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Beyond FIFA: Dragging Odebrecht into the Spotlight

World Cup and Olympic events in Brazil are effectively being managed by an oligarchy. Favours are traded in backrooms, the location of new infrastructure is determined by profit, and laws are introduced or suspended to protect the revenue streams of the largest conglomerates. The old boys club has its fingers in money pots all over the world, plotting developments in which labourers are expendable in the rush to create ever larger and grander mega-projects.

Yes yes, you might say, we’ve been hearing a lot about FIFA in the last couple of months. Except I’m not talking about FIFA.

I’m talking about Odebrecht S.A., the largest civil construction firm in Latin America.

There is a general tendency in international news coverage to follow large sporting events around the world. When journalists chase mega events, and need to find someone to blame for massive cost overruns, construction worker deaths, and new tax laws, it is easiest to fault the lowest common dominator: the organizing committees, like FIFA and the IOC.

But by changing our vantage point and bringing large construction firms like Odebrecht into the spotlight, suddenly FIFA is joined by some culpable partners. Don’t get me wrong, FIFA is still a corrupt, profit-driven institution that wields tremendous and violent power, but companies like Odebrecht are just as insidious as they escape critique by flying under the radar in the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism.

Odebrecht’s Games

What does Odebrecht have to do with the World Cup? Well, Odebrecht is the largest direct beneficiary of money invested in mega event projects in Brazil. The company is involved in constructing and managing almost all of the major projects proposed in the World Cup and Olympic bids, some of the largest being the reform of Maracana stadium, Transolimpica construction, and the Porto Maravilha (re)development. In many of these projects Odebrecht has partnered with the other ‘Three Sisters’ – the large private construction firms of OAS, Andrade Gutierrez and Camargo Correa – in consortia that control the money invested into these mega events. The budget for the projects in which Odebrecht is involved exceeds US$27 billion, all public funds.

Odebrecht did invite some unwanted attention for its involvement in the World Cup construction of stadiums in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Three construction workers died in the building of Itaquero, in Sao Paulo, as a result of the rush to finish the stadium in time. Yes, this was a FIFA-imposed timeline, and yes, FIFA is to blame for their obscene demands. But let’s not forget that this was also an Odebrecht project, and thus the Odebrecht family, too, has blood on its hands.

FIFA and the IOC aren’t just using construction companies like Odebrecht to advance their own mega-event agendas. Indeed, the inverse is also true: Odebrecht, construction companies more generally, and members of the municipal and federal government also use mega-events to promote their own profit-seeking motives. Indeed, mega-events are often a win-win for both event organizers and the construction companies that reap massive profits in this type of development model.

Porto Maravilha is the perfect example. The Port redevelopment project only had a minor role in Rio de Janeiro’s bid that won them the rights to host the Olympic Games. But the Games provided Odebrecht and its partners with an opportunity to gain a stronghold in this ‘derelict’ port area. Due in part to the time sensitivity of hosting mega-events, the municipal government rushed through legislation and a tenders process that saw Odebrecht Infraestrutura, OAS, and Carioca Engenharia form the Porto Novo consortium. The R$7.6 billion public-private partnership signed between the Porto Novo Consortium and the Rio de Janeiro municipal government, “is the largest to be established in Brazil under the PPP category”. Now these private companies are making private profit off of all the public money invested in the project. Insidiously, this partnership and redevelopment plan were proposed before the mega-event bidding processes, but the leading actors couldn’t get it pushed through. It was the Olympic Games that provided the opportunity for this consortia to control the port area. And now it is the municipality of Rio de Janeiro and the Consortium who are trying to pressure the IOC to hold more Olympic events in the Port area to justify the expenditures, but the IOC is conceding little. A reversal of the typical IOC and FIFA-imposed pressure narrative, if nothing else.

But what is Odebrecht, and how have they become the go-to company for the Brazilian government?

What is Odebrecht?

The name Odebrecht can be deceiving: it sounds German, but the company is Brazilian in origin. The first Odebrecht family member, Emil, arrived from Germany in 1856 and became involved in highway construction in Brazil. His grandson, Emilio, followed Emil’s footsteps and established a civil construction company called Isaac Gondim e Odebrecht Ltda that, in various forms, would be passed through the male heads of the family. Towards the end of the Second World War IG&O suffered greatly under the inflated costs of construction materials, so in 1944 Emilio’s son, Norberto Odebrecht, started up a new company, Odebrecht S.A. It is this latter company that has evolved into the largest of Brazil’s ‘Four Sisters‘ – the giant companies that receive most of Brazil’s construction project tenders.

