RIO DE JANEIRO: Thousands of Brazilians angry at political upheaval, corruption and the cost of the Rio Olympics blocked traffic in protests Friday ahead of the gala opening ceremony.
About 3,000 people occupied the busy avenue running along Copacabana beach, while a smaller crowd including radical leftists faced off with mounted police near the Maracana stadium where the opening was to be staged.
Most people came to vent anger at center-right interim president Michel Temer who took power in May on the suspension of elected leftist president, Dilma Rousseff. She faces an impeachment trial that supporters claim amounts to a coup.
Demonstrators also targeted the Olympics, saying the billions of dollars spent on staging South America’s first Games fueled corruption and only helped the elite.
Waving signs that read “No to the Olympics!” and “Temer out!”, protesters gathered outside the luxury Copacabana Palace Hotel where many Olympic team members are staying.
Guests with Olympic accreditation around their necks looked down from the hotel terrace, while the crowd jeered vehicles taking Olympic VIPs and athletes through the upscale neighborhood.
When a limousine surrounded by police outriders came through, the crowd surged forward, chanting “no to the coup” and “putschists, fascists, we won’t let them pass!”
Soon after, about 500 people gathered close to the 78,600 capacity Maracana stadium where Temer was to oversee the Olympics opening ceremony.
“There won’t be an Olympic torch!” chanted the crowd, confronting a line of about 20 mounted police and many more on foot in riot gear.
“This party wasn’t done for the people. The Games don’t come close to the reality lived by the poor. So I’m protesting against the lack of finances for our schools and for the way our salaries are only paid in instalments,” said teacher Guilherme Moreira Dias, 38.
The protests were the latest unwelcome distraction for the government and Olympic organizers as the Games start.
Authorities are also dealing with rampant crime, including a lengthening list of muggings against Olympic delegates and journalists, despite the deployment of 85,000 soldiers and police to protect the Games.
Just a facade
Protesters, many of them from Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, said Brazil’s deep economic and social problems are being swept under the carpet for the Olympics.
“They’re holding the Olympics when people are having a very hard time,” said Ricardo Parents 59, a psychologist who came to the Copacabana protest.
“The Olympics is a facade, it’s for show. It doesn’t represent the reality of Brazil. They want to show everything nice and perfect.”
Over and over again the crowd chanted “Temer out” and called for Rousseff’s return.
She is charged with breaking budgetary laws and looks certain to be thrown out of office by the Senate in the next few weeks at the end of an impeachment process that she says has been manipulated by Brazil’s right, calling Temer the chief “conspirator.”
“I am demonstrating for democracy in Brazil. The world is watching so we are here to denounce the coup,” said one demonstrator, Iraci Franca, 57, a nurse.
“It’s very hard right now in Rio state for education and health because of the lack of funds and non-payment of salaries,” she said.
Rio de Janeiro won the right in 2009 to host the Olympic Games at a time when Brazil was economically and politically on the rise. The collapse in stability and wealth since then has been brutal.
Temer is to open the Games while Rousseff and her predecessor and political mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have refused to attend the ceremony.
With opponents promising to boo Temer at the stadium, organizers plan to play loud music immediately after his remarks and mask the heckling, according to Brazilian media.
“We want to take advantage when the world’s attention is on Brazil to denounce what’s happening, how we are on the path to dictatorship,” said one demonstrator, Ubiratan Delgado, a 59-year-old engineer in Copacabana.