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 level of political discontent in Brazil at this moment, discontent that was evident in the loud booing of interim President Michel Temer at the opening of the Olympics on Friday night. At a press conference in Rio on Thursday leaders from Brazil’s three leading left-wing groupings, representing the main social movements, spoke of the need to use the Olympics to put across three messages to the world.The first concerns the country’s political crisis. 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 the coup. We must break through the information blockade.”
He is referring to the current process to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, the PT. The proceedings are already advanced and are expected to draw to an end on 26 August, just after the Olympics have finished (but before the Paralympics have begun), when the Senate should begin voting.
If the Senate votes by a two-thirds majority to impeach Dilma, then she will be kicked out of office and Michel Temer will take over until the end of the presidential term in 2018. But it is by no means certain that the pro-impeachment lobby will get enough votes.
Even though he is an interim president, unelected Temer, who has very little popular support, has restructured the entire government since he took over on 12 May. Naming new ministers, he has pushed through a series of extremely tough, neo-liberal measures. The social movements are unanimous in their condemnation.
Sitting underneath a banner with the emphatic message “Fora Temer” (Temer out), Rodrigo Marcelino, a militant from Consulta Popular, a mass movement set up by various social movements, including Brazil’s Landless Movement, the MST, listed all the alarming measures that were being taken.
Labour laws are being shredded, welfare payments are being cut, the health service is being weakened, he said. It all sounds depressingly familiar. What is different in Brazil is that many of the poor have no safety net. The cuts will push many of them into absolute poverty and even starvation.
Though Dilma is widely disliked, a few senators are beginning to wonder whether the country really wants to have such a savage form of neoliberalism imposed upon it. One has already changed his mind. If a few more follow his lead, the impeachment could be defeated.
The social movements say that the extreme right secured a majority in Congress in the elections in October 2014 largely because the electoral system favours those with wealth and a political fiefdom. It is now, they say, illegitimately taking advantage of its Congressional strength to push out a president, whom it failed to defeat in the polls.
Less than two years ago Dilma was elected president by a clear majority, with 54 million Brazilians voting for her. Since then, despite the corruption scandal engulfing the country, she has not been found guilt of any misdemeanour serious enough to merit impeachment. Indeed, many of the right-wing politicians have been accused of far more serious crimes. It is for this reason that the social movements are calling the impeachment a “coup”.
The second message that the social movements want to get across is the speed with which human rights are being eroded. Today protestors can be prosecuted for merely organising a protest. But, say the movements, they won’t be intimidated.
“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 Brazil’s Homeless Movement, the MTST, at the press conference. “There have been protests as the Olympic torch made its way through the country and there will be others every day during the Olympics”, he promised.
The third topic that the leaders want to highlight during the Olympics is the mega-event 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”, said the leaders.
It will be easy for us watching the Olympics on our television sets to be unaware of 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. Turning Congress into a political tool for the right could erode public trust in the country’s democratic institutions, with unforeseen results.
The Olympics itself bears witness to what this could mean: during the dictatorship political prisoners were held, brutally tortured and killed in the military installations in Deodoro in the north of Rio, where the hockey, basketball and riding competitions are now being held.
“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 somewhere where horrific atrocities took place.”
Some have campaigned for at least a plaque on the wall to recall all the suffering in the building 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 a country’s democratic institutions are trampled upon.