than 20 percent this year alone. The Reuters news agency recently interviewed officials of Brazilian iron producer Vale, who indicated that less efficient and exhausted mines are being shut down in an attempt to support ore prices. Since 2010, Brazil has faced rising inflation, unemployment and capital flight.

The PT was created as a political instrument for diverting the explosive eruption of mass workers’ struggles at the end of the military dictatorship into safer reformist and parliamentary channels. Various pseudo-left tendencies participated in its construction and hailed it as a model for organizing workers internationally.

Since then, it has been exposed as a corrupt bourgeois party and, after over a decade in power, the favored instrument of rule of the Brazilian financial and corporate elite. The pretense that this party has anything to do with social reform has become more threadbare with each passing day. As it hosts the 2014 World Cup, the Rousseff administration reveals itself as a government that lives in fear of the Brazilian working class and poor and which is prepared to resort to police state repression to guarantee the interests of big business.

Eduardo Galeano, The World Cup and the Corporatization of Soccer

 

 

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“The World Turns Around a Spinning Ball”
Choreographed War and Other Aspects of the World’s Greatest Game
By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted at TomDispatch from Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow (Nation Books, Open Road Media ebooks).]

The Stadium

Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.

At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953 when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghost of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say.

The English Invasions

Outside a madhouse, in an empty lot in Buenos Aires, several blond boys were kicking a ball around.

“Who are they?” asked a child.

“Crazy people,” answered his father. “Crazy English.”

Journalist Juan José de Soiza Reilly remembers this from his childhood. At first, soccer seemed like a crazy man’s game in the River Plate. But as the empire expanded, soccer became an export as typically British as Manchester cloth, railroads, loans from Barings, or the doctrine of free trade. It arrived on the feet of sailors who played by the dikes of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, while Her Majesty’s ships unloaded blankets, boots, and flour, and took on wool, hides, and wheat to make more blankets, boots, and flour on the other side of the world. English citizens — diplomats, and managers of railroad and gas companies — formed the first local teams. The English of Montevideo and Buenos Aires staged Uruguay’s first international competition in 1889, under a gigantic portrait of Queen Victoria, her eyes lowered in a mask of disdain. Another portrait of the queen of the seas watched over the first Brazilian soccer match in 1895, played between the British subjects of the Gas Company and the São Paulo Railway.

Old photographs show these pioneers in sepia tones. They were warriors trained for battle. Cotton and wool armor covered their entire bodies so as not to offend the ladies in attendance, who unfurled silk parasols and waved lace handkerchiefs. The only flesh the players exposed were their serious faces peering out from behind wax-twirled mustaches below caps or hats. Their feet were shod with heavy Mansfield shoes.

It did not take long for the contagion to spread. Sooner rather than later, the native-born gentlemen of local society started playing that crazy English game. From London they imported the shirts, shoes, thick ankle socks, and pants that reached from the chest to below the knee. Balls no longer confounded customs officers, who at first had not known how to classify the species. Ships also brought rulebooks to these far-off coasts of southern America, and with them came words that remained for many years to come: field, score, goal, goalkeeper, back, half, forward, out ball, penalty, offside. A “foul” merited punishment by the “referee,” but the aggrieved player could accept an apology from the guilty party “as long as his apology was sincere and was expressed in proper English,” according to the first soccer rulebook that circulated in the River Plate.

Meanwhile, other English words were being incorporated into the speech of Latin American countries in the Caribbean: pitcher, catcher, innings. Having fallen under U.S. influence, these countries learned to hit a ball with a round wooden bat. The Marines shouldered bats next to their rifles when they imposed imperial order on the region by blood and by fire. Baseball became for the people of the Caribbean what soccer is for us.

Choreographed War

In soccer, ritual sublimation of war, 11 men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city, or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armor exorcize the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.

The stadium has towers and banners like a castle, as well as a deep and wide moat around the field. In the middle, a white line separates the territories in dispute. At each end stand the goals to be bombed with flying balls. The area directly in front of the goals is called the “danger zone.”

