Brazil: 230 arrested in World Cup protest

In the latest protest against what activists say is the Brazilian government's diversion of funds from social services to sports events, more than 1,000 people marched in downtown São Paulo from the Praça da República to the Anhangabaú subway station on the evening of Feb. 22. The protest ended with some 1,000 agents of the militarized police using stun grenades and tear gas to disperse the marchers and making a total of 230 arrests. Among those arrested were five journalists, two photographers and three reporters; the reporters were from the newspapers O Globo and Folha de São Paulo and from the news website G1. Bruno Santos, a photographer for the Terra Brasil website, received an injury in his leg.

Protesters charged that the arrests were arbitrary and that the police contingent, which included plainclothes infiltrators and a special unarmed unit trained in martial arts, attacked the march without provocation. A video by the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), shows agents surrounding a large group of demonstrators and apparently starting to arrest them. The police blamed the confrontation on masked members of the Black Bloc, who reportedly vandalized stores and a branch of the Itaú Unibanco bank. All of the 230 people detained were released by the next day.

As in much larger demonstrations in June 2013, the Feb. 22 marchers protested national and local governments' underfunding of education, transportation and health services while pouring billions into preparations for this year's World Cup soccer championship and the 2016 Olympics. The action was organized through the Facebook page of a group called Against the 2014 Cup. Brazil is expected to spend some $11 billion on the series of World Cup games from June 12 to July 13, the largest amount spent in the history of the events. "The government is trying to make us believe that Brazil is just happiness and Carnaval, but it isn't that way," protester Lucas Souza told the Argentine wire service InfoBAE. "It's a very unequal country." (Jornal do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, Feb. 22; PSTU, Feb. 22; InfoBAE, Feb. 22; Prensa Latina, Feb. 23)

The national government is stepping up efforts to contain protests during this summer's games. "The federal police, the national public security force, the highway police—all these organs are ready and positioned to act within their areas of competence," President Dilma Rousseff said in a radio interview on Feb. 19. "If it's necessary, we will also mobilize the armed forces." (Agence France Presse, Feb. 19) The federal Senate is considering two bills directed against protests. One of them, written by a congressional committee, would treat as "terrorism" the act of "provoking or instilling terror or widespread panic through an attack or an intention of attack against a person's life, physical well-being [or] health or the deprivation of a person's freedom." The bill would also increase penalties for vandalism. Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, of the leftist Freedom and Socialism Party (PSOL), called "[t]his generic classification of terrorism…an instrument against any free demonstration, against any organized civilian mobilization." He compared it to a measure in force during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. On Feb. 12 Rio de Janeiro state public safety secretary José Mariano Beltrame proposed a separate bill making it a crime to create disorder in a public space. (AFP via Terra Chile, Feb. 12)

The media have promoted these measures with widespread coverage of the death of Santiago Andrade, a TV camera operator who succumbed to injuries he received while covering a Feb. 6 protest in Rio de Janeiro. Two young protesters, Caio Silva de Souza and Fabio Raposo, allegedly caused Andrade's death with a firework that they intended to throw at police; they were arrested, jailed and charged with criminal homicide. The media expressed outrage over the incident; in contrast, Arlita Andrade, the victim's widow, said: "I feel great pain for these two kids." Attorney Marcos Fuchs, director of the Pro Bono Institute and associate director of the nonprofit Conectas Human Rights organization, noted another contrast—between the expedited police action against the protesters and the usual pace of criminal investigations in Brazil. "All the homicide cases should be solved with this same speed," he told the Brazilian edition of the Spanish newspaper El País, which reported that less than 8% of Brazilian homicide cases are ever solved.

On Feb. 12, as the media focused on the Andrade case, another criminal homicide case was suspended. Thor Batista—the son of Brazilian mining, oil and gas magnate Eike Batista, who was one of the world's richest individuals before his companies' stocks plummeted in 2013—is charged in the 2012 death of a cyclist he hit while allegedly driving his Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren at 100-115 km per hour. In this case the suspect hasn't spent a single day in prison. (Terra Chile, Feb. 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 23.