It began as a small protest over increased bus fares to help pay for preparations for the 2014 World Cup. But by Thursday night the unrest had spread throughout the nation, as Brazilians in several cities — estimated to total more than a million people — took to the streets with a variety of grievances.
In Rio de Janiero, host site of the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics, 300,000 swarmed the streets, with some battling police. Violence also broke out in at least four other cities, and one teenager was killed in Sao Paulo — not by police, but by a driver who plowed into a group of protesters when he couldn’t move his car. That’s all this thing needed — road rage.
The great majority of the protesters were peaceful, but the question remains: is Brazil too volatile for the world’s two biggest sporting events? Rubber bullets, tear gas and street chaos are not exactly tourism enhancers. Nor is the scene below.
Some say, however, that this is the purge that Brazil needed. Better now, at the beginning of the Confederations Cup, than next year at the World Cup.
“I think we desperately need this, that we’ve been needing this for a very, very long time,” said Paulo Roberto Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old clothing store salesman in Rio.
Despite the energy on the street, many protesters said they were unsure how the movement would win real political concessions. People in the protests have held up signs asking for everything from education reforms to free bus fares while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the Olympics.
“We pay a lot of money in taxes, for electricity, for services, and we want to know where that money is,” said Italo Santos, a 25-year old student who joined a rally by 5,000 protesters at Salvador’s Campo Grand Square.
Still, Brazilian authorities insist that the World Cup and the Olympics will be safe.
The group responsible for planning the Olympics, Rio 2016, has emphasized that security is a top priority, and has expressed full confidence in hosting a safe event, a point echoed by government officials at various levels.
That vote of confidence is largely justified, said Tim Vickery, World Soccer Magazine’s South American correspondent, because authorities here have lots of experience dealing with mass events, such as Rio’s Carnival every year.
“They know the vulnerable points in their city, it’s a huge show of strength on the streets. But the level of sophistication needed to combat a terrorist threat, that’s something that they’re not particularly used to,” Vickery said.
This time, however, there seems to be something different in the air. It looks like a storm is coming, and it transcends sports. It’s anyone’s guess if the government is really going to be prepared.
Photos: Demotix, Associated Press.