But how has Odebrecht become so powerful? Yes, the company was involved in one of the first small Petrobras projects in Brazil, but it wasn’t until the military dictatorship (from 1964 to 1985) that Odebrecht became a really large player in Brazilian construction. According to historian Bernard Balheiro, Odebrecht took off after Emilio Medici came to power (1969-1974). Medici’s government was largely linked to Baiana and Paulista bourgeois business interests, of which the Odebrechts were one of the major families. Ernesto Geisel became president of state-owned Petrobras during this era and ‘systematically’ hired the construction firm. When he took over the Brazilian presidency in 1974, Odebrecht grew from the 19th to the 3rd largest contractor in Brazil.

Brazilian political scientist Pedro Campos argues that Odebrecht was particularly adept at capitalizing on the transition to democracy in 1985. During Brazil’s ‘economic miracle’, the company was well-situated to internationalize its operations and activities. Today, Odebrecht holds contracts for some of the largest federal government infrastructure projects in Brazil, and company operations can be found in 5 continents across the globe.

Even though Odebrecht is often referred to as a civil construction firm, its activities have diversified far beyond this sector. For instance, Odebrecht has become the leading partner in Braskem, Brazil’s large petrochemical corporation, and is variously involved in mining, agrobusiness, petrochemical, and military arms construction industries. Some of Odebrecht’s S.A.’s smaller companies are incorporated, but the Odebrecht family still significantly controls company operations, revenues, and profits . Joao Roberto Lopes Pinto argues that this “family-based control is a feature of monopoly capital formation of economic groups established in Brazil” and characterizes the structure of the other ‘Three Sisters’. The Odebrecht family, in particular, has capitalized on this formation. Last year alone, Odebrecht’s revenue grew to R$96.9 billion.

A Legacy of Patronage

How does Odebrecht continue to win bids for projects like the World Cup and the Olympic Games? Many think that the answer can be found in political campaign donations. Indeed, the Four Sisters have contributed more than R$479 million to party committees and candidates in Brazil. In 2013 alone, Odebrecht invested R$11 million of the R$17 million raised by the ruling PMDB party of the Rio state government. At the federal level, Odebrecht was one of the first companies to ever support the workers party (PT), and Lula still travels the globe to promote Odebrecht’s interests abroad. Half of the former president’s travel is funded by Odebrecht and the other major Brazilian construction companies.

Of course, the bids for projects are supposed to be open to any group: the company or consortia with the lowest bid will win the contract. But these bid processes are often set up for a particular company to win. Oftentimes, for example, there is only one bidder. What is more, the massive bureaucracy that is the Brazilian government means that at any stage in the tendering process, bids can simply be dismissed because they have not dotted a proper “i” or crossed the correct “t”. As Chris Gaffney notes, “One of the terrible beauties of Brazilian bureaucracy is that there are so many forms and agencies and permissions and confusions, that there is inevitably something wrong with everything, which always provides an excuse to eliminate a company from the competition.”

Odebrecht hasn’t completely escaped corruption allegations. In Brazil, demonstrators targeted corporate offices to protest worker rights infringements in the construction of stadia, shouting ‘Odebrecht makes billions on the blood of workers and the money of the people’. There have also been allegations of corruption in Odebrecht’s contracts in Venezuela, paying off politicians in Argentina and Angola, and cartel formation in the construction of Sao Paulo’s Metro Line 5. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Odebrecht has made global headlines for accusations of human trafficking in relation to its construction of a biofuel plant in Angola.

But this attention doesn’t come close to the media spotlight that FIFA has occupied over the last few months. Of course FIFA has profited immensely from broadcast rights revenues, and one can neatly trace a line between FIFA imposed deadlines and the labour infringements accrued during the rush to finish constructions. But to solely blame FIFA for what is happening massively deflects attention from the people who hold the purse strings in respective host nations. We need a journalism that is willing to dig deep into how these capitalist processes function, instead of ignoring them and thus rendering them ‘normal’.

We should be angry at FIFA’s role in the mess. But we cannot simply blame FIFA for everything that is happening. Odebrecht, and the other Three Sisters, must be dragged into the spotlight and held accountable for their bloody profiting from the World Cup and beyond.


Race out of bounds? Thinking about racism in Brazil

Talking about race in Brazil can be difficult. Many in the country will speak to a dominant ideology of ‘race-mixing’ or ‘miscegenation’, which causes some to say that race/racism in Brazil simply doesn’t exist. This ideology became expounded in Brazil through the ideas of Gilberto Freyre, who in the 1930s argued that Brazilians were a strong population because of the historical sexual mixing between indigenous peoples, African slaves, and Portuguese colonialists.

