As the Olympics gets underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians and foreigners alike will almost certainly have a great time. Despite the delays, the protests and the Zica virus (now apparently under control), there is a lot going for these Olympics: no other people in the world are as good as the Brazilians at organising spontaneous street parties; the weather is warm but not sweltering; and Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
But this should not mask the disturbing political changes that are happening in Brazil at this very moment.
At a press conference in Rio last Thursday leaders from Brazil’s three leading fronts, representing the main social movements, expressed their profound apprehension.
Edson Carneiro, a leader from Intersindical, a radical trade union body, said: “There are 10,000 journalists in the city and we must get our message across to them – that there is a coup underway. Information isn’t getting out, as all the powerful media groups in Brazil support it. We must break through the information blockade.”
He is referring to the current process to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, from the Workers’ Party, the PT. The proceedings are already advanced and are expected to start drawing to an end on 26 August, just after the Olympics have ended (but before the Paralympics), when Senate is due to begin voting.
If the Senate votes with a two-thirds majority to impeach Dilma (as she is universally known), then she will be kicked out of office and the acting president, Michel Temer, will take over. But it is by no means certain that the pro-impeachment lobby will get quite enough votes.
Since he took over on 12 May, unelected Temer, who has very little popular support, has rapidly pushed through a series of extremely tough, neo-liberal measures. The social movements are unanimous in their condemnation.
Labour laws are being shredded, welfare payments are being cut, the health service is being weakened. It all sounds depressingly familiar. What is different in Brazil is that many of the poor have no safety net. The cuts will push them into absolute poverty.
Though Dilma is widely disliked, a few senators are beginning to wonder whether the country really wants to impose such a savage form of neoliberalism.
The social movements say that the extreme right, which secured a majority in Congress largely because the electoral system is so skewed, is illegitimately taking advantage of its Congressional strength to push out a president, whom it failed to defeat in the polls.
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Dilma was elected by 54 million Brazilians just 18 months ago, standing against a right-wing candidate. What is happening now amounts to a coup, say the social movements.
The social movements also want to draw attention to the rapid erosion of human rights, which makes it dangerous to protest. “We won’t stop organising demonstrations during the Olympics, because they are threatening us with the anti-terrorism law,” said a defiant Guilherme Boulos, the charismatic leader of Brazl’s Homeless Movement, the MTST.
“There have already been protests as the Olympic torch made its way through the country and there will be others every day during the Olympics,” he added.
The third topic that the leaders want to highlight is the Olympics itself, which has led to thousands of families being evicted from their homes, distortions in the transport network, and the presence of 20,000 ill-trained soldiers on the streets.
It is “a calamity on an Olympic scale,” say the leaders.
It will be easy for us to ignore all this, as journalists report on the excitement in the stadiums, the laughter in the streets, and the proverbial friendliness of the cariocas (Rio inhabitants). And everywhere we will hear the captivating sound of samba music.
But behind the festivities the threat facing Brazil is real enough. Brazilian democracy is very young – the military only withdrew to the barracks in 1985.
The Olympics itself bear witness to this: the military installations at Deodoro in the north of the city, where the hockey, basketball and riding competitions are being held, are where political prisoners were held, brutally tortured and killed during the military dictatorship.
“I still hear shrieks of pain coming from the walls,” said Francisco Celso Calmon, who was detained there for four months. “There is blood on the floor. They are trying to turn it into a festive place but really it is the site of horrific barbarities.”
Some have campaigned for at least a plaque on the wall to recall all the suffering but, in their desire not to ruffle military feathers, the authorities won’t even allow this.
This burying of the past is dangerous. What Michel Temer and his cronies are doing is pushing Brazil’s fragile democracy to the limit. It would have been salutary for young Brazilians—and foreign tourists—to be reminded of what can happen when the democratic structures in a country are broken.