Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Brazil’s Embattled President Dilma Rousseff Lights Olympic Torch
Excitement about Games overshadowed by crises faced by country and its leader

The Olympic torch arrived in Brazil's capital on Tuesday, where it was received by President Dilma Rousseff. It's an awkward moment for the country's leader, whose political future is in serious doubt in the walk-up to the Games in August. Photo: AP

May 3, 2016 5:16 p.m. ET

BRASÍLIA—President Dilma Rousseff lighted the Olympic torch in Brazil’s capital Tuesday morning, kicking off a cross-country relay of the flame that officials hope will inspire excitement and boost ticket sales in the host country ahead of the Summer Games.

But what was supposed to be Brazil’s coming-out party has been overshadowed by the crises Ms. Rousseff faces, most notably her pending impeachment trial, which could start as early as next week.

“We are aware of the political difficulties in our country,” Ms. Rousseff said at a ceremony at the presidential palace that could be her last official Olympics-related event. Brazil will be able to welcome foreign athletes and visitors for the Olympics “even as it goes through a very difficult period, a critical period of our history,” she said.

The official Olympic flame arrived in Brazil’s capital around 8 a.m. local time and was taken to the presidential palace. There, it was received by Ms. Rousseff, senior government officials and several Brazilian athletes before being transferred to the specially designed torch. Over the 95-day relay, the torch will be carried by 12,000 participants across Brazil’s 27 states before arriving in Rio de Janeiro for the opening ceremonies on Aug. 5.

After the torch was lighted on Tuesday, Brazilian volleyball star Fabiana Claudino began the relay and immediately ran into a small group of protesters—both for and against the impeachment process—who had gathered at the event. Police had to cut into the group to make way for the torchbearer.

Pro-Rousseff demonstrators displayed a banner that read, “Olympeachment Is Here.” Another read “No Coup.”

An antigovernment protester dressed as former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—Ms. Rousseff’s political mentor—in prison garb and clutching a fake Olympic torch ran alongside the official torchbearers.

Mr. da Silva is being investigated in connection with the Petrobras scandal. He denies any wrongdoing.

Such protests are likely to dog the Games if Ms. Rousseff’s fate isn’t settled quickly.

“The [impeachment] trial will still be going on during the Games,” said  Leonardo Barreto, a political consultant in Brasília. “This may not be resolved until September.”

Brazil’s lower house of Congress in April voted overwhelmingly to force her to stand trial in the Senate on charges that she violated the nation’s budget laws. Ms. Rousseff denies the allegations.

Brazil’s Senate will decide next week on whether to move forward with the proceedings. If the body votes to try her, which is likely, Ms. Rousseff would be immediately suspended and succeeded by Vice President Michel Temer for the duration of the trial, which could last as long as six months. If Ms. Rousseff is ousted, Mr. Temer will take over as president and serve out the remainder of her term, which runs through the end of 2018.

It isn’t clear which Brazilian officials will preside over the opening ceremonies in the event that Ms. Rousseff is forced to step down.

With Brazil mired in a deep downturn and Ms. Rousseff’s government rocked by a corruption scandal, few expect her to be acquitted.

Meanwhile, Mr. Temer faces his own challenges. The Supreme Court is considering whether the lower house should also open impeachment proceedings against him to determine whether he violated the same budget laws. And he has been implicated by a key witness in the sprawling graft probe centered on Brazil’s state oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras. Mr. Temer has denied wrongdoing.

Brazil won the Olympic bid in 2009 under Mr. da Silva. The nation was riding high on a commodity boom and the Games were supposed to be an exclamation point on Brazil’s dramatic rise.

But political turmoil, the corruption scandal, a Zika virus epidemic and a struggling economy have sapped the nation’s confidence and weighed on domestic sales of tickets for the Games. Until a recent bump in local sales in April, fewer than half of the available tickets had been sold. Local organizers say Brazilians typically buy tickets for sporting and cultural events closer to the date; they are hoping the torch relay will help jump-start enthusiasm for the Games.

But with the international spotlight on Brazil as the Olympics approach, the nation’s deep divisions are likely to be on full display.

Write to Paulo Trevisani at and Will Connors at

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