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100 days away

SAO PAULO – We landed in Brazil 102 days before the first game of the World Cup, and nobody cared. Well, we cared, because we’re from an American television network and paid to notice these things, but nobody else did. It was the final weekend of Carnival, and the country had basically stopped all operations except drinking and dancing. After Tuesday, which happens to be both Mardi Gras and exactly 100 days out from the start of the World Cup, Brazil can turn its attention to the business of hosting a soccer tournament. Then all the questions -- about the danger of protests interrupting the games, about the nation’s infrastructure handling so many sudden visitors -- can be answered.

While Brazil celebrates at Carnival, tensions remain between protesters and the authorities.  

Earlier, we went to a packed local bakery to get some sandwiches in us -- lay down a Carnival base -- and sitting in the back corner, I caught up with my interpreter Flavio, who’s been with me on three trips to Brazil now. He described the last few weeks here. A journalist had been killed by a protestor’s rocket during a demonstration in Rio, and in Sao Paulo, cops were using MMA-style armbars on protestors.

He told me about a law politicians are trying to push through the Brazilian senate before the World Cup. It is called the Anti-Terrorism Bill, and it would criminalize many of the actions of protestors. Anyone arrested during a demonstration could potentially be labeled a terrorist. Acts of vandalism could be seen as terrorism and punished as such. A Brazilian military document described even peaceful protestors as “opponent forces.” Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. A line is being drawn between the government and its people, because of a sporting event. Opponents might have beaten back the law, but there’s still time.

The World Cup begins in 100 days, and the preparations are clearly incomplete.

We’re doing this story because we can’t resist nice round numbers. My editors assigned it to me because I’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil recently. I landed there again Sunday with a television crew, headed into the interior to spend Carnival in an old colonial town.

On my last trip here, about six weeks ago, I wandered the field and the quiet halls of Maracana Stadium in Rio, where the World Cup final will be played. The building hums with the tension of the coming games. From the covered dugout, I looked out at the field, breathing in the quiet, trying to imagine what the Maracana might sound like when it is alive.

The seats on the bench have cup holders and look like they belong in a race car. A power plug is hidden at the end, should anyone need to charge a phone. Inside the tunnel, there’s a digital clock. On a night in July, two teams will stand there, counting the minutes, listening to a full Maracana roar and echo down those halls.

From the stadium concourse, there’s a clear view into the Mangueria favela. One morning, I walked through the slum. A man invited me onto his roof to see the view. As we stood there, in the shirt-soaking heat, a helicopter swooped low over the rim of the stadium and settled down into a parking lot. A group of dignitaries – we thought FIFA but it turned out to be IOC, which is basically the same thing – scurried into the stadium. Twenty-eight minutes later, they scurried back out again, strapping into the helicopter, which flew them in climate-controlled comfort over the city. Later, we found a group of kids playing soccer on a concrete pitch, deep in the favela. There were 19 of them, and I asked how many had ever been inside the stadium down the hill.


For soccer-crazy youngsters in favelas, the World Cup will remain a distant dream.

More Brazilians have protested state spending on the World Cup than will ever set foot in the new stadiums built for it with their money. Most cannot afford to go. The closest the kids in the favela will get to the celebration is when VIPs whoosh overhead in chartered helicopters, or flash by on the road in armed caravans. There is passion for the game in Brazil but that is different from a passion for FIFA. You should hear how fanatical FIFA is about broadcast partners not calling the most famous sporting event on the planet the “World Cup.” They insist on every reference being the “FIFA 2014 World Cup,” unable to see that the game is bigger than the organization. Because I’m recording voiceovers for our television broadcasts, I got an email about it the other day. It’s stunning in its preening self-regard.

The World Cup, and 2016’s Olympic Games in Rio, have brought fast, material change to the country. Billions of dollars are flying around the country, rearranging skylines, paying for stadiums and for the corruption too often required to get anything done in Brazil. No accountability exists; three government agencies decided to be transparent about spending for the World Cup and all three show different numbers. It’s a joke. The protests against World Cup spending you saw last year were made up of normal citizens, tired of seeing their tax dollars just vanish.

“FIFA has said they will put as many troops around the stadium as necessary to carry these games off,” researcher and activist Christopher Gaffney said over dinner one night in the hopping Rio neighborhood of Botafogo. “So if this isn’t the military acting to protect the transfer of public wealth to private hands, I don’t know what is. The World Cup is a Brazilian subsidy for FIFA’s profits, protected with troops. I think people understand that. They’ll be on the streets again.”

Brazil celebrates its 2013 Confederations Cup win.

The World Cup is the biggest event of a sport beloved by nearly everyone in Brazil.

The “FIFA 2014 World Cup” is something else entirely.

We are 100 days away from both.