In the center circle, the captains exchange pennants and shake hands as the ritual demands. The referee blows his whistle and the ball, another whistling wind, is set in motion. The ball travels back and forth, a player traps her and takes her for a ride until he gets pummeled in a tackle and falls spread-eagled. The victim does not rise. In the immensity of the green expanse, the player lies prostrate. From the immensity of the stands, voices thunder. The enemy crowd emits a friendly roar:

“¡Que se muera!”

“Devi morire!”

“Tuez-le!”

“Mach ihn nieder!”

“Let him die!”

“Kill, kill, kill!”

Tears Do Not Flow from a Handkerchief

Soccer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war. Then “sudden death” is no longer just a name for a dramatic way of deciding a tied match. These days, soccer fanaticism has come to occupy the place formerly reserved for religious fervor, patriotic ardor, and political passion. As often occurs with religion, patriotism, and politics, soccer can bring tensions to a boil, and many horrors are committed in its name.

Some believe men possessed by the demon of the ball foam at the mouth, and frankly that image presents a fairly accurate picture of the frenzied fan. But even the most indignant of critics would concede that in most cases violence does not originate in soccer, any more than tears flow from a handkerchief.

In 1969 war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador, two small and very poor Central American countries that for more than a century had been accumulating reasons to distrust one another. Each had always served as the magical explanation for the other’s problems. Hondurans have no work? Because Salvadorans come and take their jobs. Salvadorans are hungry? Because Hondurans mistreat them. Both countries believed their neighbor was the enemy, and the relentless military dictatorships of each did all they could to perpetuate the error.

This war was called the Soccer War because the sparks that set off the conflagration were struck in the stadiums of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. The trouble began during the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup. There were tussles, a few injuries, several deaths. A week later, the two countries broke off relations. Honduras expelled a hundred thousand Salvadoran peasants who had always worked in that country’s plantings and harvests; Salvadoran tanks crossed the border.

The war lasted a week and killed four thousand people. The two governments, dictatorships forged at a U.S. factory called the School of the Americas, fanned the fires of mutual hatred. In Tegucigalpa the slogan was “Honduran, don’t sit still, grab a stick and a Salvadoran kill.” In San Salvador: “Teach those barbarians a lesson.” The lords of land and war did not lose a drop of blood, while two barefoot peoples avenged their identical misfortunes by killing each other with abandon.

The End of the Match

The ball turns, the world turns. People suspect the sun is a burning ball that works all day and spends the night bouncing around the heavens while the moon does its shift, though science is somewhat doubtful. There is absolutely no question, however, that the world turns around a spinning ball: the final of the ’94 World Cup was watched by more than two billion people, the largest crowd ever of the many that have assembled in this planet’s history. It is the passion most widely shared: many admirers of the ball play with her on fields and pastures, and many more have box seats in front of the TV and bite their nails as 22 men in shorts chase a ball and kick her to prove their love.

At the end of the ’94 Cup every child born in Brazil was named Romário, and the turf of the stadium in Los Angeles was sold off like pizza, at twenty dollars a slice. A bit of insanity worthy of a better cause? A primitive and vulgar business? A bag of tricks manipulated by the owners? I’m one of those who believe that soccer might be all that, but it is also much more: a feast for the eyes that watch it and a joy for the body that plays it. A reporter once asked German theologian Dorothee Sölle, “How would you explain happiness to a child?”

“I wouldn’t explain it,” she answered. “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.”

Professional soccer does everything to castrate that energy of happiness, but it survives in spite of all the spites. And maybe that’s why soccer never stops being astonishing. As my friend Ángel Ruocco says, that’s the best thing about it — its stubborn capacity for surprise. The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs, the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a runty, bowlegged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.

An astonishing void: official history ignores soccer. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before. These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes. In this end-of-century world, whoever does not die of hunger dies of boredom.

For years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of soccer, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet: irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.

From that challenge, and from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.

Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers. He is the author of a three-volume history of the Americas, Memory of Fire, and most recently, a history of humanity, Mirrors, as well as Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. He is the recipient of many international prizes, including the first Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur. These excerpts are taken from Soccer in Sun and Shadow, his 1997 book, translated by Mark Fried, and updated to include World Soccer Cup matches through 2010. 

