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July 30, 2014

Foreign affairs

Monday, May 5, 2014

Brazil’s hopes on knife’s edge

By Andrés Federman
For The Herald

Brazil is hosting the FIFA World Cup next month and the Olympic Games in 2016. In theory, both events are the ideal showcase to project a country’s image. Under the headline “The world has their eye on Brazil,” its government announced that 18,000 journalists have been accredited to cover the World Cup. And the broadcasters will be offering conventional TV coverage as well as a number of applications for smart phones.

Not to mention the fact that the Brazilian Government plans to offer full 4 G mobile phone service. The latter means that —in addition to conventional press coverage — word of mouth, news, and comments will instantly go around the world via social networks. And — given the tens of thousands visitors expected — there is much word of mouth potential there. Loads of which will find its way into news programmes if they happen to fall short of news.

You cannot envisage a better way of engaging massive audiences, the target of any public diplomacy effort. True, the interest of much of this audience is limited to football, regardless of the venue. But football is amazingly democratic and attracts massive amounts of business and political decision makers. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that a significant number of Brazilians are in a state of protest. Their main grievance is that too much money is being spent on a wrong priority like the World Cup. They demand instead, better health, education and transport services as well as less inflation and corruption. Many of the protesters are middle-class students. But, in addition to them, poorer Brazilians who live in the favelas complain about police brutality as well as being caught in the cross-fire of the war between the police and the drug dealers who have made the shanty towns their stronghold.

Last year, during the Confederation Cup, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest about the money being spent on the World Cup. Many were injured and at least one person was killed. Also, a few days ago, a young dancer was beaten to death in a favela. His neighbours accused the police and staged a violent demonstration.

Both groups seem determined to stage more protests next month during the tournament. And there is no guarantee that the demonstrations will be non-violent. Even if the demonstrators wish to remain peaceful, there is a looming threat posed by the very people in charge of keeping law and order: the police. First because they are putting strong pressure on the government demanding pay increases. And second, because out of lack of training or other motives , the fact is that the recent incident of the dead young dancer was by no means unique.

The people in charge of Brazil’s public diplomacy sitting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have good reason to feel unhappy.

Most reports say that the June 2013 mass protests were non-partisan. So there are not many leaders of organized structures with whom to negotiate. The same seems to be the case with the people living at the bottom of the social ladder. Perhaps some leaders are to be found there, but the only way they can remain in the leadership is seeming to be as inflexible as possible. As for the police, the government is undertaking a very serious training effort in order to avoid unnecessary violence. But the fine line between enforcement of law and order and wanton violence can get very thin. And then there is the possibility of an agent provocateur within the force.

So there is a possible worst-case scenario of images of violence and perhaps fatal casualties depicted in TV sets, printed press, and multimedia platforms as well as photographs and comments from individuals, rolling onto social networks.

And then there is the horror scenario: the same images of violence but with foreign visitors as the victims.

Ahead of the October Presidential elections, Dilma Rousseff — who only very recently was officially appointed as the PT’s candidate — will have much to be concerned about.

Imaginably, her government is doing its best in terms of intelligence , training and disciplining of its police force. It would seem as though there is not much more it can do.

Dilma’s people seem to have chosen to turn the weakness into a potential strength. The Secretary General of the Presidency, Gilberto Carvalho, stated last week that the government supports the idea of protests during the World Cup.

And that this “would show to the world the full strength of Brazil’s democracy.” A brave face for a risky, but unavoidable, bet. Unless, of course, some backroom negotiations with one or more of the players take place successfully.

@andresfederman

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