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Wave of strikes rocks Brazil ahead of World Cup

Authorities are racing against the clock to complete airports in time for soccer championship

Protesters burn a World Cup brochure in Rio de Janeiro.
Protesters burn a World Cup brochure in Rio de Janeiro. AFP

A wave of strikes that began in April is gaining strength in Brazil ahead of the World Cup kickoff.

Bus drivers and conductors have stopped working in the country’s two main cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, while the Civil Police also went on a 24-hour strike in 13 of the 27 states. Officers from the Federal Police and the Policía Rodoviária (highway patrol) organized a march in Brasilia to demand an overhaul of public safety policies, while workers at 30 public museums stopped looking after visitors in several cities. Teachers have not shown up for classes for nearly a month in São Paulo. The list goes on...

The global sporting event is due to begin on June 12, yet a growing number of professionals from several sectors are threatening to stop working.

Their demands come on top of widespread anti-World Cup sentiment among citizens, who have criticized the massive public spending on a sporting event at the cost of funds for education and healthcare.

The government fears that the stoppages will undermine the Brazil brand

The government fears that the stoppages, added to potential future action against the World Cup, will undermine not just the Dilma Rousseff administration but also the Brazil brand.

“The government has been ignoring us for five years,” said Jones Leal, president of the National Federation of Federal Police. “Many people might think that we are taking advantage of the situation to draw attention to ourselves, but that is not our goal. We do not want to harm the government, we just want our demands to be heard out.”

Sérgio Ronaldo da Silva, head of the National Confederation of Federal Public Workers, holds a similar view, and claims that the back-to-back strikes are just a coincidence.

“If the government had listened to us earlier, we wouldn’t have this problem now,” he said.

Other professionals are threatening to go on strike as well. In São Paulo, metro employees say they will bring trains carrying four million people a day to a halt next week. Alongside them, nearly two million federal servants are considering a stoppage beginning on June 10.

Even private sector employees are promising to put their work on hold during the World Cup. Some of them have ties to Força Sindical, the labor union that has endorsed an early candidate to the next elections, opposition member Aécio Neves (PSDB). These 1.9 million potential strikers come from the food, hotel, textile, metallurgy, transportation, graphic and chemical sectors.

In recent months, there have been several blackouts at Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport

Meanwhile, newly built airports are working around the clock to ensure they are ready to open their doors at the 12 World Cup host cities, while authorities attempt to explain the delays to puzzled Brazilians.

While they are at it, government officials insist that the ultimate goal is not to complete the airports in time for the World Cup, but to leave citizens with a valuable and enduring legacy. President Dilma Rousseff now asserts that the expansion projects to 270 airports were not motivated by the soccer championship, even though that is the way the government described it back in 2012.

Authorities have also made substantial efforts to explain away the successive structural problems affecting some of Brazil’s main airports. In recent months, there have been several blackouts at Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro. One of them was caused by a skunk.

The minister of Civil Aviation, Moreira Franco, recently admitted that Terminal 1 will remain under construction during the World Cup. “This airport does not live up to what is expected of a city that is going to host two events the size of the Olympic Games and the World Cup,” said María Fernanda Giuliano, an Argentinean who recently arrived in Brazil. “And I’m not talking about the size, but about the facilities, which seem straight out of the 1980s.”

The airport, the second-largest gateway into Brazil for foreign visitors, was privatized in November 2013 to bring new capital into the upgrade project. Several experts say this was done too late to complete the modernization in time for the soccer tournament.

Guarulhos Airport in São Paulo, which even more foreign visitors pass through, has undergone a €728-million facelift. President Rousseff inaugurated the brand-new Terminal 3, which will have capacity for 12 million passengers a year.