Excerpted from Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Copyright © 1997 by Eduardo Galeano and Mark Fried, translation. Published in paperback by Nation Books, 2013.  Published in ebook by Open Road Media, 2014; available wherever ebooks are sold. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, New Mexico.  All rights reserved.

 

Copyright 2014 Eduardo Galeano

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Western Media Trashed Russia at Every Opportunity During the Olympics, Distracting from a Big Success Story

 


Sochi showed how Russia can transform its economy through infrastructure investment.

Photo Credit: Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

 The Sochi Olympics were the great success Russia hoped for. The opening ceremonies proved a radiant display drawing on Russia’s most compelling cultural assets.  This artful look back to Russia’s past greatness proved both a reminder and challenge to its own people to reprise their historical greatness going forward. Meanwhile, its closing ceremonies reprised these themes, reminding the viewer of Russia’s continued vibrancy in the arts.

From an economic vantage point, national hosts for Olympic games always use them as an occasion for enormous infrastructure spending for economic development. One of us (Hudson) was the economist for Montreal brokerage houses back in 1976 when every French Canadian family seemed to become millionaires on the games’ cost overruns. The usual argument by governments is to hire a Keynesian economist who will say, “Spend tens of $billions and the multiplier will generate hundreds of $billions in national income. Taxes at 20% will recover all the expense, so in an economy with under-employment, whatever you spend on the Olympics will be free.” This is the kind of argument that World Bank economists use to justify infrastructure investment by underdeveloped countries, and what any Olympic host city argues to minimize the vast cost overruns that always occur. Construction contracts are about as honest as figure skating judging.

At least this argument is better than trickle-down economics. For Russia, the Sochi Olympics did for that city’s infrastructure what the Olympics did for Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and other sites. But for Russia, it was the first real Keynesian-type investment in infrastructure to start rebuilding the nation physically – in an economy where construction has not been the strong suit that it has in Western economies.

If there were any time for those hostile to Russia to provoke an intemperate move, this was it. The games were supposed to show a positive Russian face to the world, helping heal the old Cold War tensions. So, from Mr. Putin’s vantage point, the worst thing that could happen would be a distraction to remind the world of old Soviet-era repression. So of course, this was precisely what the Western press played up. To read the New York Times or Washington Post, the real sporting event was whether the police would descend on Pussy Riot’s sideshow.

Russia did itself no favors by sending Cossacks to deal with what would otherwise have been a nearly invisible Pussy Riot protest performance. If Putin’s aim was to promote a view of Russia as a modern developing country, that of the demonstrators was to identify his government as modern-day Stalinists.

In advance of the games American audiences were regaled with ‘Orange Alert’ tales of impending doom from terrorist attacks on the demonstrations staged by the regime’s opponents. But the Russian government dealt deftly to provide security for the games while seeing the Western anti-public relations ploy and did not overreact. The games were indeed about athletics, not minority rights, separatism and anti-authoritarian democracy. There was nothing like the violence seen in New York City when the city’s police descended on the peaceful Occupy Wall Street demonstration after 1:30 AM and started smashing the equipment of the demonstrators (especially their guitars and musical instruments), trashing their library and driving them out, with liberal use of pepper spray on the defenseless.

Russia’s poorly conceived Cossack intervention aside, it refrained from doing anything on the scale of what Mayor Bloomberg did to Occupy Wall Street. This contrast was not drawn by the Western media. The last thing that they would promote was the idea of Russia new role as peacebroker on the international stage. So there was no mention of how Russian pressure on Bashar al-Assad in Syria prevented an escalation of conflict there that could have rippled through the Middle East, providing fertile terrain for the expansion of the Al-Qaeda franchise in the U.S.-backed alliance. Putin’s act in saving the US from a disastrous intervention might have helped the ‘reset’ on US-Russian cooperation and security relations.

Leading up to the Sochi Olympics were reports from US media of failed infrastructure on the ground. Hotel rooms were not quite ready. The water was yellow (as usually is the case in newly built and plumbed buildings). The real story, of course, was precisely the vast infrastructure investment in building. This was a new path for Russia, where construction had languished ever since 1917 as the economy pushed industrialization more than residential or commercial building.

