Striking police threaten Brazil Carnival

2012-02-08 14:07

Salvador - Disgruntled police across Brazil are taking aim at the country's iconic Carnival celebration, raising threats to the annual street parties that draw hordes of foreigners as a way to press their demands for pay raises.

Police officers already on strike in Salvador and holed up in a legislature building in the northeastern state capital brandished fists on Tuesday while chanting "Finish off Carnival!"

The threat to Carnival celebrations in Salvador looked increasingly serious as talks with the Bahia state government stalled on the eighth day of the police strike and hopes faded the standoff would be resolved well before the start of festivities next week.

Adding to anxieties, a Brazilian newspaper said police and other public workers in eight other states, including Carnival showcase Rio de Janiero, were threatening to join the strike.

"It's clear there can't be Carnival this year," said Iosvaldo Cardoso de Jesus, a 35-year-old striking Bahia state police officer protesting in front of the state legislature to support his estimated 300 colleagues holding the building.

"Without us to patrol the streets, Carnival would be chaos. It would be so deadly it'd be impossible," Cardoso added, standing outside orange metal barriers ringing the building while more than 1 000 soldiers kept several hundred strikers and their families at a distance from the striking officers barricaded inside.

Tensions high

Crime has jumped since one-third of the 30 000 police in Bahia walked off the job on January 31. Homicides in the state capital's metropolitan area immediately spiked to double normal rates, and at least 100 have been recorded since then, officials said.

Though violence has tapered off a bit since more than 3 400 soldiers and federal police were sent in to patrol Salvador on Sunday, tensions remained high in the city of 2.7 million people.

Most schools were shut and streets were unusually empty in Brazil's third-largest city. In the working-class Pernambues neighbourhood near the state assembly, the few shop owners who opened on Tuesday rushed to pull down the security shutters by early afternoon after what residents said was a series of armed attacks there.

A police strike in Rio de Janeiro could be even more disastrous. The sprawling seaside city is Brazil's top Carnival showcase, attracting upward of 800 000 tourists, who pump more than $500m into the local economy.

Beyond the economic fallout, any disturbance to Rio's Carnival could prove to be a major blow to Brazil's image as the country gears up to host the 2014 World Cup football championships and 2016 Olympic Games. Both Rio and Salvador are scheduled to host World Cup matches.

Discontent among police is widespread across Brazil. Many officers complain of low pay and dangerous conditions in a country that recorded nearly 50 000 homicides in 2010.

39% pay rise

The newspaper Estado de S Paulo said officers in eight of Brazil's 26 states and the federal district are debating whether to call their own strikes: Roraima, Mato Grosso, Tocantins, Goias, the capital of Brasilia, Espirito Santo, Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

Rio's state legislature has scheduled a vote later this week on a 39% raise for police, firefighters and prison guards that would increase an officer's starting salary to $964 a month.

But one of the main demands by police across Brazil is that their salaries be increased to match the minimum of $2 033 a month earned by officers in Brasilia.

Rio police and other public workers planned to meet on Thursday to decide whether to call a strike.

The state's governor, Sergio Cabral, said in a statement that he was confident Rio's police wouldn't strike.

"When they enter into these professions, they know they are doing an essential job," he said. "I have no doubt we will guarantee safety during Carnival and also in the day-to-day."

In Bahia, strikers have narrowed their demands to amnesty for the walkout and payment of bonuses that would add about $350 a month to officers' paychecks. Monthly salaries for officers in Bahia now range between $1 100 and $1 330, depending on rank and experience.

Officers detained

The state government has offered a raise of 6.5%, but no amnesty for the striking officers — apparently a key sticking point in the talks between strikers and the government.

Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner has accused some of the striking officers of being behind the wave of violence that hit Salvador in the first days of the strike. He called it a "bloodbath" aimed at spreading fear.

Some striking officers were detained for allegedly organising roving gangs and robbing police cars.

The state's tourism officials have denied rumours that the entire Carnival celebration will be cancelled if the strike continues, but the Brazilian Association of Tourism Agencies said at least 10% of tourists planning to visit the city during Carnival already have cancelled their trips.

Alcione Cruz, a 34-year-old cleaning woman, said worries about safety in the streets had kept her from making the trip to the legislature building to check on her striking policeman husband inside until Tuesday.

"I've been really scared to go out on the streets, but I was also really worried about him, so here I am," she said.

She added that she had managed to spot her spouse while watching from behind the security barriers. "I'm praying to God that this situation will end and he'll come home."