Embattled President Dilma Rousseff greeted the Olympic flame in Brazil on Tuesday, promising not to allow a raging political crisis, which could see her suspended within days, to spoil the Rio Games.
“We are experiencing political instability. We are going through a very difficult period, truly critical in the country’s history and in the history of democracy,” Rousseff said in the capital Brasilia.
However, “Brazil will provide the very best reception for athletes and foreign visitors because we have created the conditions for this.”
The flame, which arrived in a small lantern from the ancient Greek site of Olympia, via Switzerland, was transferred to Brazil’s Olympic torch featuring waves of tropical colours.
The torch will now be carried in a relay by 12,000 people through 329 cities, ending in Rio’s Maracana stadium on August 5 for the opening ceremony.
Air Force jets roared overhead in a clear blue sky to write “Rio 2016” and the five Olympic rings in their vapor trails. Then there were cheers as the first relay runner, double Olympic gold winning women’s volleyball captain Fabiana Claudino, set off.
Twelve-year-old Syrian refugee Hanan Daqqah, who arrived in Brazil’s biggest city Sao Paulo with her family in 2015, was also among the 10 first torch bearers.
But political turmoil overshadowed the ceremony ahead of South America’s first ever Olympics.
Rousseff will be suspended from office for six months next week if the Senate votes on May 11 or 12 to open an impeachment trial, meaning that Tuesday could have been one of her final major public events as president.
She is accused of illegally manipulating government accounts but says she is the victim of a coup mounted by her vice president, Michel Temer, who would replace here if she is suspended.
In a brief speech at the torch-lighting ceremony, Rousseff said the relay would put Brazil’s beauty on display, but she also laced her comments with references to her fight for political survival.
“I am certain that a country whose people know how to fight for their rights and to protect their democracy is a country where the Olympics will have great success in the coming months,” she said.
A swarm of police jogged alongside the first torch runners, possibly to separate them from protesters in the crowd who held up banners, including one reading “No to the coup.”
The impeachment trial and a definitive Senate vote on Rousseff’s fate could take months, during which time the 68-year-old will be on half pay, still living at the presidential residence, although ejected from the executive offices.
If she is not cleared, Temer would stay in power until the next scheduled elections in 2018.
Rousseff has vowed to “fight to the end.”
She hopes to persuade senators that the accounting tricks, which she allegedly used to mask the depth of Brazil’s economic crisis, do not amount to an impeachable offense. According to Rousseff, the charges are trumped up by her political enemies.
Given the makeup of the Senate, a simple majority vote to suspend her next week looks almost certain. However, a two-thirds majority is needed to remove her completely from office, making the final outcome harder to predict.
Rousseff, a one-time Marxist guerrilla who was tortured by the military dictatorship in the 1970s, has all but lost the ability to govern in recent months. Even if she survived impeachment, she would have trouble regaining authority.
However, her Workers’ Party, which has dominated and transformed the country since 2003, is still fighting to prevent impeachment from turning into a nationwide shift to the right.
Rousseff’s mentor and presidential predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, hopes to run for president again in 2018 — or even sooner in special snap elections that many in Brazil want to happen this year.
Polls show Lula would be one of several frontrunners, trouncing the unpopular Temer. (AFP)
Photo: Brazilian volleyball player Fabiana Claudino holds the Olympic torch following the flame’s arrival in Brasilia on May 3, 2016 (AFP / Evaristo Sa)