Yet here was a regional city that had been living under near-Third World conditions before the Olympic reconstruction began. Sochi even lacked potable water – a condition still found in many parts of Russia since the collapse of the USSR. The economic success of Sochi has been to turn it into a modern city in the making, with infrastructure that will contribute to its long-term potential to become a tourist destination.

The Olympics thus served as a catalyst to bring money and development to the Caucasus. This is, after all, the best tonic against the Islamic fundamentalist movements that thrive most in poverty. The Sochi success thus is a first step in a constructive and peaceful mode of dealing with terrorism, in contrast to the devastation that has been wrought in post-revolution Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Sochi represents the kind of development that should take place across all of Russia. It is much better than building up sovereign wealth funds to play in stock markets. Russia’s money and resources – above all its labor – is best employed at home, and construction has been lacking for too long. It typically accounts for 10 percent of GDP in advanced countries. (In hothouse Ireland it rose to 25% of GDP by 2007.) Where better to spend credit and money than on infrastructure to transform Russia’s economy and living standards?

What has collapsed in the past two decades is not only much of Russia’s infrastructure, but its prospective middle class. Nothing would go further toward rebuilding prosperity than a national program to transform the country’s infrastructure. Sochi has shown the way forward. That is the real story that the Western media have sidestepped.

The usual corruption charges were leveled against the Sochi Olympics, as in every such games within memory. That is what happens with big construction projects everywhere. Yet there was no reminiscing about similar events over the pasts three or four decades, or for the role in such infrastructure investment in catalyzing an economic takeoff. If Russia becomes a leading actor in the struggle for clean government in the realm of big construction, it will be nearly among the first nation to do this, and let’s hope it can be.

The other major criticism of Russia as the games approached led to many Americans not attend: Russia’s recent discriminatory laws against the LGBT community. These laws are mostly designed to pacify socially conservative elements in Russia (as right-wing as American Christian churches – well, maybe not quite as intolerant, but you get the picture). But the reality is that these laws are not being enforced in any serious way. While we hardly support these measures, the best way to deal with this issue will be real economic development of the type presented by Sochi. Development leads to tolerance.

The most serious human rights challenge in Russia is that from ethnic vigilante groups. They are the gangs taking real action against their targets as they once did in the US. In this instance the Russian government has moved aggressively to thwart this dangerous trend.

What would Dick Cheney have done if Russian NGOs sponsored separatist movements in Texas, California or New England? How would US police have reacted against armed revolutionaries seizing the armory and throwing Molotov cocktails and bombs at public buildings, killing police, painting swastikas on Jewish houses and claiming vigilante justice? If this is Obama’s “reset” with Russia, he is resetting the Cold War by setting the neocons loose in the former Soviet economies. If there is one thing that the CIA has shown its competence in, it is in setting one ethnic group against the others – Sunni vs Shiite, Kurd against Arab, Persian against them all. When other countries seek to defend a multi-ethnic secular state, the US foreign office in all cases has backed the fundamentalists for the past half-century. Let’s hope Obama moves away from these hardline elements in his State Department and more toward the type of cooperation with Russia that prevented a US invasion of Sryia.

Sochi shows that Russia can pull off world-class projects on the global stage. The games proved how Russia can transform its economy through infrastructure investment in a way that can build up a middle class while countering religious and racist fundamentalist discontent.

The US has a curious double standard when it comes to Russian leaders. The Western press applauded Boris Yeltsin for unleashing tanks on Russia’s elected parliament in 1993, and Wall Street applauded when he turned over the country’s wealth to oligarchs. Contrast this with the treatment of Putin. Although not an ideal democrat in the ‘Western’ mold, he has shown himself a potentially valuable partner for the US in foreign affairs and he hasn’t unleashed tanks on parliament.

Would not the world be a much better place with a developed and thriving Russia, building up a middle class through a construction boom? Wouldn’t Russia better develop if blocked the escape of its national wealth to offshore banks located in the West? What terrifies the West is that Russia may in fact do as the Americans have historically done in building up protected industry and agriculture and introducing a rule of law aiming at nationwide development rather than a client kleptocracy. That is the real nightmare of the US press, judging from its Olympic coverage: that Russia may succeed and provide an alternative to the renewal of Cold War-like belligerence now being encouraged by the American “resets” from Ukraine to Sochi.

Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and author of Super-Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (1968 & 2003), Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (1992 & 2009) and of The Myth of Aid (1971).

Jeffrey Sommers is an associate professor of political economy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and is visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.  He is co-editor of the forthcoming book The Contradictions of Austerity. In addition to CounterPunch he also publishes in The Financial Times, The Guardian, TruthOut and routinely appears as an expert on global television programs.  He can be reached at: Jeffrey.sommers@fulbrightmail.org

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Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine

 


U.S. media malpractice the pervasive new norm.

Photo Credit: ID1974 / Shutterstock.com

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

The history of this degradation is also clear. It began in the early 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, when the US media adopted Washington’s narrative that almost everything President Boris Yeltsin did was a “transition from communism to democracy” and thus in America’s best interests. This included his economic “shock therapy” and oligarchic looting of essential state assets, which destroyed tens of millions of Russian lives; armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament and imposition of a “presidential” Constitution, which dealt a crippling blow to democratization and now empowers Putin; brutal war in tiny Chechnya, which gave rise to terrorists in Russia’s North Caucasus; rigging of his own re-election in 1996; and leaving behind, in 1999, his approval ratings in single digits, a disintegrating country laden with weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, most American journalists still give the impression that Yeltsin was an ideal Russian leader.

Since the early 2000s, the media have followed a different leader-centric narrative, also consistent with US policy, that devalues multifaceted analysis for a relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts. (Was any Soviet Communist leader after Stalin ever so personally villainized?) If Russia under Yeltsin was presented as having legitimate politics and national interests, we are now made to believe that Putin’s Russia has none at all, at home or abroad—even on its own borders, as in Ukraine.

Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin policies. But anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s—only in the “autocrat” Putin who, however authoritarian, in reality lacks such power. Nor is he credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country, assisting US security pursuits from Afghanistan and Syria to Iran or even with granting amnesty, in December, to more than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.

Not surprisingly, in January The Wall Street Journal featured the widely discredited former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, branding Putin’s government as one of “deceit, violence and cynicism,” with the Kremlin a “nerve center of the troubles that bedevil the West.” But wanton Putin-bashing is also the dominant narrative in centrist, liberal and progressive media, from the Post, Times and The New Republic to CNN, MSNBC and HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, where Howard Dean, not previously known for his Russia expertise, recently declared, to the panel’s approval, “Vladimir Putin is a thug.”

The media therefore eagerly await Putin’s downfall—due to his “failing economy” (some of its indicators are better than US ones), the valor of street protesters and other right-minded oppositionists (whose policies are rarely examined), the defection of his electorate (his approval ratings remain around 65 percent) or some welcomed “cataclysm.” Evidently believing, as does the Times, for example, that democrats and a “much better future” will succeed Putin (not zealous ultranationalists growing in the streets and corridors of power), US commentators remain indifferent to what the hoped-for “destabilization of his regime” might mean in the world’s largest nuclear country.

Certainly, The New Republic’s lead writer on Russia, Julia Ioffe, does not explore the question, or much else of real consequence, in her nearly 10,000-word February 17 cover story. Ioffe’s bannered theme is devoutly Putin-phobic: “He Crushed His Opposition and Has Nothing to Show for It But a Country That Is Falling Apart.” Neither sweeping assertion is spelled out or documented. A compilation of chats with Russian-born Ioffe’s disaffected (but seemingly not “crushed”) Moscow acquaintances and titillating personal gossip long circulating on the Internet, the article seems better suited (apart from some factual errors) for the Russian tabloids, as does Ioffe’s disdain for objectivity. Protest shouts of “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” were “one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced.” So was tweeting “Putin’s fucked, y’all.” Nor does she forget the hopeful mantra “cataclysm seems closer than ever now.”

* * *

For weeks, this toxic coverage has focused on the Sochi Olympics and the deepening crisis in Ukraine. Even before the Games began, the Times declared the newly built complex a “Soviet-style dystopia” and warned in a headline, Terrorism and Tension, Not Sports and Joy.On opening day, the paper found space for three anti-Putin articles and a lead editorial, a feat rivaled by the Post. Facts hardly mattered. Virtually every US report insisted that a record $51 billion “squandered” by Putin on the Sochi Games proved they were “corrupt.” But as Ben Aris of Business New Europe pointed out, as much as $44 billion may have been spent “to develop the infrastructure of the entire region,” investment “the entire country needs.”

