RIO DE JANEIRO — As kickoff of Brazil’s World Cup game against Cameroon loomed earlier this week, the streets of central Rio de Janeiro emptied and everyone headed for the nearest television set. In the Lapa district, famed for its nightlife, a long line of fans dressed in yellow-and-green Brazil team shirts snaked under its famous arches, waiting politely to enter the Circo Voador, a famous live-music venue where the match was being broadcasted for free on a big screen.
It was a different story a year ago, when a half-million people demonstrated on Central Rio streets against bus fare hikes and in favor of “FIFA-standard” health, education and transportation under the rallying cry “There will be no Cup.” When violence broke out at the front of that march, riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to clear the streets.
As the knockout round gets underway Saturday with the host nation’s noon game against Chile, the question is: What happened to the demonstrations that threatened to break out in Brazil when this Cup began?
Instead of the civil unrest that loomed as a wave of strikes gripped Brazilian cities in the weeks before the event, the images being beamed around the world are like those at Circo Voador: smiling fans, happy foreigners, soccer and beer.
“We are not in favor of the Cup. We are Brazilians, and football is the culture of our country,” said Carla Vilardo, 41. “Now is not the time to protest. The Cup is happening. Protest in October, in the elections.”
Although protests continue, they number in the hundreds or a few thousand. Nothing on last year’s massive, nationwide scale has been seen. Demonstrations increasingly end in violence from police and protestors, scaring many off. The number of protests dropped 39 percent in the first 12 days after the opening match June 12 compared with the 12 days before it, according to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
Felipe Francisco, 21, an activist and medical student in Rio, said protests have diminished because Brazil’s protest movement began to focus on more controversial targets, such as victims of police violence in the city’s favelas, and that this alienated the middle class.
“When the agenda began to focus on social themes, rights, the problems of the favelas, the protests began to reduce in numbers,” he said in a phone interview.
The Brazilian government has also acted to diffuse a wave of strikes and protests in the weeks leading up to the World Cup that appeared to have given demonstrators new impetus. Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic ground to a halt in a bus strike. A subway strike was suspended just two days before the World Cup opening game.
In one of a series of “actions,” on June 4 about 12,000 people affiliated with a homeless workers movement called the MTST marched to the Sao Paulo stadium, where the opening game was to be held. The organization already had created a vast squatter camp it called “The People’s Cup” on empty land a couple miles from the stadium.
But the Brazilian government made concessions to the MTST, including a guarantee that houses would be built on the People’s Cup land for its members. Elsewhere, authorities clamped down, arresting activists in Rio and Sao Paulo and evicting an occupation of a port area in Recife on June 17.
“When the government attended our demands, we had no interest in harming the games,” said José da Silva of the MTST. Two hundred members of the organization are camped outside a Sao Paulo city government building where a vote that would allow housing development on the People’s Cup site is being decided . “If the project is not voted, we will circle the chamber with 20,000 people until they do,” he cautioned.
The protest movement also suffered a devastating blow Feb. 6.
During a demonstration at Rio’s Central Station that turned particularly violent, Brazilian television cameraman Santiago Andrade was hit by a flare thrown by a protestor. He died days later. Two men, Fabio Barbosa and Caio de Souza, have been charged with his killing.
Andrade’s death was a game-changer. People had died in previous protests, and there were accusations of police brutality, but now that the movement was connected to a fatality, it lost the moral high ground.
“What happened with Santiago was sad. It was deplorable,” said Francisco, the medical student. “The media took advantage. It was a perfect opportunity for them to criminalize the demonstrations.”
On Monday, Francisco and a few hundred other protestors were jeered as they passed the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana beach, where World Cup matches are broadcast. “They began to shout us. They began to boo us. One woman hit one guy on the back with her handbag, and a woman spat at me. This is very common,” he said.
But there is another factor: the World Cup itself. So far, this has been an exceptionally good tournament, with a high number of goals. Soccer-mad Brazilians are enjoying seeing traditional European powers such as Spain, Italy and England sent home in defeat.
And their national team is winning, defeating Cameroon, 4-1, on Monday to finish in first place in its World Cup group with two victories and a draw. Brazil will open play in the single-elimination round of 16 against Chile on Saturday in Belo Horizonte.
“We knew it would be like this. There is a strong tradition with football that overtakes politics,” said Igor Pereira, 24, celebrating at Circo Voador as a band began playing African music.
The World Cup has been personalized for Brazilians in the faces of 600,000 foreigners, many of whom have charmed the locals with fancy dress and enthusiasm.
In big cities like Sao Paulo and Rio, the impact is palpable. In smaller cities like Salvador, where Mexicans and Brazilians danced together at a seafront Fan Fest after a match between their teams ended in a scoreless draw, the foreign invasion is overwhelming. Many fans are from other Latin American countries with whom Brazil traditionally has little contact.
“This is marvelous,” said Rodolfo Franconi, an associate professor of Portuguese and Spanish at Dartmouth, said in a phone interview. “We are always thinking about who we are, what is the difference that we have in relation to other Latin American countries.”
As Brazilian media fill up with stories of romances between Brazilians and foreigners, Brazil has begun to have fun with the gringos, as they are called here.
“There is an enormous pride, and this is a very receptive country, cordial,” said Fernanda Torres, one of Brazil’s best-known actresses and a newspaper columnist and author. A country that is isolated by language and geography is enjoying showing off its rich culture, she said. “Brazil did well to remember that not everything is terror, disgrace, horror. It did well to deal with this Cup. It is a very agreeable moment.”
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