By Eraldo Peres
BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s embattled President Dilma Rousseff ignited the Olympic flame on Tuesday, as a nationwide torch relay got under way with protests highlighting the country’s deep political and economic crisis.
Rousseff presided over the flame ceremony in Brasilia, even though she faces impeachment and is unlikely to be in office when South America’s first Olympics open in less than three months.
“Brazil is ready to host the most successful Olympics in history,” Rousseff said in a speech to start off the torch relay, which will reach 329 Brazilian cities and end on Aug. 5 at the opening ceremony in Rio’s Maracana stadium.
However, security experts have been expecting protests during the relay, and on Tuesday a few hundred protesters gathered on a relay route controlled with a heavy police presence.
One sign in English read: “OlyImpeachment is here.” Another read: “Our democracy is at risk.”
Rousseff is expected to be suspended from office next week as the country’s senate hears an impeachment case against her, which means Vice President Michel Temer is likely to be president during the games.
Rousseff spoke for 20 minutes, promising Rio is ready with completed venues and top security.
“Brazil is completely ready to offer protection to the athletes, the technical staffs, heads of delegations, tourists, and journalists — to all our visitors,” she said.
Rousseff said the country was working with international security agencies “who have experience with terrorism.”
“The Olympic torch will be received with joy in all cities in our immense Brazil,” she said. “The flame will illuminate a hospitable and responsible country.”
She also touched on the political and economic turmoil rocking South America’s largest country.
“We know political problems exist in our country today,” she said. “We know there is political instability. Brazil will be capable in a difficult period, a very difficult, critical period in the history of our democracy of dealing with the problems. … It’s important to fight, and we know how to fight.”
The Olympic flame arrived in a lantern on a flight from Switzerland and was taken to the Planalto presidential palace.
The first torchbearer was double gold-medal winning volleyball player Fabiana Claudino, who set off on the first leg through the capital after the torch was ignited by Rousseff. Claudio, who will also captain Brazil’s Olympic volleyball team, was followed by Brazilian mathematician Artur Avila Cordeiro de Melo.
The relay across Brazil will involve 12,000 torchbearers. Rio organizers hope it will spark excitement for the games, which has lagged as Brazil battles bribery and corruption scandals, its deepest recession in decades and the Zika virus outbreak.
Colonel Jose Vicente da Silva, a former head of public security, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he expects demonstrations along the route.
“Wherever the torch goes, there will be a camera on it,” Silva said. “There will be banners for or against President Rousseff. There is a chance of big protests during the torch relay.”