Overall pre-Sochi coverage was even worse, exploiting the threat of terrorism so licentiously it seemed pornographic. The Post, long known among critical-minded Russia-watchers as Pravda on the Potomac, exemplified the media ethos. A sports columnist and an editorial page editor turned the Olympics into “a contest of wills” between the despised Putin’s “thugocracy” and terrorist “insurgents.” The “two warring parties” were so equated that readers might have wondered which to cheer for. If nothing else, American journalists gave terrorists an early victory, tainting “Putin’s Games” and frightening away many foreign spectators, including some relatives of the athletes.

The Sochi Games will soon pass, triumphantly or tragically, but the potentially fateful Ukrainian crisis will not. A new Cold War divide between West and East may now be unfolding, not in Berlin but in the heart of Russia’s historical civilization. The result could be a permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of a hot war far worse than the one in Georgia in 2008. These dangers have been all but ignored in highly selective, partisan and inflammatory US media accounts, which portray the European Union’s “Partnership” proposal benignly as Ukraine’s chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from Russia, thwarted only by a “bullying” Putin and his “cronies” in Kiev.

Not long ago, committed readers could count on The New York Review of Books for factually trustworthy alternative perspectives on important historical and contemporary subjects. But when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, the NYRB has succumbed to the general media mania. In a January 21 blog post, Amy Knight, a regular contributor and inveterate Putin-basher, warned the US government against cooperating with the Kremlin on Sochi security, even suggesting that Putin’s secret services “might have had an interest in allowing or even facilitating such attacks” as killed or wounded dozens of Russians in Volgograd in December.

Knight’s innuendo prefigured a purported report on Ukraine by Yale professor Timothy Snyder in the February 20 issue. Omissions of facts, by journalists or scholars, are no less an untruth than misstatements of fact. Snyder’s article was full of both, which are widespread in the popular media, but these are in the esteemed NYRB and by an acclaimed academic. Consider a few of Snyder’s assertions:

  • ”On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship.” In fact, the “paper” legislation he’s referring to hardly constituted dictatorship, and in any event was soon repealed. Ukraine is in a state nearly the opposite of dictatorship—political chaos uncontrolled by President Viktor Yanukovych, the Parliament, the police or any other government institution.
  • ”The [parliamentary] deputies…have all but voted themselves out of existence.” Again, Snyder is alluding to the nullified “paper.” Moreover, serious discussions have been under way in Kiev about reverting to provisions in the 2004 Constitution that would return substantial presidential powers to the legislature, hardly “the end of parliamentary checks on presidential power,” as Snyder claims. (Does he dislike the prospect of a compromise outcome?)
  • ”Through remarkably large and peaceful public protests…Ukrainians have set a positive example for Europeans.” This astonishing statement may have been true in November, but it now raises questions about the “example” Snyder is advocating. The occupation of government buildings in Kiev and in Western Ukraine, the hurling of firebombs at police and other violent assaults on law enforcement officers and the proliferation of anti-Semitic slogans by a significant number of anti-Yanukovych protesters, all documented and even televised, are not an “example” most readers would recommend to Europeans or Americans. Nor are they tolerated, even if accompanied by episodes of police brutality, in any Western democracy.
  • ”Representatives of a minor group of the Ukrainian extreme right have taken credit for the violence.” This obfuscation implies that apart perhaps from a “minor group,” the “Ukrainian extreme right” is part of the positive “example” being set. (Many of its representatives have expressed hatred for Europe’s “anti-traditional” values, such as gay rights.) Still more, Snyder continues, “something is fishy,” strongly implying that the mob violence is actually being “done by russo-phone provocateurs” on behalf of “Yanukovych (or Putin).” As evidence, Snyder alludes to “reports” that the instigators “spoke Russian.” But millions of Ukrainians on both sides of their incipient civil war speak Russian.
  • Snyder reproduces yet another widespread media malpractice regarding Russia, the decline of editorial fact-checking. In a recent article in the InternationalNew York Times, he both inflates his assertions and tries to delete neofascist elements from his innocuous “Ukrainian extreme right.” Again without any verified evidence, he warns of a Putin-backed “armed intervention” in Ukraine after the Olympics and characterizes reliable reports of “Nazis and anti-Semites” among street protesters as “Russian propaganda.”

