Brazil: strikes and protests greet World Cup

Transit workers started an open-ended strike in São Paulo on June 5, just one week before the city, Brazil's largest, was to host the opening game of the June 12-July 13 World Cup soccer championship. According to the Subway Workers Union, the strike had paralyzed 30 of the city's 60 subway stations as of June 6; some 20 million people live in the São Paulo metropolitan area, and the subways carry about 4.5 million riders each day. Angry riders smashed turnstiles the first day of the strike at the Itaquera station, near the Arena Corinthians, the site of the June 12 game. The next day, on June 6, police agents used nightsticks and tear gas on strikers at the central Ana Rosa station when they refused to move their picket line; at least three unionists were injured.

The strikers had rejected an 8.7% raise offered by the transit system's management; they were also striking over safety and service issues. "It isn't just a strike for our pay," Camila Lisboa, a Subway Workers Union local leader, said at a meeting with leftist supporters. "We're denouncing the corruption, the harassment of women, the constant failures. It's the combination of these factors that makes the strike strong." She said the strikers were using an open letter to riders to build support. Apparently no professional opinion surveys have been released on public reactions to the strike, but as of June 6 more than 77% of respondents to an online open-access poll at the R7 news website had said they backed the strikers. (CSP-Conlutas website, Brazil, June 6; La Jornada Mexico, June 6, June 7, both from unidentified wire services)

The São Paulo subway strike is only one of many actions focusing on the World Cup games and building on widespread anger over what many Brazilians consider the federal, state and local governments' diversion of funds from social services to sports events—an anger which sparked huge demonstrations in June 2013 and smaller protests since then. São Paulo bus drivers held a two-day strike that affected more than 1 million riders in May, and while subway workers battled police at the Ana Rosa station on June 6, some 3,000 members of the Força Sindical ("Union Force") labor federation blocked traffic on a central avenue with a march on the Central Bank to protest rising inflation and what they see as government favoritism toward finance capital.

On June 4 some 4,000 to 10,000 homeless people and their supporters marched to the Arena Corinthians to protest the expense of hosting the World Cup while the government ignores calls for sectors of the city to be expropriated to provide housing for the poor. Leaders of the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), which organized the demonstration, threatened to "radicalize" the protests; the group sponsors occupations of abandoned buildings to press its demands. The march came five days after a police raid on homeless people living at the Alcántara Machado viaduct, near the road leading to the Arena Corinthians. In what activists considered an effort to clear the homeless out of the way before the games started, police agents deployed stun grenades and nightsticks to remove the people encamped at the viaduct, including children and seniors. The homeless responded by setting up flaming barricades.

Other Brazilian cities have also experienced protests, strikes and strike threats in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. Bus drivers demanded raises in two northeastern cities, Salvador, Bahia state, and São Luis, Maranhão state. Public school teachers in Rio de Janeiro state were on strike, and on May 26 some 200 Rio teachers briefly blocked a bus carrying Brazil's national soccer team to a training center. "There won't be a Cup; there'll be a strike," some of the teachers' signs read. Bank guards in the city of Rio de Janeiro were on strike for nearly a month, and transit and healthcare workers were considering job actions. (CNN Mexico, May 27, from APF; Adital, Brazil, June 2; BBC News, June 5; 20 Minutos, Spain, June 5, from EFE; LJ, June 7, from unidentified wire services)

On May 27 about 500 leaders from Brazil's 100 indigenous groups briefly occupied the roof of the Congress building in Brasilia. Dressed in traditional clothes, armed with bows and arrows, and carrying signs reading "FIFA no, demarcation yes"—referring to the World Cup's organizer, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA)—they demanded that the government proceed with the demarcation of their territories to protect them from further encroachments by farms, mines and hydroelectric projects. The leaders then joined hundreds of other protesters in a peaceful march on the Mané Garrincha stadium, where the World Cup trophy was to be displayed. Some 500 police agents massed to guard the stadium and used tear gas to disperse the marchers, but the trophy display was cancelled.

A report to be released in June by the Catholic bishops' Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) highlights the damage land encroachments have inflicted on the indigenous Guaraní in the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Displaced by large-scale farming, many have been reduced to living in roadside camps and overcrowded reserves, where alcoholism and violence are now common. According to the CIMI report, at least 72 of the state's approximately 30,000 Guaraní committed suicide in 2013. This is equivalent to 232 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate for any group in the world, and is nearly three times the rate 20 years ago; the majority of those who killed themselves were between the ages of 15 and 30, with some as young as 12. The Guaraní point to Coca-Cola, a sponsor of the World Cup, as one of the responsible parties. The company has been buying sugar from Bunge Limited, an agribusiness multinational based in White Plains, New York, which is using sugar cane grown on land that the Guaraní say was stolen from them. (CNN Mexico, May 27, from APF; Survival International, May 30, June 5; International Business Times, June 5)

On June 4 some 110 indigenous people and others from the highlands of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais arrived in Brasilia to begin a hunger strike in front of the federal government's ministry buildings to press their demand for the creation of a Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) to protect water sources in Montezuma, Río Pardo de Minas and Vargem Grande do Río Pardo municipalities. The hunger strikers said large-scale farms occupying land in their area are threatening local water supplies. "We are obliged to make the most difficult decision: to give our lives as a guarantee for the mountains and the scarce water sources that we still have," they wrote in an open letter to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. (EBC Agência Brasil, June 4; Adital, June 5)

President Rousseff, of the center-left Workers Party (PT), will be seeking reelection on Oct. 5. Her support has dropped from 37% in May to 34% in a poll released by the Datafolha firm on June 6. Other politicians seemed to be doing no better. Aécio Neves of the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), slipped from 20% to 19%, and Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) candidate Eduardo Campos fell from 11% to 7%; 17% of the respondents said they wouldn't vote for any candidate. The pollsters surveyed 4,337 people from June 3 to June 5. (New York Times, June 6, from Reuters)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 8.