Blogging from Argentina, where World Cup expectations are at an all-time high and where nearly everything stopped for two hours yesterday afternoon for the Argentina-Switzerland game (even schools either showed the game or let children go home temporarily to watch it).
Yet, for some Argentines – as well as likely for some Brazilians – a World Cup in South America conjures up memories they’d rather leave alone. Argentina hosted and won (though not without controversy) the Cup in 1978, two years into its brutal military dictatorship and fourteen years into Brazil’s. Under the guise of national security, both governments tortured and disappeared their own citizens in an effort to quell left-wing dissent. In Buenos Aires, one of the most infamous torture centers was just a few blocks from the stadium where the final game between Argentina and the Netherlands was played, and former prisoners recall hearing the jubilant crowds cheering while they were rotting in tiny cells awaiting the next torture session or worse.
National security was once again in the headlines in Brazil in the past year leading up to the World Cup. As is protocol for the country hosting the next Cup, Brazil also played host for the Confederations Cup a year ago, a trial run for the bigger tournament happening now. Brazilians angry with the government’s disconnect with the plight of the poor used the tournament as a stage on which to air their discontent. Protestors were sprayed with rubber bullets and arrested under Brazil’s national security law.
A counter-terrorism bill now before the Brazilian National Congress has given some people pause due to its vague wording as it could conflate protestors and terrorists, though proponents say that the law is necessary given Brazil’s growing international profile. Among other provisions, the proposed bill calls for a penalty of 15-30 years in jail for “causing or inciting widespread terror by threatening or trying to threaten the life, the physical integrity or the health or liberty of a person.” Drafters have said that they will amend the text to clear up ambiguities, but a major concern is that the law, if passed, will criminalize freedom of expression. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, herself a former guerrilla who was tortured during the military dictatorship, likely sees the potential harm in the imprecise bill, nicknamed A1-6 after the A1-5 law that was in effect during the dictatorship, and has declined to sign it – so far.
It remains to be seen how these soccer-loving countries will reconcile their unease with national security and terrorism laws with their growing presence on a global stage. And the World Cup, while capturing the interest of much of the world, will also bring the participating countries’ uncomfortable pasts into the spotlight. As Brazil tries to best Colombia on Friday and Argentina takes on Belgium on Saturday, not everyone will be glued to a television; some will be purposely avoiding the tournament so as not to relive their experiences in 1978.