Brazil: homeless win some in the World Cup

The governments of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad reached an agreement on June 9 with the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) ending the threat that the group's protests would disrupt the June 12 opening game of the 2014 World Cup soccer championship. Officials agreed to build some 2,000 housing units in vacant private land where about 4,000 homeless people had set up an encampment, "The People's Cup," near the site of the first game, São Paulo's Arena Corinthians. The land occupation started a month earlier as a protest against the allocation of money to sports events rather than inexpensive housing. The MTST also won greater flexibility in the implementation of a federal housing program and a commitment to create a federal commission to prevent forced displacements of homeless people. In exchange the MTST in effect agreed to end its mobilizations, which were the largest of the protests that swept São Paulo in previous weeks.

"It's worth emphasizing that this victory was the result of the mobilizations in the streets," MTST national coordinator Guilherme Boulos said, "of an advance in the direction of popular power which benefits not just the MTST but also the whole range of the country's housing policies." (Los Angeles Times, June 9, from correspondent; Adital, Brazil, June 11; La Jornada, Mexico, June 11, from unidentified wire services)

The authorities had a very different approach for the almost 8,000 São Paulo subway workers who walked off the job on June 5 to demand a 12% pay increase. A labor judge ruled over the weekend of June 7 that the strike was illegal and imposed a $222,000 fine on the Subway Workers Union for each day the strike continued. Meanwhile, the São Paulo state government, which manages the transit system, refused to move from its offer of a 8.7% increase, and Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, a leader in the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), fired 42 strikers the state claimed had engaged in vandalism or other misconduct, with a threat to fire another 300 if the strike continued. The government's hard-line response seemed to take the subway workers by surprise. An assembly of union members voted on June 9 to suspend the strike until June 12; on June 11 the members rejected the idea of resuming the strike the next day. (Reuters, June 10; LJ, June 11, from unidentified wire services; Wall Street Journal blog, June 11, from correspondents)

With the homeless activists and the subway workers out of the picture, the São Paulo protests were relatively small when the games opened on June 12, and the police acted forcefully to suppress them. Some 70 activists gathered at the Carrão subway station for a 12-km march to the Arena Corinthians, but police agents blocked them on the Radial Leste avenue and used tear gas when marchers tried to break through. There was at least one arrest, and five people were injured, including three journalists with minor abrasions from fragments of tear gas grenades: CNN news producer Barbara Arvanitidis, CNN correspondent Shasta Darlington and Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão camera operator Douglas Barbieri. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Brazilian government to ensure the safety of reporters covering protests.

The championship series is being held in a number of cities before it ends on July 13, and demonstrators marked the opening of the games in these cities as well. Some 200 protesters reportedly confronted police and vandalized stores and banks in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, on June 12; at least four people were arrested, and a rock thrown by a demonstrator hit Reuters wire service photographer Sergio Morais in the head, according to the local daily Estado de Minas. About 1,000 protesters marched in the center of Rio de Janeiro without incident, while workers held 24-hour strikes in three area airports—Galeão, Santos Dumont and Jacarepaguá—to demand a contract. In Porto Alegre in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, some of a group of 1,000 protesters broke windows and hurled rocks at police agents, the authorities reported, and others vandalized a McDonald's restaurant. The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. In Brasilia police agents dispersed about 150 protesters. (LJ, June 13, from unidentified wire services)

On June 5, one week before the opening of the games, the London-based organization Amnesty International (AI) issued a report detailing police abuses in demonstrations over the past year. The report, "Brazil: 'They Use a Strategy of Fear': Protecting the Right to Protest in Brazil," called on the authorities to limit the use of force at protests. (Adital, June 11)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 15.