PtG Article 10.05.2013

The battle of Maracanã

The turmoil surrounding Brazil's former national stadium reflects the conflicts that characterise the country in the preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

It was not an entirely fair fight that took place near Brazil's National Stadium, the Maracanã, in the morning of 22 March. Around 50 police officers in combat uniforms did not have the patience to wait for a representative from the civil authorities to conclude negotiations with around 40 Indians, who for a long time have occupied the neighbouring building, once an Indian Museum. 

In the midst of negotiations, which had already made half of the occupiers leave the scene, the police attacked the Indians and a number of sympathisers who, after a few hours of turmoil, was driven away by tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

"Unnecessary use of force", said the negotiator for the public authorities who said he would issue a complaint about the conduct of the police.

A complaint is unlikely to have any practical significance for a course of events that is saturated with power interests and cultural symbolism. Rio de Janeiro's new mayor of sports is certainly not prepared to change the plans to tear down the occupied buildings.

"Real Indians live in the rainforest, right? They are the ones people protect in the Amazon," said the mayor for sports and leisure, André Lazaroni, in February 2013 shortly after taking office, and accused the occupiers of being tools for the opposition.

When Play the Game in November 2012 visited the Indians in their 147-years-old decrepit ruin of a museum, there were no signs that these were people who would sacrifice all daily convenience over a merely political cause. The first families moved in before anyone could know that the Maracanã would become the centre of a major political conflict. 

"Since I came to Rio several years ago, we have lacked a gathering place for the Indigenous culture. And when, after a long search, I came by this house, I immediately felt a very strong energy,” said their spokesman Chamakiri.

The argument for removing the Indians has changed since Play the Game’s visit. At that time, the head of the Maracanã renovation informed that it was necessary to provide open spaces around the stadium, so it could be cleared in a few minutes. Today the reason is that an Olympic Museum, possibly named after the President of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, is to be built on the ground.

Public gathering place

The governor of Rio has tried to shift the blame for the conflict to the international football federation, FIFA, something FIFA has officially denied. This ball was passed to the governor from a former member of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, lawyer Alberto Murray Neto:

"Rio's governor wants to polish the city, and the Indians are no good for this purpose. It is racial segregation and cruelty coming from an elite that harms Brazil greatly. "

The Indian occupiers are not the only ones who risk losing something of value. The area around Maracanã also holds a newly renovated swimming pool, an athletics stadium and one of Rio's top four schools, all of which will be demolished according to the plans.

Protests from more than 20,000 citizens have so far postponed the clearing of the school, while protests from the Brazilian Swimming Federation and the country’s athletics scene have made less of an impression. The two sports facilities were recently shut down, but swimming and track and field may get help from an unexpected side. Brazil's Institute of History and Art has stated that the demolition of all three complexes will require permission from the institute.

Fights like these reflect the fact that Maracanã is much more than a stadium. It is a public gathering place and a part of Brazil's national identity. The traumatic defeat to Uruguay in the World Cup finals in 1950, which took place at Maracanã, has paradoxically given the stadium an enhanced place in the Brazilian collective consciousness.

"It was part of Maracanã's character that it could accommodate 200,000 spectators and often gathered 120-130,000 people on the stands. Even the poorest in Rio had access, but during the last decade, the ratio between minimum wages and ticket prices have become ten times worse,” says American geographer Christopher Gaffney, who has studied Brazilian relations for a long time and lived in Rio since 2009.

Privatisation without public hearing

That the poor are now practically denied access to the national stadium, which will be cut down to a more normal capacity of 89,000 spectators, is, according to Gaffney, particularly serious in light of the enormous public investment in the World Cup and the Olympics. First, taxpayers paid $250 million to make Maracanã capable of hosting the Pan American Games in Rio in 2007 under the pretext that Rio was preparing for the Olympic Games. But after the Olympics and the World Cup were placed in Rio, authorities now invest another $500 million in a complete rebuilding.

"The many millions have been invested without public hearings, as is the decision to privatise the Maracanã," says Gaffney.

The decision to privatise was taken in October last year and was not up for hearing until November at a meeting that ended in turmoil and flying plastic chairs after several hundred participants with slogans and speeches had demanded that the process be overturned.

Christopher Gaffney does not hide the fact that he shares the activists’ concerns:

“The conditions for privatisation are designed in such a way that the winner only has to pay 15 to 18 per cent of construction costs back to the government over a period of 30 years until 2048. This does not even correspond to the inflation. The argument is that the government does not have the capacity to run such a large entertainment complex. But this is old news, so why wasn’t the stadium privatized before the rebuilding and costs left with the owners?”

The Brazilian economist Marcelo W. Proni expresses the same scepticism in a different way:

“Football remains a national passion, a part of our collective identity, but the World Cup will strengthen the process of privatizing the game, a trend that seems irreversible."

A Rio Ministry defies privatization

Very recently, the critics of privatization have found support from an unexpected side. The Ministry of Public Affairs of the state of Rio de Janeiro have decided to put a spoke in the wheel for their own governor. With the backing of the same kind of ministry at the national level Rio’s Ministry of Public Affairs have asked the courts to suspend the privatization, citing various reasons: It is a threat to national patrimony, the tendering favours the Brazilian entrepreneur Eike Batista, one of the richest men in Latin America and parts of the contract imply construction works that may be against the agreements with FIFA and the IOC.

The Ministry lost the first round in the court, but has written a new complaint which is still pending and delaying the privatization. 

Urban renewal for the wealthy

The battle of Maracanã goes on. 

It reflects in many ways a conflict that is taking place in a wider sense in Brazil in connection with the upcoming global events. 

A conflict between the people who first and foremost see the mega-events as an opportunity to change public subsidies into private gain and the people who hope that the wider society will benefit from hosting the events. 

The fight has not been settled yet, but the first group have the best cards on their hands. 

American geographer and Rio-resident Christopher Gaffney points to the fact that Rio’s major urban renewal projects in the run-up of the Olympics first and foremost benefit the major corporations and the growing newly rich middle class. 

“The new metro and express bus lines ignore the fact that Rio’s population is divided into two geographical halves, which are only connected via one bridge. Instead they are building transportation lines which mainly consider the need to transport servants and shop assistants to the well-to-do neighbourhood Barra de Tijuca” argues Gaffney. 

He also points to the fact that the urban renewal of the area around Rio’s old harbour was passed as a sudden addition after Rio’s bid was accepted by the IOC. The renewal will just about be a gift of federal building sites to two private construction magnates, the Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista and the American Donald Trump.

The massive police efforts against the gangs who control many of Rio’s slum districts have, according to Gaffney, the side-effect that the poor, law-abiding residents are also forced out. Because when an area becomes safer the costs of houses and rentals there go up, which means that the original inhabitants must move out to the suburbs of Rio – along with their criminal neighbours.  

“The politicians have the resources to regulate the real estate prices but refrains from using them”, argues Gaffney.