This idea of miscegenation manifests in the multitude of ways in which people think of themselves racially in Brazil. In a 1976 census of racial identity in the country, people self-identified as being 136 different ‘races’. But these are not static identity categories, as exhaustive as the list might seem. As ethnographer Donna Goldstein points out, ideas of race in Brazil are also fluid; they depend on who is speaking to whom, and can change based on income (i.e. ‘money whitens’). And in a country that hasn’t had a large organized movement around racial identity – such as the civil rights movement in the United States – it is much easier for Brazilians to speak about poverty and class rather than race.

Goldstein explains the complexity:

“Although there is no legally sanctioned racism in Brazil, the structures of racism are present in everyday experiences. Because their existence and significance are often conveyed through indirect forms of communication – black-humored jokes and coded silences – they are much more difficult to describe and challenge.” (p. 106)

I’ve tried asking academics in Brazil about race. Many have acknowledged that it is important, but they insist that in Brazil, race is ‘different’ from other countries; it’s more complex. Not everybody approaches the subject in the same way, of course, but one gets a general sense that many are unsure of how to talk about race in Brazil.

My relatively short stint in Brazil does not render me any kind of expert, but I do believe it’s worth trying to wade through some of these difficulties around discussing this subject. Race, after all, is very much a part of how both Brazilian cities and the World Cup are currently functioning.

Race in the Streets: Racial Profiling and Security

Not everyone has trouble seeing race in Brazil. At an anti-Copa gathering I recently attended in the ‘pacified’ Chapeu Mangueira favela in Rio’s Zona Sul neighborhood, race was a central theme. Pacification is the Rio state government program whereby military police are permanently occupying low-income communities in order to ‘drive out’ drug traffickers and hopefully, one day, offer social services. Many are calling these pacification programs an attempt by the Brazilian state to ‘clean up’ favelas for the mega events. Many people have been killed through these pacification programs, most being young black men.

Virtually every person that approached the microphone during this rally called the Brazilian state both ‘racist’ and ‘genocidal’ in its relationship with the people living in favelas. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are being disproportionately killed by ‘stray bullets’. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are pulled over and searched by the military police in the streets of ‘pacified’ favelas. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are being taken away by BOPE helicopters that hover low over favela communities before dawn.

Racial profiling is actually built into the security apparatus of large Brazilian cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. These spaces are striking for the increasing number of fences and gates that are meant to protect private property from ‘outsiders‘. Academics and journalists have been writing about the securitization of space, urban security apparatus, and the security-industrial complexes that underpin these projects. But fewer people speak about the way this securitization of space depends on racialized thinking for their functioning.

Most gates are manned (yes, strikingly male) by door people who will buzz you through. These door people are not familiar with many of those who approach the gate, whether it is an apartment building or commercial space. For lighter skinned people, this unfamiliarity is generally not a problem. In the few cases in which I had to identify myself, I only had to mention the name of the place I was visiting. Most of the time, however, I was just let in. Why do the door people and security officers exist, if they just let me in without asking who I was? Well, because they are not there to stop white people like me. They are there to cast suspicion upon bodies that might pose a threat. Their profiling, like the military police who stop young black men in favelas, is based on a racial logic that one can visually identify people who are considered threatening. And these threats are overwhelmingly darker-skinned.

Race in the Stands: Who can access tickets?

Race isn’t just experienced through racial profiling. Journalists have started commenting on the predominantly white faces that fill the stands at the World Cup. This is a surprise to many commentators, as Brazil is often celebrated as a country with a large racial diversity. But what this whiteness in the stands demonstrates is a close alignment between race and class in Brazil.

In a solid Stephanie Nolen article on the subject published in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, sociologist Carlos Costa Ribeiro argues that FIFA and ticket distributors did not discriminate against black Brazilians per se, but opened up a lottery to sell off many tickets. In FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke’s words, this meant that everyone had an equal opportunity to purchase World Cup tickets. However, in a country where poverty often aligns with race, most darker-skinned people did not have financial access to these $90+ tickets. As the Nolen article rightly points out, even those who could afford to buy a ticket likely couldn’t afford to travel to the actual game, as the chances of ‘winning’ a ticket for a game in the city in which you live is quite low. Moreover, tickets were generally sold over the internet, which can be extremely spotty in favelas of differing telecommunication infrastructures. And even though the civil construction companies that helped build the stadiums bought substantial numbers of tickets, it is surely not the largely dark-skinned frontline construction workers that have been the recipients of these high-end tickets.

Race on the Field: Brazil’s Whitening Ideal and Neymar

Racial thinking in Brazil can also be exemplified by events that occur on the field. A particularly interesting and provocative article was recently written by Achal Prabhala, who seeks to explain Brazilian racial ideology ‘through the prism of Neymar’s hair’. Prabhala, who works in India, South Africa, and Brazil, uses Neymar’s changing appearance to highlight the power of the whitening ideal in Brazilian racial ideology. While Neymar has never identified as ‘black’, the pictures demonstrate a gradual ‘whitening’ in appearance, primarily through the straightening and bleaching of his hair.

