Brazil Strikes Ahead of World Cup

by Carly Alvarez | May 23, 2014

Homeless Workers' Movement protest in Sao Paulo

Homeless Workers’ Movement protest in Sao Paulo

Anti-government protests continue to spread throughout Brazil’s largest cities less than three weeks before the country is due to host the FIFA World Cup.

Many local communities in Brazil’s host cities are rejecting the estimated 14 billion dollars of public spending on World Cup preparation, accusing President Dilma Rousseff’s government of ignoring citizen demands in favor of attracting over 600,000 tourists.

The ongoing wave of protests and strikes began during the Confederations Cup warm up competition held in Rio last June, when millions marched in protest of rising bus fares and political corruption.

In recent months leading up to the most expensive World Cup to date, Brazil has witnessed increased political action that has temporarily paralyzed their largest cities.

Nationwide Protests

In at least 9 of the 12 Cup host cities there have been strikes or threats to strike. Police officers, firefighters, transportation workers, civil engineers, bank security guards, students, and teachers are among those currently striking for higher pay and better public services.

On May 15, there were demonstrations reported in 18 cities. In Sao Paulo, over 7,000 supporters of the Homeless Workers’ Movement occupied land near the city’s 372 million dollar soccer stadium to demand affordable housing. Responding to the massive occupation known as the “People’s Cup”, President Rousseff called an emergency meeting and discussed giving the occupied lot to protesters for housing construction.

Employees in 17 Brazilian consulates in the United States and Europe staged a two-day strike in solidarity with the protesters, temporarily delaying visa processing for World Cup visitors.

While mass protests and marches will likely affect the international event, strikes from transportation workers and police officers are anticipated to have the most significant impact during the World Cup.

Transportation Strikes

A large number of soccer fans are expected to rely on public transportation to travel to and from FIFA events, lending transportation workers unique political leverage.

On May 20, bus drivers in Sao Paulo staged a 48-hour strike, abandoning their vehicles in the middle of major roads and effectively creating 162 miles of gridlock in South America’s largest city.  The walkout occurred in response to the drivers’ union agreeing to a 10 percent salary increase, a figure some of its members view as inadequate.

The previous week there was a bus strike in Rio, which affected roughly 1.5 million commuters and left hundreds of buses vandalized and lit on fire.

Police Walkouts

In April, the Brazilian government ordered over 2,500 army troops to the city of Salvador after local police walked off the job, causing a dramatic increase in robberies and homicides. In less than two days of police absence, the city’s murder rate soared far above the average of 2.5 deaths a day, leaving 39 dead.

A month following the violence in Salvador, soldiers were again sent to intervene in a host city after police in Recife staged a similar strike. Universities, shops, and banks were forced to close due to security concerns.

On May 21, thousands of police in at least 14 states staged a 24-hour strike, demanding pay increases of up to 80%.

Government Response

The Brazilian government is preparing for massive protests designed to disrupt the 2014 World Cup, despite many assurances by President Rousseff and FIFA representatives that protesters will not affect the country’s hosting capabilities.

The “pacification” program in Brazil began in 2008, following the announcement that the country would host the World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The program is intended to secure Rio’s most dangerous slums, known as favelas, by authorizing police and military troops to “seize control from drug gangs”.

Earlier in May, Rio police received backup support from over 2,000 soldiers and marines during a pacification operation carried out in response to escalating violence in the favela Complexo da Mare.

The program’s effectiveness is debated, as towns are often alerted ahead of time, allowing the targeted criminals to relocate to other favelas. Additionally, several civilians have been killed during police shoot-outs with alleged drug dealers during these raids. Protests ignited in late April after 26 year-old professional dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva, was beaten to death reportedly due to police misidentifying him as a criminal.

In addition to the pacification operations, World Cup police in Rio will be equipped for violent protests with protective flame resistant gear weighing over 22 pounds. Referred to as the “RoboCop” outfit, this equipment is aimed to protect officers from Molotov cocktails and fireworks, such as the one that killed cameraman Santiago Andrade earlier this year.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city and Cup venue, the FBI conducted a special training for hundreds of officers. The week long course, dedicated to crowd analysis, social media monitoring, and methods of anticipating violence, is part of a security plan said to cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

The government has also responded to protests by offering limited concessions, including a recent 10% increase in welfare payments.