Crime cutting into Brazil's Carnivals amid strike

February 10, 2012 - 3:25 AM
Brazil Crime Cuts Carnival

Vendors wait for customers at the entrance of a store at the Pelourinho neighborhood in Salvador, Brazil, Thursday Feb. 9, 2012. A police strike and a resulting wave of violence is scaring off visitors to Brazil's third-largest city leaving the cash registers unusually quiet. Police demanding better pay and benefits walked off the job in the northeastern state of Bahia more than a week ago, doubling the number of murders and flooding Brazilian airwaves with alarming footage of looted banks and businesses. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — In the run-up to this city's huge Carnival, the cash register at the souvenir shop where Vania Alves works is normally buzzing as hoards of revelers scoop up rubber thong sandals, teeny bikinis and sarongs printed with the Brazilian flag.

But this year, a police strike and a resulting wave of violence is scaring off visitors to Brazil's third-largest city, leaving the till unusually quiet.

Police demanding better pay and benefits walked off the job in the northeastern state of Bahia more than a week ago, doubling the number of murders and flooding Brazilian airwaves with alarming footage of looted banks and businesses.

As 250 police officers left the state legislature after camping out there more than a week, it was unclear if the strike would spill over into the official start of Carnival next week. But the economic damage is already done, shopkeepers and tourism officials say.

"People see what's going on in Salvador and they say, 'Oh my god, I'm not going there.' And obviously if they don't come, they don't spend," said Alves, a saleswoman at a souvenir store stacked high with key chains made from coconut husks, hand-crocheted hammocks and T-shirts printed with the laid-back city's unofficial motto, "No stress."

Overall estimates on how much money the city has lost are not yet available. But the Brazilian Association of Tourism Agencies has said at least 10 percent of tourists planning to visit the city during Carnival already canceled their trips.

The U.S. State Department issued an advisory warning against travel to Salvador, and cruise operators have been urging passengers to remain on board during stops in the city. The trickle of tourists braving Pelourinho, Salvador's stunning colonial neighborhood, and other landmarks this week said they had come at their own risk.

Salvador boasts Brazil's second largest Carnival, and the flamboyant five-day-long street festivities here attract some 500,000 tourists, 10 percent of them foreigners. They fill up the city's hotels and spend on cabs, restaurants, bars, clothes and knickknacks. Revelers pump an estimated $300 million into the local economy, the state tourism secretariat says.

Bahia tourism officials have taken pains to stress that Carnival will start as scheduled Feb. 17, even if the strike goes on. But tourists have stayed away as television footage of more than 3,600 soldiers and federal police patrolling the city has aired continuously across the nation — along with violent skirmishes between striking police and troops.

Military patrols are helping keep businesses open in Pelourinho, where clusters of well-armed soldiers stand guard from the street corners. But even there, many shopkeepers say they might as well have closed.

With sales in free-fall since the strike started Jan. 31, Alves and others who rely on the money that visitors pump into the economy are beginning to stress out.

"This is the crucial time of year for us," said Jorge Cardeiro, a salesman at Projeto Axe Design, a high-end boutique that's run by a charity for street children. "This place has been so empty it feels like sales are down 100 percent, but really they've fallen more than 70 percent. I don't know how we're going to make it up."

Police are worried about money, too. In a bid to increase their bargaining power in talks with the state government, the striking officers trained their sights on Carnival. At the legislature building they occupied until Thursday, rallying cries throughout the week included "Finish off Carnival."

Many here complain that Carnival is being manipulated by both sides: The police know the economic damage that is being done, and the government knows it can demonize strikers as ruining Carnival, the most Brazilian of all holidays.

Most people, however, put the blame on striking police.

"Everyone understands that the police do dangerous work and they deserve to be paid correctly," said Sheila de Campos, who hawks colorful ribbons at a tiny stand outside Salvador's most famous monument, the 18th century Nosso Senhor do Bonfim church. "But everyone knows that Carnival is the most important time of year for so many people here."

Alves said the timing of the strike was cruel.

"Why didn't they wait until ... after Carnival to strike?" asked Alves, who has worked at the same spot since she was 7. "The people don't deserve this kind of treatment."

Cab driver Armando dos Santos agreed.

"I don't understand why they're trying to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," he said.