Of course this may not be a conscious decision on the part of Neymar to ‘whiten’. But it does reflect trends in which many celebrities from the United States to India have acted or appeared lighter/whiter over time. There are whole beauty industries that have organized around bleaching head and body hair, an industry that makes quite a lot of money in Brazil. Of course, people who do lighten their hair are not necessarily trying to be ‘white’, and one can hold different ‘racial traits’ in tension with one another in the same body and/or fashion. But the cultivation of the desire for lighter hair (as just one example), and the availability of such consumer products, is a manifestation of the dominance of racial thinking in which lighter is better.

Whitening ideals exist throughout the world, but are particularly important in the Brazilian elite’s history of racial thinking. Thomas Skidmore argues that a ‘whitening ideal’ held sway through the 1920s and 1930s, in which Brazilian elites celebrated miscegenation/race mixing, but with the underlying understanding that the race was ‘whitening’, and thus improving. By the 1950s, this whitening rhetoric was less popular due to the civil rights movement in the United States, decolonization, and global events that foregrounded the violences of white superiority (eg. the Holocaust). But the whitening ideal still exists, if more understated, according to Skidmore: “Now, as before, the surest means for a Brazilian of African heritage to gain upward mobility is to possess a whiter skin than his parents” (p. 212). Darker-skinned individuals are still more likely to be at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and still suffer prejudices of surveillance, as but two examples.

Race on the Beach: Sexualization of mulata women

Just as race and poverty align in complex ways in Brazil, so too does race and gender. This is being felt by many Brazilian women at Rio’s beaches during the World Cup. A few days ago, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal’s blog section about the difficulty Brazilian women are having in Rio at the moment. According to the women quoted, they are being treated like sexual objects, open to the gaze of the (generally male) foreigner, who often comes jeering with lewd comments and unwanted sexual advances. What this article completely neglects, however, is the importance of race for cultivating this ‘sexual desire’.

How sexual attractiveness gets defined in Brazil is through race. Goldstein argues, “Race is embodied in everyday valuations of sexual attractiveness, and this attractiveness is gendered, racialized, and class-oriented in ways that commodify black female bodies and white male economic, racial, and class privilege” (p. 106). Goldstein elaborates that the “celebration of Brazilian sexuality is intricately connected to the question of race because the primary icon of ‘hot’ sexuality in Brazil is the mulata.” (p. 115) In Goldstein’s estimation, one need only to look at pornography sites to see the popularity of this ‘mulata’ ideal, in which characteristics associated with ‘whiter’ people (such as light skin) are valorized in conjunction with characteristics racially associated with ‘darker-skinned’ people, such as a large ‘bunda’ (buttocks). Goldstein calls this, “a highly conventionalized political economy of interracial desire,” in which, “certain ‘whitened’ characteristics are appreciated for their beauty and sensuality, while the majority of low-income mixed-race and black women are barred from economic and social mobility” (p. 118).

Rio de Janeiro is often marketed as an erotic hot-spot, built on the proverbial back(side)s of this fictitious ‘mulata woman’. It has become such an issue that country-wide campaigns are trying to deride sex tourism, in which (generally) foreign men come to Brazil for sex. These concerns are heightened during events like the World Cup. At a protest a few month’s ago, aimed directly at the mega events, a women’s group distributed a pamphlet saying ‘We will not be sold as commodities by our government to attract tourists’. It seems, however, that many tourists are refusing to listen.

(In)Conclusive Thoughts

Indeed, race in Brazil is not simple. It is not a ‘bi-racial’ society, and different ideas of race uneasily intersect with class and gender. As such, these thoughts of mine about race in Brazil are not exhaustive or conclusive. Rather, what I’m trying to do is use the World Cup as an event that exposes fault lines in ‘race-mixing’ ideology – such as through all-white stadium attendees and mulata sex tourism – to begin a conversation about how race exists in Brazil. As I mentioned above, I am no expert on the subject and am hoping to learn more and more as I continue my work in this country. However, I do believe it’s worth engaging in conversations around race, as complex as the subject may be, because it does indeed structure the existence of people and cities in Brazil.

Resistance to the Cup (Part 1): Who is in the streets?

Resistance to the World Cup is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s difficult to escape if you have access to news media, let alone if you’re living in Brazil at the moment. I’ve been involved in a number of protests, both in Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo, and have spent considerable time speaking with those who have been critical of the Cup. Through these conversations and experiences I’ve learned some important things about protests: not all are created the same, and not everyone has the same ability to partake.

