When the Olympic torch arrives to herald the start of the Olympic Games, it's usually a moment of joy and patriotism for the host city but not this year in Rio de Janeiro. Protesters are angry about the billions of dollars spent on these games during a historic recession in Brazil. Police have used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to clear a path for the torch through demonstrators. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro joined us earlier from the streets of Rio just after the torch passed by.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, it's actually extraordinarily chaotic. You can hear protesters behind me. They are saying that the torch is a national shame. Their torchbearer is surrounded by riot police essentially. This is not the scenes that the Brazilian government and of course the Olympic organizers were hoping so close to these opening ceremonies.
Only yesterday we saw riot police having to shoot their way through protesters in a different part of the city just to get the torch to go through — so really, really polarizing scenes. You know, on the other hand you have families here as well who are actually booing the protesters. So it's causing a great deal of controversy and a lot of tension.
CORNISH: Yeah, you're talking about this controversy. Obviously the Brazilian police are coming down very hard on these protesters.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. The Brazilian police is one of the most brutal in the world, and one person said to me they looked more like "The Hunger Games" and not the Olympic Games. When you're seeing police having to shoot their way through the crowds — one 10-year-old girl was injured with a rubber bullet.
And so you know, just basically the entire atmosphere has been I think poisoned by so many of the problems that Brazil is facing. When you speak to the protesters, they say, hey, we're not against the Olympic Games in principle, but we are lacking education; we are lacking health care. Is this really the moment in a huge financial crisis for Brazil to be putting this on when people are suffering, when people are unemployed?
CORNISH: There have been so many setbacks for Brazil when it comes to the Olympics that we've been hearing about. I mean is this a sign that things are just plain falling apart, you know, just before the opening ceremony?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean certainly. We've just seen a litany of problems in the run up to these games. I mean we're seeing reports of infighting within the Rio Olympic Committee. They just don't have the money to pay for basic things — generators, food for events.
So it's really been I think quite chaotic and very disappointing to average Brazilians. When you speak to them, I think that they feel that they were hoping that the best face of Brazil would be on show for the world, and instead, the images that are being broadcast are the ones that I'm seeing in front of me right now with riot police, with protesters, with one side against the other fighting over these games.
CORNISH: You're saying one side against the other. Can you talk about the Brazilians who are reacting to the criticism of the games?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. It was really interesting. I spoke to one lady, and she was there with her kids. And she said, listen; we've been going through such a hard time. Yes, there are things to protest, but this is not the moment to do it. This is a moment when we should come together, when we should show our best face to the world. You know, Brazil is a wonderful country, and everyone is looking at us right now. So I don't believe that this is the moment for protest, she told me.
And you can really feel that there is that division in the crowd. There are people here who feel, yes, let's use the Olympic Games to highlight our grievances, and other people who say this is a very special moment for Brazil. Let's not ruin it.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro on the scene in Rio. Lulu, thank you. Stay safe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.