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NEWS FEATURE Rio de Janeiro's Olympic fury grows as city risks collapsing By Georg Ismar, dpa

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Just five weeks before the Olympics, anger is increasing in Rio de Janeiro. There are strikes at universities and hospitals where wages are paid late, if at all. Police doubt they can guarantee security on the city‘s streets. Does the sport event risk slipping into chaos?

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - Major strikes are under way in Rio de Janeiro a little over a month before the city hosts the Olympic Games.

The heart surgery ward at the Pedro Ernesto University Hospital in Rio can usually treat up to 12 patients at once, but now there is a lack of funds, and about a third of the staff are on strike.

"Right now we can only offer six places," says hospital ward boss Joaquin Coutinho.

The Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro is almost bankrupt, but Coutinho says the blame doesn‘t rest just on the Olympics, because the federal government is picking up much of the bill for the Games.

The hospital can currently treat only 200 patients, instead of the usual 600, according to employees. In its dark corridors are posters with the word "strike."

The nearby university has been at a virtual standstill since March. There, posters read: "The Olympics in Rio? Public education is our gold."

The hospital is a symbol of Rio‘s financial crisis. People wait for hours for treatment.

Outraged employees demanding long-overdue wages make a racket outside director Edmar Santos‘s office until he finally emerges for a spontaneous crisis meeting. He notes that he is not responsible for paying wages - the state government is.

Perciliana Rodrigues is one of the hospital strike leaders.

"Wage payments are three months late," she says. "Many people can no longer pay rent, their electricity bill or for their shopping."

When funds do come in, they are divided up, and it is rare for anyone to ever receive a full month‘s salary. Fury against the Olympics is on the rise.

"There is a very clear connection to the Games," Rodrigues says. "They let themselves pay for such a huge event, but our patients have to suffer."

Olympic projects are clearly prioritized, as is the ever more expensive metro line in the Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood, she says. The Olympic Park set to host the most events during the Games is in Barra.

The metro line may end up costing almost 2.8 billion dollars, a quarter of the budget for the Olympics, but there is still one kilometre left to build. It may not even be ready by August, risking traffic chaos.

"There is a lack of everything: medicine, gloves, disinfectants, toilet paper," another woman complains at the meeting with the hospital director.

Employees even bring their own printer paper from home.

The Games seem to be coming at the wrong time for Rio. Brazil is in one of the deepest recessions in its history, which means less tax money. To make matters worse, there has been a dramatic drop in oil revenue, which is particularly important for the state of Rio de Janeiro.

State authorities declared a state of financial emergency and virtually forced the central government to give Rio a cash injection of 2.9 billion real (900 million dollars).

However, it remains uncertain whether that will be enough to pay all outstanding wages for tens of thousands of public-sector employees. And a portion of those funds will be used to finish the metro line.

Rio Governor Francisco Dornelles caused a stir earlier this week when he told O Globo newspaper that "we can host a fantastic Olympic Games, but if we do not take certain steps, the event could be a big failure."

Funding for the Games may be sorted out, but money for the police is a major problem. According to Dornelles, state authorities can only pay for petrol for their vehicles until the end of the week.

The state‘s security budget amounts to 940 million real (290 million dollars) a month, but there will be a hike in costs for the Olympics.

There are calls for a general strike in the state of Rio on July 6. At the airport, striking police officers and firefighters welcomed travellers this week with a banner that read: "Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don‘t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe."

Such messages hardly help Rio‘s hospitality industry, at a time when fear of the Zika virus is already keeping tourists away.

So far, protests are small, but some of those on strike at the hospital think that mass protests may follow shortly before the Games‘ opening ceremony, as was the case two years ago ahead of the World Cup.

Others think quite the opposite: that locals will be happy to forget the crisis for a few days, as they do over their world-famous Carnival, and celebrate the Olympics. People are looking forward to a couple of weeks in a good mood, they say.



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