SAO PAULO — Sao Paulo subway workers have announced an open-ended strike amid fresh protests, hitting World Cup preparations as Brazil defended itself against criticism over chronic delays and soaring costs.
The Sao Paulo metro is the main transport link to the economic capital's World Cup host stadium, which will host the opening ceremony and kick-off match on June 12, and the strike could pose a massive logistical headache for organizers.
Workers on Wednesday decided to strike from midnight on Thursday after negotiations on a salary increase fell through. They rejected an offer of 8.7 per cent, insisting on at least 10 per cent, said the president of their union, Altino Melo dos Prazeres.
"If there's money for the Itaquerao (the nickname of host stadium Corinthians Arena) and the World Cup, how is it they don't have any money for public transport?" said Prazeres, quoted by newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.
The strike will affect 4.5 million daily passengers and could unleash commuter chaos in the sprawling city of 20 million people, which was already hit by a paralyzing bus drivers' strike last month.
Brazil has been gripped by a wave of strikes and protests ahead of the World Cup and elections in October.
About 12,000 protesters rallied by the Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST), a mainstay of the anti-World Cup protests, marched on Corinthians Arena Wednesday, joining around 400 retired military police and their relatives who were calling for higher pensions.
Protesters say the more than $11 billion being spent on the World Cup should have been used to help address urgent needs in education, health and transport.
A year ago, a million protesters flooded the streets during the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal.
The protests turned violent at times, overshadowing the tournament and raising fears of a repeat this year.
The government has also faced criticism for chronic delays and cost overruns.
Workers are still scrambling to finish five of the 12 host stadiums, including Corinthians Arena, which has not had all its seats installed.
Organisers have shelved much of the other infrastructure they had originally promised, from roadworks to a high-speed train to subway and monorail lines.
President Dilma Rousseff defended her government's preparations for the tournament and said FIFA bore part of the blame for the spiralling public bill. The leftist leader, seeking re-election in October, said the sport's global governing body had assured Brazil that host stadiums would be built with private money.
But the government eventually realized private sector investment would not even cover "half a stadium," and provided most of the financing itself, Rousseff told journalists at a dinner on Tuesday at the presidential residence in Brasilia.
She insisted that the vast majority of public spending related to the tournament would benefit Brazil long-term and was not limited to the World Cup. – Neymar in to win –
In a sign of enthusiasm for the global football showcase, fans in Sao Paulo jostled for tickets Wednesday after FIFA put a final 180,000 on sale online and at ticketing centers in the host cities.
But disappointed fans who turned up in the early hours and stood in long lines in Sao Paulo went away empty-handed after online buyers snatched up all remaining tickets for matches in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Four previous sales windows had seen 2.57 million tickets sold.
With just over a week to go, teams continue trickling into Brazil. Chile are due to arrive Thursday, joining Australia, Croatia and Iran.
Whatever the problems off the pitch, Brazil were looking ready for the World Cup when they routed Panama 4-0 in a Tuesday friendly.
Star striker Neymar, who scored the first goal and set up two others – including one with a cheeky back-heel – said Wednesday that Brazil were more interested in claiming their sixth world title than in their famed "jogo bonito."
"Beautiful football is the last thing we are concerned about – what we want to do is to win," he said. — AFP