The biggest worry for the government, and question for soccer fans, is whether the protests that have been happening for the past year will disrupt the World Cup. Americans are leading all fans in ticket purchases, many people planning to make the flight to Brazil. Everyone keeps asking me: Will it be safe?

The short answer is probably.

For fans following the unrest, the news stories often don’t show how the nature of the protests have changed recently. A year ago, Brazil’s government felt real pressure to confront the culture of public spending and corruption, because the people filling the streets during the Confederations Cup were regular citizens. Maybe they’ll return to the streets during the World Cup. The promise of military force makes mass demonstrations unlikely, but there’s no way to know for sure. What is known is that those regular citizens have been replaced by anarchists who call themselves the Black Bloc. They are driving the middle class away from the demonstrations. To see why, I marched with a Black Bloc not long ago.

I expected an emotional expression of societal injustice.

I found a clown show.

The feared Rio Black Bloc looked and acted exactly like the nihilists from "The Big Lebowski." Some wheeled around in uncoordinated comic book karate moves, like that Internet video of the fat kid with the toy light saber. Others moshed. Most wore black T-shirts. They all wore masks. Some masks had skulls on them. One of them turned on a stereo and they rocked out.

The song was -- hand to God -- Beyonce’s "Irreplaceable."

They bought popcorn from a vendor and threw it all over the steps of the city council building, as if to prove they wouldn’t be forced by the capitalist bourgeoisie to put popcorn in the mouths.

Someone showed up dressed like Batman.

“F---!” Batman screamed.

Not long ago, when the government made it illegal to march with a mask, the cops handcuffed Batman for concealing his identity. Another protestor sensibly yelled at the officers: “Come on, you know he’s Bruce Wayne!”

Protestors jockeyed to be interviewed by the hot Dutch journalist accompanied by the even hotter Dutch photographer. A tall boy in a Linkin Park T-shirt posed, crossing his arms, cocking back his head, trying to look hard.

“I want a revolution,” he said.

I asked a protester about polls showing that more than 90 percent of the public disapproved of the Black Bloc. She said the polls were wrong, and that in June, the people of Brazil would rise up and retake their country.

“The political base of the population is weak,” she said. “The population still hasn’t understood what the Black Blocs are up to. The resistance the Black Blocs are showing in the streets is giving strength to the working class.”

An hour or two late, about 25 protestors took off across Rio, followed by twice as many cops. The riot cops rode shotgun on their motorcycles, holding tear gas launchers and assault rifles loaded with rubber bullets. The city ground to a halt, first streets, then the highway, then the tunnel to Copacabana.

We walked for miles.

“They talk about capitalism and eat at McDonald's,” a cop said. “They are just walking. They don’t know what they are protesting.”

The Linkin Park T-shirt took a black flag and ran ahead of the group, waving it to the cheers of his friends.

“It has to do with my rock 'n' roll style,” he said. “Black Bloc has become my life.”

“They talk about capitalism and eat at McDonald's,” a cop said about the protesters. “They don’t know what they are protesting.”

People sat at the sidewalk cafes and drank their cold beers, most ignoring the circus. It was sundown. A helicopter hovered overhead. The protestors chanted, about the governor, and taxes, and corruption.

“You’re just talking bulls---,” an old man yelled back.

The most interesting stories in Brazil are about the favelas and the protests, because they shine a light on corruption and structural inequality. A Brazilian friend always gets pissed when I write about his country, and he’s both right and wrong. He’s wrong because there are truths about his home he can’t see. But he’s right, too, because he sees Brazil as a flawed place, not a broken one. Stories often focus on one or the other. I’ve written about corruption, and about gang violence, but I’ve never written about my favorite bar in the world.

It’s on a corner in an old bohemian neighborhood built on one of Rio’s hills. Driving there, the taxi revs and lurches, trying to get enough power to make it up the cobblestone roads. At night, the bar glows in the distance. Hundreds of people stand outside in the street, holding beers, smoking cigarettes, talking.

Everyone is welcoming and kind. Inside, the light is amber, the color of whiskey and ice, and it reflects off the marble tables and blown glass cases lining the back wall. The beer comes out of the freezers below zero degrees Celsius. I’m friends with a waiter, who everyone calls Little Pen, and he keeps them coming, hour after hour. The kitchen serves bologna sandwiches, and platters of Spanish ham and Italian salami and hard, salty cheese. They bring out silver bowls of grilled lamb and onions and a plate of cod fritters. Sometimes, we order fried chicken.

