Pastor mobilises favela against Brazil’s hosting of World Cup

By Samantha Pearson

Antonio Costa, President of the NGO 'Rio de Paz', holds a placard reading 'Who profits more: FIFA, Businessman or Brazilian people?' during a protest action against the upcoming Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup, at the entrance of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, on February 18, 2014 in Zurich. Brazil is braced for protests before and during the tournament, which kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo, with many citizens angry at the billions of dollars the event is costing. Last year's dress rehearsal event, the Confederations Cup, saw more than a million people take to the streets nationwide to protest the cost of the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics in a country where many basic public facilities are poor. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL BUHOLZER (Photo credit should read MICHAEL BUHOLZER/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

As darkness falls over Jacarezinho, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas, men from the slum’s ruling drugs gang gather outside a bar to divide up wads of banknotes. From the other side of a rubbish-clogged canal, two military police officers look on nervously from their base, clutching assault rifles.

“Do you see this? This is my Brazil!” says Antônio Carlos Costa, the 51-year-old pastor who has emerged as one of the leaders of the protests against Brazil hosting the World Cup, which kicks off this week. “Brazil is not just a country of carnival, football and women dancing samba . . . for millions of people it is also this,” he says, struggling to keep his voice down so as not to attract the gang’s attention.
Mr Costa, who set up a community centre in Jacarezinho in 2007, is among the more than 40 per cent of Brazilians who are against the World Cup, according to Datafolha, a consultancy. They argue that taxpayers’ money would have been better spent on helping the poor and improving public services in Brazil – the world’s seventh-largest economy, which ranks only 85th place in the UN Human Development Index.

Like most Brazilians, Mr Costa is a huge football fan. But he has made it his mission to mobilise Jacarezinho’s more than 36,000 residents against the World Cup, the bill for which is expected to be R$30bn ($13bn). He has also organised demonstrations on Rio’s Copacabana beach and next to the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. His proudest achievement, though, was in February when he saved up enough airline miles to fly to Zurich to protest at the headquarters of football’s governing body Fifa, where he brandished placards with the slogan: “World Cup 2014: Who profits more? Fifa, businessmen, or Brazilian people?”

While Brazil’s government and Fifa insist the football-obsessed nation will forget its grievances as soon as the tournament starts, others predict a return of the mass protests that convulsed the country last year. Either way, with presidential elections set for October, the mood this month will play a big role in determining the country’s next government and the future of Latin America’s biggest economy, analysts say.

What happens in places such as Jacarezinho will be particularly crucial, says Mr Costa. Brazil’s slums may look like impoverished war zones but they are home to much of the country’s new middle classes – the group that has propelled Brazil’s consumption-led economy and kept the leftist Workers’ party (PT) in power for the past 12 years. But after largely staying away from last year’s protests – dominated by students and later, the wealthier middle class – many in Jacarezinho are starting to speak out.

Roberta dos Santos, a 27-year-old cleaner, is one of them. “They are spending millions [on the World Cup] and we have nothing here,” she says, recalling how she had to wait for two hours for doctors to treat her baby son while he convulsed with fever. “He was dying in my arms,” she says as a group of teenage girls crowd around to add their complaints. “What they are doing for the World Cup is just make-up so Brazil looks pretty for the foreigners!” shouts one.
Ignored by the state and with little formal education, many Jacarezinho residents neither felt entitled nor able to protest publicly, Mr Costa says. Like many wealthier Brazilians, he also spent most of his life oblivious to their existence. His father had worked for Brazil’s version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation under the country’s rightwing dictatorship and Margaret Thatcher had long been his own biggest idol, he says. However, when a spate of gang-related murders shook Rio in 2006, Mr Costa resolved to set up Rio de Paz, a charity offering services such as free English classes to people in the favela.

In the early years of the PT government, Jacarezinho’s residents had little reason to complain, Mr Costa notes. Brazil’s middle class generally enjoy a much better life than their parents did – with television sets, washing machines and air-conditioning units. But after more than a decade of economic stability, people such as Ms dos Santos want more – better schools, hospitals and public transport, which so far the government has failed to deliver. The authorities have also failed to tackle the feared drug gangs – Mr Costa says he needs the traffickers’ permission to hold World Cup protests in the favela.

Add to this, many of the stadiums built for the tournament have run over budget while a large number of the accompanying infrastructure projects, such as the proposed bullet train between Rio and São Paulo, have either been delayed or scrapped altogether.

“If you could explain to every Brazilian what the government has done, more than 80 per cent of the population would be against the World Cup,” says Mr Costa.

To prove his point, he plucks up the courage to ask one of the men at the bar, who he describes in hushed tones as a gang leader, what he thinks of the World Cup. The burly man pauses then shakes his head in disapproval: “Total waste of money.”