RIO DE JANEIRO -- Hours before it stages its Opening Ceremony, Rio’s troubled Olympics faced a big street demonstration on Friday when a few thousand protesters marched down the Copacabana seafront in a sea of red shirts.
On Thursday night, demonstrators occupying an abandoned concert hall staged an alternative Olympic opening. But like that event, Friday’s march was peaceful and the mood celebratory rather than confrontational, and bands of drummers accompanied marches, providing a carnival mood.
Demonstrators took aim at two targets – Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer, who took over when President Dilma Rousseff was suspended and ordered to face a controversial impeachment trial, and the Olympic Games themselves. Capturing this, large banners used the Olympic rings as the letter ‘O’ in the Portuguese phrase “Fora Temer” – or Temer Out.
Leonardo Ladeira, 22, was among a group of young demonstrators whose red T-shirts bore the name of their grassroots protest group: “Youth Revolution.”
He said the Olympic Games in themselves were a worthwhile event, but the declaration by Rio’s cash-strapped state government in June of a “public calamity” in its finances proved that the city couldn’t afford to stage them.
“We don’t have the conditions to receive the Games,” he said. “At this moment it is a chaotic activity.”
Youth Revolution was one of several left-wing organizations represented, together with trade unions, socialist parties, activist groups and a group called the Homeless Workers’ Movement. Demonstrates gathered in front of the famous Copacabana Palace, near a temporary stadium erected for beach volleyball, then moved along the sea front, chanting and listening to speeches as they went.
Many saw no contradiction in protesting these Olympic Games even though Rio’s 2009 winning Olympic bid had been championed by Rousseff’s predecessor and fellow Workers Party leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Guilherme Boulos, the Homeless Workers’ Movement’s national coordinator, said his group objected to the way the Games had been organized in Rio – with residents of some poorer communities, called favelas, evicted for Olympics work and an increasing military presence.
These were “exclusion games,” he said.
Despite the political theme of the protest, there was also a sense of fun.
One man wore a cardboard costume of a rat on his head, with the word Temer painted on its side. Another came costumed as a cameraman for Brazil’s Globo television network, the nation's biggest broadcaster. Speeches began with the phrase “First of all, Temer out.”
This was a reference to an interview by a Globo television reporter with student Thiago Lacerda in May. Asked about a student occupation he was involved in, Lacerda began his response with the phrase: “First of all, Temer out.”
It was an unintentionally comic moment that delighted many and the phrase has since a slogan for demonstrators. Many of them accuse Globo of supporting Rousseff’s ouster, which they argue was, in effect, a coup d’etat. They say the network did the same when it supported the military government after it seized power in Brazil in 1964 and established a dictatorship that lasted two decades.
Some demonstrators had traveled from other parts of Brazil. Luiz Lunardelli, 30, was in a group of 50 postmen who had traveled from Blumenthal in the far south of Brazil – all of whom were wearing their yellow and blue work shirts.
Brazil’s post office is a Rio 2016 sponsor and Lunardelli and his colleagues were protesting cuts to staffing and a reduction of their health plan and profit share, he said. Brazil does not have the money to stage an Olympics, Lunardelli said. “Look at the reality around you,” he said.
Bank worker Mariana Lima, 36, had come holding a homemade Olympic torch and had traveled from Santo Andre near Sao Paulo with 50 colleagues on a bus.
The bank Lima and her colleagues work for, Bradesco, one of Brazil’s biggest, is another Rio 2016 sponsor. “But it is the champion of layoffs,” she said. “And Brazilian media does not show this.”
Her colleague Rafael Clemente, 35, came dressed as a comedy rich banker and was acting the part. “I am investing in these Olympics because I like money, I want clients. I don’t like sport,” he said.
Wearing matching Team USA T-shirts, a family of four from Corpus Christi in Texas watched from the beach as the demonstration passed by.
Nick Longo, 48, said his initial reaction had been: “Wow.”
“It made me automatically want to learn more,” Longo said. “When I look at this, I see democracy in action. Protests don’t scare me. It’s like a magnet.”
His daughters Elizabeth, 17 and Victoria, 15, said they did not feel threatened by the noise and shouting.
Their mother Serena, 48, was clutching pamphlets in English she had been given. She noted that protesters were standing with “Temer Out” signs behind the Olympic Rings on Copacabana Beach – meaning tourists taking pictures could not avoid including the political message in their holiday snaps.
She nodded at a swimmer passing by in tight swimming trunks.
“It’s those Speedos that freak me out,” she said.
The good mood may not last. More demonstrators are gathering in a square not far from the Mararcanã stadium, where the Opening Ceremony is being held. Security is tight and police could well use tear gas if protesters attempt to get close to the stadium.