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In Brazil, Enormous Stadiums Stand as Symbol of Protesters’ Frustration

June 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
At least a million Brazilian protesters flocked to the streets overnight. Margaret Warner talks with Matthew Cowley, Sao Paulo bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, about how worries about an economic slowdown and Brazil's upcoming hosting of major sports events have helped fuel the massive public protests.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, Margaret Warner spoke with Matthew Cowley, Sao Paulo bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

MARGARET WARNER: Matthew Cowley, welcome.

What is the latest news today after that night of violent protests last night? Have the protests resumed?

MATTHEW COWLEY, The Wall Street Journal: Hi. Good evening.

Yes, the protests have resumed, but on a much smaller scale, very sporadic and not really sort of organized. They’re not part of this big movement that we have seen over the last two weeks. I think in the meantime, what we’re watching to see is what happens to this broader public enthusiasm that’s built up for these protests and how this is going to be channeled, because it will go far beyond just this one issue of the bus fares.

And there are other issues that people are concerned about as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what is at the heart of the discontent? There’s a woman in our piece saying it’s about health, it’s about education. What is she talking about?

MATTHEW COWLEY: Brazil has made enormous progress over the last 10 or 15 years. The economy is far more stable and is in a much better place than it was before.

But what’s happened now over the last two or three years is that we have seen quite a sharp slowdown in growth and an uptick in inflation. And I think those two things combined have fed through into frustration, a broader frustration that people have learned, have appreciated and have come to understand the benefits of having an — economic stability.

They see where the country should be going, and they have had a taste for a bit of equality, a bit more of an improvement in quality of life, and now they’re concerned that they’re going away, that that is slipping out of their hands.

MARGARET WARNER: And why has the hosting of the World Cup, what, a year from now, and the Olympics become such a sort of rallying cry of this protest?

MATTHEW COWLEY: Well, I think we have to remember that this — these protests have, by coincidence, come at the same time as a warm-up tournament for next year’s World Cup. It’s called the Confederations Cup.

These enormous stadiums that were built to host these events are being used for the very first time. And so all of a sudden they’re a symbol people can look to and they can see. And I think basically this isn’t Brazil — this isn’t Brazilians turning their backs on soccer. Brazilians love soccer.

What this is, is just a frustration that an awful lot of effort and an awful lot of money, of course, has been put into building these stadiums, and they wonder why the same amount of effort and the same amount of money isn’t put into things that are going to affect them on their — in their daily lives, so, health, health care, education, public transportation.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the president — well, first of all, how has the president responded, Dilma Rousseff, and her leftist ruling party government?

MATTHEW COWLEY: Well, I think it’s very difficult for governments to respond to these types of protests.

Remember, Brazil is a democracy. It’s not an authoritarian regime in any way. And so all of a sudden, when a big protest movement like this evolves basically on social networks, on Facebook and Twitter, then, without core leadership, without any particular person you can necessarily sit down and negotiate with, then it’s very hard for traditional political systems to respond.

That said, I think the president has come in for criticism in the last couple of days because she’s been relatively silent. She did address the nation on Tuesday, and she did discuss the protests at the same time, and she tried to identify herself with the protests, and she said that this was a demonstration of how vibrant Brazil’s democracy is.

But since then, there hasn’t been — there has been nothing from the president. And, of course, we had this huge, huge protest last night on Thursday night with more than a million or around a million people across numerous cities all over Brazil, and yet we have had very little leadership from the central government.

And so I think there has been some criticism. And we are expecting the — the president did meet today with some of her senior ministers, senior advisers to discuss the events. And there is an expectation that she may address the nation on television this evening, though we haven’t had any confirmation of that as of yet.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, is there one central demand? Is there any kind of central demand, something that she could respond to in an effort to calm these protests?

MATTHEW COWLEY: I think that’s exactly the problem. There isn’t a single answer to this. It’s a much — a broader sort of feeling of frustration, rather than a single thing that you can come out and say, right, I’m going to deal with this today.

So I think that’s what creates a lot of the uncertainty. And I think that’s what makes life very difficult for the politicians of all creeds.

MARGARET WARNER: Matthew Crowley of The Wall Street Journal, thank you.