Brazilian protesters clashed with police in central Rio do Janeiro on Monday evening as more than 200,000 people turned out to the streets of major Brazilian cities to protest the billions of dollars spent on the Confederations Cup, higher public transport costs, corruption and poor services.
The nationwide demonstrations, the largest and most extensive in two decades since the unrest began 10 days ago, were mostly peaceful. However acts of vandalism were reported in Rio and Porto Alegre in south Brazil.
Police used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse small groups of masked youths engaging in acts of vandalism near Rio’s state legislative assembly. Some of the young people broke into the building and television showed a small fire.
Five policemen were reported hurt as 80 others holed up inside the assembly building which was surrounded by rowdy demonstrators. Police could be seen around a vehicle masked vandals had set on fire.
Elsewhere in Rio, a host city for the Confederations Cup, police said around 100,000 marched, notably down Rio’s central Rio Branco Avenue.
In Brasília, more than 200 youths briefly occupied the roof of the National Congress.
But after negotiations with police, the boisterous crowd agreed to leave, chanting and waving placards as security forces ringed the building. Some of the protesters called for the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff.
Later, an estimated 5,000 youths formed a human chain around the Congress building.
In São Paulo, the country’s economic capital and most populous city, an estimated 65,000 staged a generally peaceful march, with no repetition so far of the violence that marred similar protests last week.
“Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate,” said Rousseff in a bid to calm tempers. “It is natural for the young to demonstrate,” she said in a statement posted on the presidency’s blog.
Today, once again, Rousseff commented on the demonstrations saying that they show the power of democracy and that “her government is listening to peoples voices” and is engaged in changing society.
In the south some 3,000 rallied outside Porto Alegre’s City Hall, where police intervened after acts of vandalism by youths who set a bus on fire.
Some 30,000 protesters marched in Belo Horizonte, while smaller demonstrations were held in Fortaleza, Salvador and other cities.
Earlier, Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo warned that authorities would not allow the protests to disrupt international football tournaments Brazil has pledged to host – the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup.
“The government assumed the responsibility and the honor to stage these two international events and will do so, ensuring the security and integrity of the fans and tourists,” Rebelo said.
But the spreading unrest is tainting the image of promising and emerging Brazil as it hosts the Confederation Cup through June 30, in a dry run for the World Cup.
The protests over a hike in mass transit fares from 1.5 reais to 1.6 reais began ten days ago in São Paulo, days before the opening of the Confederations Cup. The tournament brings together eight national teams from around the world in six Brazilian host cities.
The unrest rapidly spread to other cities with demonstrators focusing their anger not just on the transport fares but also on the US$ 15 billion dollars the government is allocating for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup.
The demonstrators want these resources to be earmarked instead for health care and quality education in a country with vast economic disparity between rich and poor.
On Saturday an 1,000 of them managed to break through a security perimeter and protest outside the gate of Brasília’s national stadium during the Confederations Cup’s opening game, in which Brazil trounced Japan 3-0. Sunday, 3,000 people tried to break into Rio’s renovated Maracanã stadium where Italy defeated Mexico 2-1.
The Rio protesters, mostly middle-class youths, railed against the police crackdown in Rio, Brasília and above all São Paulo, where more than 230 people were briefly detained and about 100, including journalists, hurt last week.
The unrest comes as Brazil is experiencing anemic growth, 0.6% in the first quarter, while inflation reached an annualized 6.5% in May, the upper limit of the official target, and with not much chances of improvement according to public opinion polls.
The disappointing indicators have dented the popularity of President Dilma Rousseff, particularly among the youngest and wealthiest Brazilians, recent polls show. Rousseff was jeered in Brasília Saturday as she inaugurated the tournament, although she retains high popularity and is favored to win re-election next year
However in the immediate the massive protests and demonstrations outside stadiums and in major cities questions Brazil’s capacity to ensure a safe and peaceful surrounding for the Confederation Cup and next month when the Pope visits Rio for the world youth gathering.
UN Calls for Moderation
Navi Pillay, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, has asked Brazilian authorities to react with moderation to the social protests that have spread through out the country and at the same time has called on demonstrators to avoid using violence to get their message heard.
Protests which took off last week in São Paulo against the increase in public transport fares have extended to over twenty cities of the 200 million people country and largest Latin American economy.
Pillay called on both sides to establish a dialogue table to help find solutions to the social demands which she considered ‘valid’.
“With more protests planned, we are concerned that the excessive use of force by police forces could be repeated”, said Pillay in a written statement recalling that these urban demonstrations are the most important in Brazil in the last two decades.
“We have received reports of injured and arrests including that of journalists covering the protests”.
Claims have also arrived to the UN Human Rights commissioner office in Geneva showing arbitrary arrests of innocent pedestrians that were not involved in the protests.
Pillay praised President Dilma Rousseff for her comments acknowledging the legitimacy of the demonstrations as well as the instruction to São Paulo to cease using rubber bullets.
“We call upon the government of Brazil to take all necessary measures to guarantee the right of assembly and avoid the use of disproportionate force during the protests”, said the High Commissioner. She also indicated her office expects a quick and independent inquiry into the alleged abuses committed by the police forces involved in fighting back demonstrators.
Besides the increase in public transport fares, social protests also reflect the disenchantment of a growing sector of the Brazilian population with the government’s spending of billions of dollars in preparing the country to host the current Confederation Cup, the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, while public health and education are mostly in dilapidated conditions.