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Do Brazil protests threaten World Cup and Olympics?

Blood runs down the face of a demonstrator injured during clashes with riot police Thursday in Rio de Janeiro.
Blood runs down the face of a demonstrator injured during clashes with riot police Thursday in Rio de Janeiro.
Rafael S. Fabres/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of international visitors, including no doubt some from the Chicago area, are expected to descend on Brazil for next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The two events are supposed to showcase the nation on the world stage and mark the country’s emergence as a major global economic power. But recent mass protests throughout Brazil are raising questions about the nation’s ability to successfully conduct the events and the safety of tourists planning to attend them.

According to The Guardian, more than a quarter million protestors took to the streets Saturday night across the country, despite an appeal from the country’s president for calm and recent government concessions on some of the protestors’ demands.

The protests that have shaken the nation in recent days have been amorphous and largely spontaneous. No single individual or group is behind them and no one issue is driving them. Protestors express a variety of reasons for their participation, but the common thread that holds them together is anger at the government over economic inequality in Brazil.

One of the original demands of protestors was that public transportation fare hikes be rescinded. The mayors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro -- Brazil’s two largest cities -- announced late this week that increases to bus and subway fares in their cities have been scrapped. But neither that announcement nor President Dilma Rousseff’s primetime speech to the nation Friday have halted the protests.

The issue that seemed to bring most people to the streets Saturday was a proposed new law that would curtail the ability of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes. Protestors expressed the belief that the real purpose of the legislation was to shield politicians from corruption charges.
Victoria Villela, a 21-year-old university student who was among a crowd estimated at 30,000 that shut down a major street in São Paulo Saturday told The Guardian that she was “frustrated and exhausted by the endless corruption of our government. … I think the protests are going to continue for a long time and the crowds will still be huge.”

She said her friends were not moved by Rousseff’s speech.

The protests are taking place in the midst of the Confederations Cup international soccer tournament, being held in stadiums across Brazil. The event is an important trial run for next year’s World Cup. It’s no coincidence that protests are taking place in many of the same cities where Confederations Cup matches are being held. Many protestors have expressed concern about the amount of money that is being spent on the World Cup and the Olympics, which they believe could have been better spent on aid to the poor.

Responding to an article on the protests in Friday’s New York Times, Joseph Santini of Berkeley, Calif. said he was on his way to a Confederations Cup match in Salvador Thursday when he encountered protestors who had set buses on fire.

“We had to run from rockets, tear gas, and rubber bullets,” he said.

It’s that sort of imagery that must give pause to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA, the organization that governs international soccer and coordinates the World Cup.

Responding to some local media reports that play in the Confederations Cup might be suspended due to the protests, FIFA released a statement Friday saying that idea had not been considered. It’s also extremely unlikely at this late date that FIFA could pull the World Cup from Brazil and move it elsewhere. The logistical issues involved in such a move would be monumental, so -- barring a substantial deterioration in the Brazilian situation -- the show will go on as planned, even if some visitors are scared away.

In an interview with a Brazilian television network, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he understood that Brazilians “are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard.”

In response to a query from the Associated Press, the IOC this week released a statement saying it was “fully supportive of peaceful protest” in Brazil.

“The Olympic Games in 2016 will bring significant benefits to the whole population of Rio, improving the city in terms of transport, infrastructure and social housing,” the IOC added.

More than $12 billion is being spent on government projects to prepare Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games. Some of the protestors have accused the government of giving people “bread and circuses,” rather than addressing the underlying problems of economic inequality in the country. Wednesday, 30,000 people showed up in Fortaleza to protest prior to the start of a Confederations Cup match between Brazil and Mexico. According to the United Nations, Fortaleza is the fifth most unequal city in the world with 130,000 people living in abject poverty. The new soccer stadium in Fortaleza cost $230 million to construct.

Police in Fortaleza fired tear gas to disperse the protestors.

“After the first tear gas bomb, my brother and I ran with a few others to flee the police,“ Julia Lopes, 27, told The Guardian. “People were definitely asking: who is the World Cup for?”

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