Just days before the start of the 2016 Olympic games, Brazilians took to the streets of the country’s two largest cities Sunday for protests amid the deepest political crisis the country has faced in decades.
Demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro, the Olympic host city, gathered by the thousands along Copacabana beach to demand the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and prosecution of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of Brazil’s most powerful figures.
Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo, the megalopolis business capital of Latin America’s largest and most populous nation, protesters rallied in support of Rousseff, Lula and their left-leaning Workers Party.
The anti-government crowd in Rio stretched nearly as far as the eye could see along the beach. They chanted, sang and wore the nation’s colors of yellow and green.
Aware of the large presence of international media, some of the protest was even conducted in English.
Enjoy the Olympic Games, because we are paying a high price for it!
Case Carvalho, Brazilian politician
“We welcome all of you and wish you a nice stay in our country,” Case Carvalho, a politician in the state of Rio de Janeiro, said through a microphone atop a parade car like those used during Carnival. “Enjoy the Olympic games, because we are paying a high price for it!”
Many of the protesters supported conservative pro-business parties. While they said they hoped for a successful Olympic Games, they blamed the Workers Party, now embroiled in multiple corruption probes, for putting Brazil in an untenable position.
“It’s a lot of spending for uncompleted works that will serve for nothing after the games,” said William Dalvo, waving banners with his wife, Roseangela. “What people want is security, education, health care. That’s what’s important . . . we usually just want Carnival and soccer, but for the first time people are waking up!”
Much of the ire was reserved for President Rousseff, the handpicked successor of populist Lula – who still leads national polls for 2018 elections but on Friday was ordered to stand trial on obstruction of justice charges. The case against him was brought by crusading judge Sergio Moro, whose name was chanted repeatedly by the throngs.
A former trade union leader who helped end Brazil’s military dictatorship 30 years ago, Lula was the face of modern left-wing politics in Latin America for the first decade of the 21st century. He embraced open trade, was friendly to business but focused government resources on the poor.
That was then. Today, Brazil is mired in a two-year recession, and Lula’s image has taken a beating, as has that of the Workers Party.
Lula faces multiple investigations for alleged obstruction of justice into a probe of corruption at the state oil company, Petroleo Brasileiro , or Petrobras. He’s also being probed for illicit enrichment, a catchall when a politician grows wealthy in office. People close to him who share his same seaside condo building appeared in the now infamous Panama Papers, the pirated internal documents of a Panamanian law firm that set up offshore companies for wealthy clients.
Rousseff has been temporarily removed from the presidency pending an impeachment trial in the senate for mismanagement of public funds. That trial is expected in late August after the games conclude. If she is formally removed, the vice president who is now filling in for her, Michel Temer, would take over. He, too, faces accusations of corruption.
The Panama Papers, a massive leak of secret offshore documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, has had huge impact in Brazil because it revealed politicians of all stripes with secret offshore accounts. Brazilians are fed up, especially with the ruling party.
“The PT destroyed Brazilian democracy with this story that they are going to make things better for the poor. It was a lie. They have their pockets full of money,” said protester Lianne Pinheiro, referring to the Workers Party by its Portuguese initials. “We want democracy to return with responsibility, ethics and patriotism. We are a rich country. What is happening shouldn’t be happening. We have to end this corruption.”