First, I think it’s important to note that not all demonstrators are protesting against the World Cup. Many diverse groups from across the political spectrum are airing their concerns during the heightened publicity that surrounds this event. Most people are indeed against the massive quantities of public money being spent on the mega events, but you can also see many LGBTQ flags, slogans against bus fare increases, and ‘down with Dilma’ signs from right wing groups. To say that all protestors are asking for the same thing is to erase the multiplicity of voices that are taking their fight to the streets.

Among those who are against mega event-related displacements, privatization, and militarization, not everyone can, nor wants, to express resistance in the same way. This is partly due to where people live, and the racial and class character of these spaces. In other words, there are some obvious differences between protests, and where they occur matters.

Most of the demonstrations that have drawn coverage in Brazilian and international news media are those happening in the downtown regions of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and those near Maracana stadium. As journalists are showing, many of these protests are massive, and many of the demonstrators are being met with tear gas and rubber bullets used by the police to dissipate the crowds. There have also been buses overturned and set alight, metro stations effectively shut down, and helicopters surveilling the relative chaos from high above. The people in these crowds tend to be quite mixed, although many commentators are likely correct in calling them young and largely middle-class.

Many of these protests in the more well-off areas of town (including Zona Sul and Centro in Rio de Janeiro), and in heightened publicity zones like Maracana, are spatially privileged in some ways. They are neither located where the protestors live, nor are in areas that have a permanent police presence; in fact, most of the time these protests are moving as people march through the streets. Because the media (both figuratively and literally) flocks to these spaces, cameras can be rather powerful devices, as protestors circle the police in order to capture human rights abuses. Of course, terrible things still happen here, and there is significant police violence. This is important to point out. But people tend to be able to escape and disperse rather quickly when the tear gas or stun bombs hit. They can go home.

Things are different in Rio’s low-income communities. Most of my experience in Rio favelas has been in Complexo do Alemao. This particular community – a complex of a number of favelas, really – has been ‘pacified’, which means there is a permanent military police occupation here called the ‘police pacification unit’ (UPP) program. This changes the game dramatically. When there exists such a large, armed police presence, the question of ‘rubber bullets’ is a non-starter. Sure, some of the police that may be called in for a protest have rubber bullets, but most of these UPP units are armed. So when UPP military police show up, the bullets are not rubber.

Reporters rarely travel to Zona Norte to cover protests. Because these spaces are not in the media spotlight nearly as often as protests in Centro or Zona Sul, the military police can, and do, react more violently. There is less circling of the cops with cameras when people are running for their lives. And because favelas are typically depicted as being run by drug traffickers, it is very easy for the state and the media to accuse protestors of being paid by the traffickers, as ridiculous a claim as it may be. This is a form of criminalization of protest activity that rarely sees any media coverage in World Cup reports. And it’s done to silence activists.

There are also significant spatial and temporal ramifications of protests for people living in favelas that have UPP units. In these spaces, the impact of protest extends well beyond the actual moment of taking to the street. Spatially, it means that after an intense moment of action, people – protestors and commuters alike – have to make their way through the streets of their community. With pacification, this means that heavily armed military police with real bullets will more often than not be slinking around the hills with guns drawn, locked, and loaded. Or people will have to ride the newly built, and little used, teleferico system, flying in gondola cable cars as shots are fired in the air. This is how residents get killed in crossfire.

Temporally, it means that there can be days and nights of tension following a protest, as the military police and the drug traffickers tend to be on greater alert, which almost inevitably culminates in gun fire. In Complexo do Alemao, following a particularly violent protest this past March, the community was again invaded by BOPE – the heavily armed police unit made famous because of its ability to kill with relative impunity. Tension has been building here since then. This past week, many residents have had difficulties even leaving their houses because of the gunfights happening in the streets. They cannot go out to protest.

Favela residents therefore have to be very careful about when they protest within their own communities. A few weeks ago, a protest announcement started circulating around Facebook – a major social media tool here – that claimed to be staging a demonstration in Complexo do Alemao. None of the community activists here had spoken to these organizers, the latter whom had links to a protest happening in Sao Paulo the previous day. Complexo do Alemao activists were angry. Not only is there danger in trying to ‘talk for’ someone else – particularly when this group appears to have had little-to-no connection with Alemao residents – but there is also physical danger in how these protests violently reverberate through the community by way of the heightened anxiety and aggression of the military police. Protest spaces are certainly not created equal anywhere, but there are more violent ramifications for Brazil’s low-income and darker-skinned residents.

Of course, I’ve created a rather strict dichotomy between demonstrations in low-income communities and protests happening in the streets of Centro or Zona Sul. These are not hard and fast spatial divisions: of course people move from favela communities to Centro to protest, and vice versa. There are also pacified favelas in both Centro and Zona Sul whose protests blur any neat divide. And, as I’ve said before, we need to call out the state violence that is inherent to all of these spaces.

