World Cup visitors will be safe, vows Brazil

Police use tear gas to impede native Brazilians from marching towards the Mane Garrincha soccer stadium during a demonstration in Brasilia, on May 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Police use tear gas to impede native Brazilians from marching towards the Mane Garrincha soccer stadium during a demonstration in Brasilia, on May 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BRASïLIA (AFP) - Brazil vowed Wednesday that World Cup tourists would be safe despite a wave of recent protests, as it rushed to finish preparations in what Fifa called a “race against the clock.”

With 15 days to go to the year’s biggest sporting event, the government brushed off the protests over spending on the tournament – including one Tuesday by indigenous leaders in the capital who opened fire on police with bows and arrows, impaling one officer’s leg.

“That shows the police are present to guarantee the rule of law, the freedom to protest, and to prevent abuses,” said Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo, quoted by news website G1.

The fact the police contained the protest means that “foreigners should feel safe here,” he said.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades on Tuesday to stop around 500 indigenous leaders, many wearing traditional feather headdresses and carrying bows and arrows, from marching to the World Cup host stadium in Brasilia.

The demonstration – which also brought together another 500 activists rallying for a range of social causes – was the latest in a series of strikes and protests by groups angry over the more than US$11 billion (S$13.8 billion) being spent on the World Cup in a country with pressing needs in education, health and transport.

Attorney General Rodrigo Janot said the protests should not worry the 600,000 foreigners expected to arrive for the World Cup, joining an estimated 3.1 million Brazilian tourists descending on the 12 host cities.

“Protests happen in every country in the world. It’s not going to affect the party or foreigners’ certainty that they are in a friendly and safe country,” he said.

Brazil has also struggled to meet deadlines for the stadiums and other infrastructure it is building for the tournament – prompting a new cry of alarm Wednesday from Fifa, football’s governing body.

“Race against the clock. Still lots to be done for World Cup fans and media,” Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke wrote on Twitter after visiting the host stadium in the north-eastern city of Natal.

He posted a picture to his Twitter account that showed long rows of skeletal stands waiting to have seats installed.

Work on the new stadiums has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and construction accidents that have killed eight workers. Four of the venues are still unfinished.

But as the Australian team prepared to touch down in Brazil – the first squad to arrive for the tournament – Deputy Sports Minister Luis Fernandes sought to reassure observers that preparations were on track.

“We are confident we will deliver a fantastic World Cup in two weeks’ time. We can only respond to prejudice with achievement,” he told journalists in a conference call.

Asked how Brazil planned to overcome transport disruption if recent bus drivers’ strikes continue, Mr Fernandes said, “We do have contingency plans.”

He added the government did not have “any indication of massive strikes” disrupting the tournament.

In recent weeks, with the World Cup approaching and October elections on the horizon, Brazil has been hit by a wave of strikes, including by police, bank security guards, teachers and bus drivers.

The bus drivers’ strikes – which affected four cities on Wednesday, including World Cup host cities Rio de Janeiro and Salvador – have often caused transport chaos.

In Bahia, police had to escort the few buses that took to the streets, until an agreement on a nine-per cent pay raise ended the walkout.

And in Rio, police fired pepper spray to break up a protest by striking teachers in front of the mayor’s office.

Last year, protests during the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, brought a million people into the streets.

But recently that spontaneous outpouring has both shrunk in size and turned into something more professional, said Jose Augusto Rodrigues, a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

While last June’s protests were popular uprisings organized on social networks, “today it’s unions that are protesting, while the amateurs have disappeared,” he told AFP.