RIO DE JANEIRO: Security was tight Friday at the Olympics opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro after protests by thousands of Brazilians angry at political upheaval, corruption and the cost of the Games.
The crowds were in party mode at the city’s iconic Maracana stadium, with people wrapped in national flags excited to kick off the sporting extravaganza.
But the fans streaming out of the newly upgraded subway system toward the stadium were greeted by camouflaged soldiers with automatic rifles.
More soldiers and riot police were out in force around the stadium, where trucks mounted with water cannon stood guard at the entrance and mounted police were on patrol.
Locals were being prevented from passing through the security cordon to their homes.
About 30 young protesters were seated on the ground in front of some 80 police. They booed when the opening fireworks went up.
In the run-up to the ceremony, about 3,000 people occupied the busy avenue running along Copacabana beach, while a smaller crowd including radical leftists faced off with mounted police near the stadium.
Most people came to vent anger at center-right interim president Michel Temer, who took power in May on the suspension of elected leftist president Dilma Rousseff. She faces an impeachment trial that supporters claim amounts to a coup.
Demonstrators also targeted the Olympics, saying the billions of dollars spent on staging South America’s first Games fueled corruption and only helped the elite.
Waving signs that read “No to the Olympics!” and “Temer out!”, protesters gathered outside the luxury Copacabana Palace Hotel where many Olympic team members are staying.
Soon after, about 500 people gathered close to the 78,600 capacity Maracana stadium, where Temer is overseeing the opening ceremony.
“There won’t be an Olympic torch!” chanted the crowd, confronting a line of police.
“This party wasn’t done for the people. The Games don’t come close to the reality lived by the poor,” said teacher Guilherme Moreira Dias, 38.
The protests were the latest unwelcome distraction for the government and Olympic organizers.
Authorities are also dealing with rampant crime, including a lengthening list of muggings against Olympic delegates and journalists, despite the deployment of 85,000 soldiers and police.
– Just a facade –
Protesters, many of them from Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, said Brazil’s deep economic and social problems are being swept under the carpet.
“The Olympics is a facade, it’s for show. It doesn’t represent the reality of Brazil,” said Ricardo Parents, 59, a psychologist who came to the Copacabana protest.
The crowd chanted “Temer out” and called for Rousseff’s return.
She is charged with breaking budgetary laws and looks certain to be thrown out of office by the Senate in the next few weeks at the end of an impeachment process that she says has been manipulated by Brazil’s right, calling Temer the chief “conspirator.”
Rio de Janeiro won the right in 2009 to host the Olympic Games at a time when Brazil was economically and politically on the rise. The collapse in stability and wealth since then has been brutal.
Rousseff and her predecessor and political mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have refused to attend the ceremony.
With opponents promising to boo Temer at the stadium, organizers plan to play loud music immediately after his remarks and mask the heckling, according to Brazilian media.
Despite all the bad press Brazil has received over the Zika virus, crime and chaotic preparations, foreign tourists pouring into the stadium were relaxed about the situation.
Guy Horcasitas, a tech security entrepreneur from California, said he’d had a pleasant surprise after a night out in Rio’s favorite party district.
“I had a little too much to drink last night and fell asleep in the street in Lapa,” said Horcasitas, 39, who had come to the opening ceremony in a Stars and Stripes outfit.
“This morning I woke up and everything was still in my pockets.” “Yeah,” he said, laughing, “it’s that bad here.” – AFP