It is the perfect place, and everyone I take there feels like they’ve just discovered a secret paradise. Brazil is full of such wonders, and I’ve only stumbled into a few. There’s the hidden coffee shop in Copacabana, in the back of a store that sells cigars and other relics of faded masculinity: cards and dice, Zippo cigarette lighters and old combs made from bone. A cup costs 40 cents and arrives in a demitasse with the name of the place written in fading blue letters. A German bar – which had to change its name during World War II – serves a plate of pork-rich white beans. Music plays in small clubs, and out of speakers mounted on rolling trucks.

All that is 100 days away, too.

The first time I went to Rio, four years ago, I covered a war. It didn’t feel safe to leave the hotel. One gang of cocaine traffickers had recently shot down a police helicopter with a .50 caliber gun. For American readers, the word gang evokes images of pistols and bandanas. These weren’t Crips. They were militias, well armed and financed by an endless well of drug dollars. Two rival armies controlled all the favelas. All civilization, from police to basic sanitation, stopped where the asphalt ended and the slums began.

The city couldn’t be more different today.

It’s a change for the better, created by the World Cup. For the past four years, Rio has been engaged in what they regrettably call “pacification,” an Orwellian word for a civic miracle: They used special force troops to sweep the gangsters away, and for the first time ever, installed permanent police stations in every favela.

Now I ride the subway in Rio.

Traveling around Brazil feels a bit like traveling around New Orleans; the fear of danger is greater than the reality, and if you get killed, odds are you were either doing something illegal or remarkably stupid. Traffic, which is staggering, will be more of a problem than armed gunmen. Brazil can be dangerous, but it is usually very safe for anyone coming to watch a game.

This safety isn’t without a cost.

The gap between the wealthy and the poor is wide and growing.

The city hired Rudy Giuliani as a security consultant.

Police violence remains a serious problem, both against citizens and those who’ve been demonstrating in the streets. If you are planning to protest during the World Cup – you know, be socially conscious while getting some sun and some soccer – get ready for tear gas and rubber bullets from the riot cops.

Then there is the disappearance of Amarildo de Souza.

Amarildo's disappearance and subsequent torture in 2003 was a notorious flash point in the fight between police and dissenters.

Amarildo was a 42-year-old construction worker. As he walked through his favela, police told him they needed to ask him some questions. He got in their car. Nobody ever saw him again. The police denied any knowledge, saying they’d released him. Protestors held signs, and celebrities sent tweets, asking: “Where is Amarildo?”

Several months later, an investigation found he’d been tortured and killed in a police station. Cops threw away his body, which still hasn’t been found. In the past six years, 35,000 people in Rio have simply vanished, a chilling fact for those familiar with the history of South American countries eliminating opponents. A Brazilian blog devoted to the disappearance asks a scary question: “How many Amarildos are somewhere we don’t even know?”

A lot of change is happening because of the tournament, some good and some bad. Mostly, it’s too early to tell what the far-reaching consequences will be. Maybe the favelas will be turned back to the drug dealers after the Olympics, or maybe the people who live in them will be thrown out of their homes in favor of real estate developers. Or maybe this event will finally bring some justice and equality to the country. Nobody knows what will happen in Brazil when the World Cup is over in 131 days, just that it will be different.

Not everything is changing.

I’m writing this from Sao Paulo. The last time I came here, I sat in the modern, low-slung living room of a Brazilian engineer turned activist, Ivo Herzog, who also happens to be a proud Michigan State Spartan. He knows, perhaps more than anyone, that Brazil’s ghosts haunt everything, including the soccer tournament happening here in three months. From 1964 to 1985, a military dictatorship ruled Brazil, taking away even the most basic of civil rights, plunging the country into what it called now “the years of lead.” The same construction companies that funded the right-wing coup that ended democracy now support the current left-wing government that is putting on the World Cup.

Ivo’s father was Vladimir Herzog, news director of TV Cultura. He was kidnapped by the secret police, tortured and then killed. Cops staged a jail cell hanging, releasing photos of the alleged suicide. The family fought for the government to admit he hadn’t killed himself, and decades later, evidence proved them correct. I asked Ivo how his mother told him his dad was dead. He was a young boy then, and the question turned him back into that boy.

“I don’t remember,” he said, looking down, picking at his thumb.

Beneath the surface, the old conflicts remain.

“I don’t know if you heard what happened in the cemetery,” Herzog said.

A mass grave of those killed by the dictatorship had been discovered and the bones had been carefully exhumed and sorted, to try to finally bring closure to families who had loved ones vanish. During the night, someone mixed all the bones together to prevent identification.

“This war,” Herzog says, “it’s forever.”

A politician named Jose Maria Marin gave a speech that Ivo believes incited the security forces to kill his father, and later Marin made another speech praising the architect of his dad’s torture. The politician supported the dictatorship then, openly, but today he’s got a new job. Jose Maria Marin is the head of Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup organizing committee.

Ivo Herzog wants him fired before the tournament begins.

He’s got 100 more days.


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