But I do believe it is worth pointing out significant patterns of difference in the ability to protest, particularly as the media – both local and foreign – tends to follow only the massive protests being organized in the more privileged zones of the city. As usual, the voices of those in favelas are being further silenced in such a mediated and militarized environment. We might be hearing many voices on the street, but we’re certainly not hearing all of them.

Whose ‘Beautiful Game’?

Soccer is the Beautiful Game. Or that’s what we’re reminded of over and over as the World Cup approaches. Don’t get me wrong: I love soccer. It’s probably my favourite sport to play. But I worry that many critiques of the World Cup fall back on this idea that soccer’s ‘beauty’ is something inherent, essential – and thus soccer is apolitical. Critics indeed often argue that if we just get rid of FIFA and all the other political bodies using sport to advance their own agendas, we’d get back to the sport’s roots – its true nature.

But nothing about sport is natural or apolitical. Some physical exploits may be beautiful, of course, but the game itself is not fundamentally so. The Garrincha turn is beautiful. Spain’s tiki-taka is incredible, as is Ronaldinho’s elastico. But let’s be frank about this pattern: when we’re talking about soccer’s ‘beauty’, we’re generally talking about the daring moves of male athletes.

It might seem obvious to say that there is inequality between men and women* in soccer, and that this is political. But how gendered ideas affect sport runs far deeper than a simple exclusion of women.  We must also look at how women’s inclusion, in critiques of FIFA and the World Cup for example, are gendered, political, and harmful.

To demonstrate my point, it’s worth looking at two popular 2014 World Cup critiques that have been circulating recently.

First, John Oliver has been making the social media rounds for his rant against FIFA.
This spot is premised on the idea that FIFA has corrupted soccer. Don’t get me wrong, Oliver is spot on with some of his points. I am the last person that will defend this ‘non-profit organization’. But why does an attack on FIFA have to depict women in such a misogynist way? Oliver kicks off the segment by telling Americans that they may only be familiar with soccer as that sport from which they pick up their daughter, but that it means far more to people throughout the globe. I recognize that this is satire – and I do love me some satire – but why is it young female soccer players that have to be the brunt of the joke? Surely soccer means a significant amount to these young women. To his credit, Oliver derides sexist comments made by FIFA chief Sepp Blatter that women should wear more revealing outfits. Yep, good ol’ Sepp actually said this. But, for some reason, Oliver still feels the need to display an image de-clothing the only other female soccer player that has the misfortune of appearing in the segment, and then dress her up in a Hooters uniform. Sure, this is a ‘critique’ of Blatter, but why are the only two images of women in soccer uniforms a mocked adolescent and a woman who is stripped to her underwear?

This is how women get ‘included’ in sexist ways by people who are posturing as critical.

Even those critiques that understand sport to be extremely political are often quite male-centred. Take, second, Dave Zirin’s recent book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, which is garnering significant publicity in American media. In his book, this sports critic documents the beauty of the game, and charts the soccer heroes of Brazil and the physical majesty that has made them so. There is much to recommend this book, and I’d check it out if you want a quick understanding of some Brazilian sports history or mega event-related displacements. To his credit, Zirin mentions that women have long been excluded from soccer in Brazil dating back to their official ban during the Vargas administration, and that they still have an extremely difficult time securing funding. Such is the case in so many countries. Good on Zirin for mentioning this. But this is what we feminists (and I’m drawing on the great Chandra Mohanty here) call the ‘add women and stir approach’. An author using this approach will write a book about soccer and spend one small section of a chapter detailing how it affects women, only to return to the narrative that it is political bodies such as FIFA and nationalist governments that are ruining the game. But the marginal inclusion of women only reinforces the dominant masculinism – or male-oriented perspective – of the narrative. And this male-oriented perspective isn’t restricted to the playing field. Zirin celebrates the ‘beauty’ of football viewing spaces like Brazil’s (pre-refurbished) Maracana stadium, but this nostalgia erases the fact that this, like many of Brazil’s botecos/bars, is a gendered space (read: often male-dominated and aggressive). Sure, they’re beautiful to some, but not everyone can, nor wants, to participate equally. These male-centred critiques can be more insidious than the obvious exclusion of women from the playing field, which is, at the very least, easy to see (or not see, as the case may be).

How can sport exist devoid of the power relations that exist between those who play the game? Who manage it? Who write and talk about it? People are political, politics is power, and thus sport will always be political and imbued with power. The rhetoric of the Beautiful Game makes it far too easy to pass the buck. We need to MAKE it a beautiful game (for those who like soccer which, granted, isn’t everyone!). This requires constant work and effort to battle gender discrimination, which is much more fundamental to sporting culture than one small section on women would have us believe.