Perhaps the largest untruth promoted by Snyder and most US media is the claim that “Ukraine’s future integration into Europe” is “yearned for throughout the country.” But every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.

Such factual distortions point to two flagrant omissions by Snyder and other US media accounts. The now exceedingly dangerous confrontation between the two Ukraines was not “ignited,” as the Times claims, by Yanukovych’s duplicitous negotiating—or by Putin—but by the EU’s reckless ultimatum, in November, that the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country choose between Europe and Russia. Putin’s proposal for a tripartite arrangement, rarely if ever reported, was flatly rejected by US and EU officials.

But the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia. Whether this longstanding Washington-Brussels policy is wise or reckless, it—not Putin’s December financial offer to save Ukraine’s collapsing economy—is deceitful. The EU’s “civilizational” proposal, for example, includes “security policy” provisions, almost never reported, that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.

Any doubts about the Obama administration’s real intentions in Ukraine should have been dispelled by the recently revealed taped conversation between a top State Department official, Victoria Nuland, and the US ambassador in Kiev. The media predictably focused on the source of the “leak” and on Nuland’s verbal “gaffe”—“Fuck the EU.” But the essential revelation was that high-level US officials were plotting to “midwife” a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president—that is, a coup.

Americans are left with a new edition of an old question. Has Washington’s twenty-year winner-take-all approach to post-Soviet Russia shaped this degraded news coverage, or is official policy shaped by the coverage? Did Senator John McCain stand in Kiev alongside the well-known leader of an extreme nationalist party because he was ill informed by the media, or have the media deleted this part of the story because of McCain’s folly?

And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran. Should not Obama himself have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries? Did he not go because he was ensnared by his unwise Russia policies, or because the US media misrepresented the varying reasons cited: the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, differences on the Middle East, infringements on gay rights in Russia, and now Ukraine? Whatever the explanation, as Russian intellectuals say when faced with two bad alternatives, “Both are worst.”

What Is Slopestyle?

snowboarder doing a jump
Tim-Kevin Ravnjak (Slovenia) places second in the men’s halfpipe event on January 14, 2012 in Kuehtai, Austria.
Credit: Herbert Kratky / Shutterstock.com

Slopestyle is a new event at the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. Snowboarders travel down a slope dotted with obstacles, including quarterpipes, rails and progressively higher jumps. On the way, they perform feats of aerial acrobatics, with tricks like the backside triple cork 1440 — three head-over-heels flips and four full revolutions.

Snowboarding has a short Olympic history; it became an official event in 1998. Since those Games, the sport has been steadily adding events, with the parallel giant slalom, a race event, beginning in 2002, and snowboard cross, an event that takes place on a course of moguls and jumps starting in 2006.

Competitive slopestyle is a staple at the Winter X Games, but will make its first debut in the Olympics without one of the biggest names in snowboarding. U.S. snowboarder Shaun White bowed out of the slopestyle competition Wednesday (Feb. 5), just days before the Olympics began, after hurting his wrist on one of the jumps. [Photos: 6 Failed Winter Olympic Sports]

 

The Sochi slopestyle course is just over 2,000 feet (635 meters) long, according to designs released by the International Ski Federation. The first feature is a rail that snowboarders launch onto from a jump and then board along like a tightrope before landing back on the snow. Another jump feature is topped with a statue of a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, for local flavor.

Speed is key for pulling off snowboarding’s death-defying tricks. As a National Science Foundation video explains, snowboarders in another event, the halfpipe, are pulled down by gravity, but pushed against the side of the halfpipe by g-forces. Competitors pump their legs against these forces to build speed, which allows them to jump higher. More time in the air means more time for tricks like the Double McTwist, the Haakon flip and the Crippler.

The men’s slopestyle semifinals and finals will take place on Saturday, Feb. 8, and the women’s events will be the on Sunday, Feb. 9, Sochi time.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.