The Pope Arrives in Brazil, Where Protests and Political Tensions Persist

By Rachel Glickhouse

The Argentine pontiff’s first visit to Latin America since assuming his post comes at a time of vocal demands for government accountability in Brazil.

Pope Francis, the first-ever Latin American Pope, arrived in Rio de Janeiro on July 22 for the week-long World Youth Day events and less than a month after large-scale protests rocked Brazil. The visit marks the Argentine Pope’s first appearance in Latin America since he became pontiff. He intends to help reinvigorate the region’s shrinking Catholic population. But his visit comes at a time of heightened political tension resulting from the protests and more vocal demands for government accountability.

Read Eric Farnsworth's article on the Pope's first visit to Latin America.

With all eyes on Brazil during the Pope’s visit, protests are planned in Rio throughout the week to reiterate demonstrators’ grievances, including insufficient but expensive public transportation, government spending on mega-events like the World Cup, and political corruption. A protest took place in Rio the first day of the Pope’s visit, when around 2,000 people demonstrated outside of the governor’s palace where the Pope had attended an event.

Several of the protesters’ grievances were on display during the Pope’s tour. The Brazilian media reported that World Youth Day will cost Brazil’s public coffers an estimated $60 million. And on July 23—the day of the opening mass with thousands of attendees—an electrical outage on Rio’s metro caused the entire system to shut down during rush hour, leading to overcrowding on buses and stranding commuters and pilgrims alike. “The Vatican should have to deal with all the costs [of the event], not us Brazilians. We already went to the streets over 20 cents,” Diego Alcântara, a civil servant, told the The Christian Science Monitor.

Consequently, the protests—and the government’s efforts to address demands—have formed a backdrop. In her speech at a welcoming event for the Pope, President Dilma Rousseff addressed the protests directly, noting that the pontiff’s visit comes at a “special time” when youth are taking to the streets. “Youth demand respect, ethics, and transparency,” she said. “They want politics to address their interests and the interests of the population, and not to be the territory of the privileged.” The Pope, too, alluded to the protests. On the flight to Brazil, he said his visit came at an “opportune time” in terms of the demonstrations and expressed his concern about social inclusion. According to Spanish newspaper El País, the Pope rewrote one of his World Youth Day speeches to directly address the protests, which he believes are “just.” During an address in a Rio favela on July 25, the Pope urged young people to continue the fight against corruption. He also addressed government leaders, saying: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities, and to all people of good will who are working for social justice.”

Along with the protests, the tense political climate has been evident this week. In an effort to show fiscal responsibility—one of Rousseff’s promises following the protests—the government announced a $5 billion budget cut this week. Days before the Pope’s arrival, Rousseff abandoned a high-level party meeting to prepare for the visit, sending a letter in her stead. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party—that of the vice president—is deciding whether to continue to ally with the ruling Workers Party before next year’s election. And at a welcoming ceremony in Rio for the Pope, Supreme Court President Joaquim Barbosa snubbed Rousseff, greeting the pontiff and walking straight past the president. (He later claimed he exchanged a smile with Rousseff.)

The media took note of the contrasts between the styles of the administration and the Pope during the visit. Estado de São Paulo published an op-ed pointing out that at the ceremony, Rousseff spoke longer than the pontiff. “Francis must have noticed on his first day in Brazil that the road is long in redeeming politics as a noble endeavor,” the piece reads. A July 21 editorial from Folha de São Paulo claimed that seeing the president and Rio governor next to the Pope—known for his simple, no-frills style—inspires another message. “By leading by example, [the Pope] emphasizes his vision that the world needs more solidarity and less inequality—an especially appropriate message for Brazil.”