If we got rid of FIFA, we’d be getting rid of an ostensible monarchy that is taking countries for a ride for billions of dollars. We’d be getting rid of many an old, white fascist. We’d be getting rid of some extremely sexist individuals.

But don’t for a second think we’d be returning to a Beautiful Game devoid of any form of politics or power.

Don’t for a second think that FIFA’s abolishment would suddenly have droves of people interested in the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.


*here I’m speaking of ‘women’ as a category that is maintained by FIFA’s divisions into male and female sides. Of course, not everyone identifies as a woman in such a way, and much has been written about the (re)production of gender through sport. A prime example of gender policing is sex-testing at the Olympic Games.

A plea to journalists covering ‘pacification’ and ‘favelas’

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup only a week away, Rio de Janeiro’s ‘favela’* communities are making international news headlines daily. Favela residents will tell you that a major challenge they encounter is the stereotypical portrayal of their communities in Brazilian media. They are often presented as spaces of poverty, backwardness and, since the 1980s, drug trafficking. Now, with the heavy media exposure associated with the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, stereotypical portrayals are also being mobilized by the international news media.

Many friends have recently pointed me to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news article depicting military police violence in Rio favelas. The article quite rightly speaks to the difficulties of the military police occupations of Brazil’s low-income communities and denounces the elite who tend to be the sole benefactors of mega-event related infrastructural upgrades. A similar piece by Stephanie Nolen appeared in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago

But I am frustrated with these stories. Frustrated by the frequent reliance on narratives of ‘drug trafficking’, military occupation, and romanticized clichés of favelas. Articles such as these tend to follow a similar formula: they begin with the image of heavy tanks rolling into the favela, followed by a history of the police pacification program, and conclude with one or two quotes from unhappy favela residents.

It’s important to recognize that these stories do indicate a recent shift in discourse: from favelas as spaces of heavy drug trafficking to favelas as spaces of police violence. However, these narratives still paint these communities as inherently violent. We must be aware, though, that here where there is violence, there is also love. There is corruption, but there are also huge networks of support. There are organized criminals who sometimes collude with police, but there are also organized community members who are frustrated and are working together to demand better treatment from the state.

We need to call out state violence. We need to say that Brazil’s impoverished, darker-skinned communities are being heavily militarized and are under constant threat of police violence. We need to say that many military police have historically been unaccountable for their actions. But, it’s also important to recognize that favelas are much more than this police violence. They are networks and circulations of people that are often working together – although, like any community, not in a homogeneous fashion – to mobilize resources, be they cultural, social, financial, or otherwise.

Community groups are deliberating about their needs through meetings, planning public demonstrations, and organizing events. The use of one or two quotes from a representative ‘community member’ does not do justice to the complexity of these communities; such media tactics essentially create favelas as spaces of a few individuals who are disconnected from one another and who might have some individual concerns with the state. If journalists want to cover pacification in favelas, they should spend more time speaking to organizations such as Raizes em Movimento (, Ocupa Alemao (, and Observatorio de Favelas (, to name but a few of the groups doing significant political organizing in the North Zone of Rio. News reporters need to attend protests in and around favelas so that they can adequately understand the differences in police tactics between these and the more privileged protest spaces in Centro (downtown). Journalists should learn some Portuguese so that they can verbally communicate with people who have not had access to hegemonic English language training. Otherwise, through their news stories, reporters are implicated in rhetorically pacifying the voices of those who the military, also in their stories, are often trying to erase.

As any good postcolonial scholar will tell us, the stories journalists and academics choose to tell are inherently mediated by language, race, gender, and class privilege. In other words, who we are affects: who we speak to, the broader ideologies that influence the questions we ask and answers we hear, and the mediums through which we communicate. But we, journalists and academics alike, should be making every effort to constantly reflect upon how we’re speaking about groups of people and representing the spaces they inhabit. I urge all of us to do this difficult work, particularly during these times of intense media coverage and events that sometimes feel like they are spinning out of control. It is so easy to fall back on stereotypes. If we respect the people we’re talking with, we need to make every effort to understand the complexity of their lives.

*’Favela’ is a contested term, in part due to the negative stereotypes often associated with these communities. Moreover, there are no hard or fast definitions of what constitutes a favela. Many commentators will describe favelas as not having access to basic sanitation, water, or electricity; consisting of ‘auto-constructed’ houses, or dwellings built by community members themselves; and having deep community relations partly as a result of histories of exclusion. However, not all of these conditions apply to every space that is considered a favela, particularly as many of these communities are experiencing more and more state interventions to ‘urbanize’/’integrate’ into the ‘formal city’ (itself a fraught concept that I hope to confront in a later post). There has been an increasing tendency in popular discourse to describe favelas as ‘comunidades’ in order to rhetorically distance these spaces from stereotypes of backwardness, poverty, and lack, but many people living in favelas continue to use the older term. For this latter reason, and for the sake of consistency, I use the term ‘favela’ here, but I do so recognizing that it is not a bounded term or space, and I urge readers to critically reflect on stereotypes that are inherently wrapped up in language through the use of words like ‘favela’.

