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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.

Venezuelan Opposition Call for Nationwide Protests

by Carly Alvarez | February 26, 2014


Street packed with Venezuelan protesters waving flags

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has proposed a national peace conference as opposition leaders in the country call for new anti-government demonstrations and a nationwide presence in the streets.

Pope Francis has also intervened to urge Venezuela to end its ongoing political violence, asking that opposing sides reach reconciliation through dialogue. His plea comes on a day of rival demonstrations in Caracas, a silent march by female opposition activists and a simultaneous pro-government rally held by agricultural workers.

Violence directed at the largely student led protests has increased international attention to the movement, with opposition activists accusing Maduro’s government of enforcing a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. Maduro insists the opposition is attempting to stage a U.S. funded coup, and consistently refers to protesters as fascists during pro-government rallies.

On February 12, at least two student protesters were shot and killed by an armed gang known as colectivos, who have historically supported Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party.  In response to the violence, Maduro banned all unauthorized demonstrations. Protests continued, however, with many citing the country’s extremely high crime and inflation rates, constant shortages of necessities such as toilet paper and basic food supplies, and corruption to back their demand for Maduro’s resignation.

Since the start of the demonstrations this month, at least thirteen have been killed, with more than 147 injured, and over 45 of those arrested remain in prison.

Maduro’s government denied responsibility for the protester deaths and accused key opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, for inciting violence. On February 18, the government issued a warrant for the former mayor’s arrest on counts of terrorism and murder.

Before turning himself in to authorities, Lopez reaffirmed his emphasis on nonviolent action to a crowd of supporters, “I ask you to continue this struggle and stay on the streets, to embrace our right to protest. But do so peacefully and without resorting to violence. I ask that all of us here today, all Venezuelans who want change, to get informed, educated and organized, and to carry out a nonviolent protest, a massive demonstration of free will, hearts and souls of the people who want change.”

On February 21, Venezuelan prosecutors dropped the murder and terrorism charges and formally charged Lopez with arson and conspiracy. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Security forces have received widespread criticism for their use of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and batons against opposition activists throughout the country. The western state of Tachira has experienced the strongest repression, where Maduro sent paratroopers and threatened the region with a curfew.

On February 17, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three American consular officials, claiming they were aiding protesting students. Foreign media has also been targeted; Colombian news channel NTN24 was recently removed from cable and satellite providers after airing footage of anti-government protests.  Hours after warning CNN to “rectify” its coverage of the protests, officials revoked or denied press credentials for all of the network’s journalists in the country, accusing them of “leading Venezuela away from peace”.

On February 24, longtime Maduro ally and United Socialist Party member Jose Vielma became the first from within his party to publically criticize the government’s response to recent protests. During an interview with a Caracas radio station, the governor of Tachira denounced the use of violence against protesters, “I am against putting down a peaceful protest with weapons. No one is authorized to use violence.” Vielma also defended the right for citizens to protest and called for the release of Lopez from prison.