Olympic Flame Extinguished as Protests Rock Brazil—a Country in Crisis

August 8, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is excerpted from a longer letter from a reader:

Cop pepper sprays demonstrators during a protest against the money spent on Rio's 2016 Summer Olympics on the route of the Olympic torch, in Niteroi, Brazil, August 2. (AP photo)

Rio de Janeiro police during a demolition of what remains of the Vila Autodromo slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 8, 2016.
Rio de Janeiro police during demolition of the Vila Autódromo slum, on March 8, 2016. The area is being transformed into luxury apartment buildings for use after the Olympics. The evicted families were promised new housing but there have been some 22,000 other families evicted in other Rio slums who have nowhere to go. (AP photo)

As the Olympic torch entered the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, teachers who were protesting delayed salary payments to government employees due to the near bankruptcy of the Rio state government clashed with the police, grabbed the torch, and extinguished the flame.

Tens of thousands have taken part in protests aimed at the Olympics but are sparked by an economic, political, and social crisis that has rocked Brazil in the past two years.

The Protests

The Olympics has become a focus of the anger of the people, where 63 percent of the population thinks hosting the Olympics that has cost $11.9 billion will hurt the country that is already in a deep political, economic, and social crisis. (New York Times, August 4, 2016)

Francisco Dornelles, the vice-governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, has “declared a state of public calamity over the budget shortfalls that could cause a total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.” The New York Times reported that in Rio, civil servants and pensioners are not being paid due to the “squandering [of] a bonanza of oil royalties.”

All along the route of the torch relay, protests are being held. People have pelted the torch relay with rocks. Protests have taken place in many of the outlying areas of Rio. In Itaboraí, where a huge refinery project was shut down due to a bribery scandal, causing massive unemployment, the protesters carried a banner reading: “While the torch passes lit in Itaboraí, jobs, health, and education are put out.” (Washington Post, August 2, 2016)

In São Gonçalo, protesters forced the cops to change the route of the torch as they chanted that they were going to put it out. They carried a banner “emblazoned with the Olympic rings and the phrase ‘exclusion games.’” (Washington Post, August 2, 2016)

In Niterói, a more affluent town with views across the bay to the city, the cops tear gassed the demonstrators and arrested people. As one woman was being arrested, she shouted, “Fascist police! Fascist police! The Olympics kill!” (Washington Post, August 2, 2016)

Brazilian riot police used tear gas and pepper spray against hundreds of protesters who were marching along the Olympic torch relay route in Duque de Caxias, north of Rio de Janeiro, Wednesday just before the start of the Olympics. The protest, which was against the salary delays of public sector workers in the state of Rio, took place along the path of the Olympic torch relay. (Olympic torch appears at very end of video)

The cops and military have used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to clear a path for the torch through some of the poor suburbs of Rio.

It is not clear who all the protesters are, but the police and government are using this as a way to go after those they label as “gangs” and “drug traffickers.” In one instance, 450 heavily armed cops marauded through the Alemão slum near the Rio airport and arrested dozens.

In Natal in the northern part of Brazil, protesters have set fire and destroyed 29 buses and other state vehicles. Inmates in a state prison in that city took over the prison in protest over having their cell phone signals blocked. The government sent 1,200 troops to Natal to put down this mini-rebellion (my words), saying that “these are criminal gangs” who are unleashing a wave of violence against the government.” (Yahoo News, August 3, 2016)

A street vendor who sells in front of a Rio metro station said, “Just thinking of the Olympics leaves me revolted. Our politicians want to trick the world into thinking things are great here. Well, let the foreigners see for themselves the filth we live in, the money our leaders steal.” (New York Times, August 4, 2016)


Social Crisis

Brazil has been at the center of the Zika crisis. (See “Zika Virus and Global Inequality: A Deadly Combination.”) Zika infections in the state of Rio are the highest in the country with an infection rate of 157 per 100,000 people. At the same time, the government has cut health care by 30 percent since the beginning of 2015. There is a massive health care shortage with over half of the hospitals shut down.

More than 150 doctors and professors signed a letter saying the Olympics should be postponed or moved out of Rio to “prevent the Olympics from transforming Zika into a global pandemic.” (Dave Zirin, The Nation, July 26, 2016) In May, the Harvard Public Health Review stated that “The 2016 Olympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both as a precautionary concession.”

77,000 people have been displaced and thousands have lost their homes due to Olympics-related construction, and those people have taken to the streets to protest their displacement.

A demonstrator in a costume depicting a banker and holding a replica of a fire extinguisher for putting out the "flame" of an imitation Olympic torch on the route of the Olympic torch, at the Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 5.
A demonstrator in a costume depicting a banker and holding a replica of a fire extinguisher for putting out the "flame" of an imitation Olympic torch on the route of the Olympic torch, at the Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 5. (AP photo)

Police murdering people has been on the rise, with a 135 percent increase in the number of people killed by the police in May this year compared to May last year. 307 people were killed by the cops in Rio last year. One out of five homicides in Rio is committed by the cops. This is a 26 percent increase in police killing people in Rio over the past year.

The favelas (where those in poverty live) are in shambles, with anti-crime pacifying programs—using SWAT-type police tactics, massive police presence, and police shootouts killing the residents in the favelas. It is ironic that the organizers of the Olympics had planned what they called “poverty tours” of the favelas where they were trying to institute pacification programs to show visitors how “cute and peaceful the favelas are that you can even bring tourists into them.” But this backfired on them when the cops went on their killing rampage in the favelas. A 17-year-old high school student spoke to this. She told a reporter, “They will want to show everyone who is here from abroad for the Olympics: ‘Look we have security.’ But this is a lie. The want to show that Brazil can protect them—but for us, the population, there will be more violence and deaths.” (Dave Zirin, The Nation, July 26, 2016)

Waterways, including Guanabara Bay where Olympic events will take place, are contaminated “with waterborne virus levels up to 1.7 million times of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.” (New York Times)

Rio has become a militarized state with 85,000 troops on the ground, double the amount of military forces that were used in the 2012 London Olympics.

Economic Crisis

Brazil is in the midst of a deep economic crisis where the economy has shrunk 5.4 percent in the first quarter of this year. Inflation reached 10.7 percent at the end of 2015, which is a 12-year high. This is the largest recession for Brazil since the 1930s.

According to Reuters, Rio de Janeiro is one of the country’s most indebted states and has been hit especially hard by the recession. Unemployment is up to 11.2 percent in the period between February and April of this year.

With 11.4 million unemployed, up 20 percent from a year ago, Brazil’s central bank recently estimated that the economy would shrink by 3.5 percent this year, which follows a 3.8 percent drop in the economy in 2015, with average wages falling by more than four percent over the past year.

So, stay tuned as the Olympics are going on.



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