A Manifesto from Rio’s ‘Pacified’ Residents

Many are talking about ‘pacification’ of Rio’s favelas. Pacification refers to the Police Pacification Unit (UPP) program implemented by Rio de Janeiro’s state government that is meant to drive drug traffickers out of Rio favelas through military police occupation. Almost every news story about Rio and the World Cup discusses pacification. Infrequently, however, do these stories speak to the demands that are being made by many favela residents who are organizing against the state. Thus, I’d like to share a Manifesto written by organizations like Ocupa Alemao in Complexo do Alemao, Rio de Janeiro, and signed by hundreds of other people/organizations. The official manifesto in Portuguese can be found here:

Manifesto: We want to be happy and walk in the favela where we were born

For decades the State has not recognized the favela as an integral part of the city, denying favela residents their basic rights. Today, after three years of public security occupation in Complexo de Alemão, we see that the path to the guarantee of our civil rights is still long, as the branch of the State that most enters the favela is the armed branch. Pacification does not exist without schools, pacification does not exist without health, pacification does not exist without basic sanitation, pacification does not exist without leisure. The symbol of peace in Rio de Janeiro cannot be arms, guns, rifles and tanks.

In the last few weeks, newspaper headlines have been dominated by articles about conflicts occurring daily in UPP-occupied areas, above all in Complexo de Alemão. These headlines are accompanied by declarations made by the State Security Secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, who presented the option of extending the militarization of favelas as a possible solution for the problems. It seems that in his view, all conflict is resolved by increasing the presence of the police and other armed forces in these territories.

It is our understanding that this perspective needs to be changed, as it is clear that the presence of police alone has not brought peace. There are many cases of abuses of power, arbitrariness and disappearances in favelas with a UPP as is the deaths of Amarildo, in Rocinha; José Carlos Lopes Júnior, 19 years old, resident of São João; Thales Pereira Ribeiro D’Adrea, 15 years old, Morro do Fogueteiro; Jackson Lessa dos Santos, 20 years old, Morro do Fogueteiro; Mateus Oliveira Casé, 16 years old, Manguinhos; Paulo Henrique dos Santos, 25 years old, City of God; Aliélson Nogueira, 21 years old, Jacarezinho; Laércio Hilário da Luz Neto, 17 years old, Morro do Alemão e Israel Meneses, 23 years old, Jacarezinho. We cannot fail to mention the police officers who have died in this suicidal action of the State. We do not accept these deaths. No life is worth more than another and the State must take responsibility. After all, what kind of peace do we want to promote? Warlike peace? Militarized peace?

This past Sunday, March 16, the front page of the Extra newspaper announced that residents of Complexo de Alemão had taken to the streets to protest under the orders of drug traffickers and that they were receiving money for doing so. Once again, the mainstream media has played its role in the criminalization of social movements and of the favela. We refuse to accept the way in which mainstream communication channels have covered the police action in Complexo de Alemão and other favelas. Favela residents cannot be seen as the enemy. The government says that the favelas are pacified. Why then do the police display so many weapons? We want more dialogue between favela residents and the State’s public security present in the territory. We want the freedom to come and go. We want more schools and basic sanitation for residents instead of a cable car for tourists. We want the guarantee of our right to expression, which is where baile funk comes in. We do not want our homes violated without search warrants. Understanding the demands of Complexo de Alemão is simple. Understanding the demands of the favela is simple, because this is straight talk.

Proposals for “PEACE” must be elaborated collectively with all of the favela. A policy for peace is not built with one foot in the door, gratuitously assaulting residents. Peace is not built with a caveirão (war tank). In the current model, “independent of who gives the orders,” residents’ voices continue to go unheard. We are aware that the poor person has their place.

A New Website and Blog!

I’ve never really considered writing a blog, and I’m still a little bit hesitant about this form of communication that is sometimes rushed but available for almost the whole world to see. My research has taken me to Brazil, though, and there are many issues that I’m feeling impassioned about – sometimes frustrated, often angry, always humbled, and frequently with all of these feelings simultaneously. As news media and academics rush to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there is a whole throng of voices trying to get heard. I realize that mine is but a small voice; I hope, however, that I can lend some insightful comments and different perspectives on what is a really intense period for many in Brazil right now.