200,000 Brazilians vent anger at rallies in more than half a dozen cities

200,000 rally in Rio, Brasilia and other cities to demand better public services and an end to police violence and government corruption

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 2:51am

As many as 200,000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Brazil's biggest cities in a swelling wave of protest tapping into widespread anger at poor public services, police violence and government corruption.

The marches, the biggest in 20 years and organised mostly through snowballing social media campaigns, blocked streets and halted traffic in more than a half a dozen cities, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Brasilia, where demonstrators climbed onto the roof of Brazil's Congress building and then stormed it.

Monday's protests were the latest of a flurry in the past two weeks that have added to growing unease over Brazil's sluggish economy, high inflation and a spurt in violent crime.

While most of the protests unfolded as a festive display of dissent, some demonstrators in Rio threw rocks at police, set fire to a parked car and vandalised the state assembly building. Vandals also destroyed property in the southern city of Porto Alegre.

Around the country, protesters waved Brazilian flags, dancing and chanting slogans such as "The people have awakened" and "Pardon the inconvenience, Brazil is changing".

The epicentre of Monday's march shifted from Sao Paulo, where 65,000 people took to the streets in the afternoon, to Rio. There, as protesters gathered in the evening, peaking at 100,000, police said. At least 20,000 more gathered in Belo Horizonte.

Brazilians are collectively questioning the status quo for the first time after a decade of steady economic growth. They have gathered pace as Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, a dry run for next year's World Cup soccer championship. The government hopes these events, along with the 2016 Olympics, will showcase Brazil as an emerging power on the global stage.

Contrasting the billions in taxpayer money spent on new stadiums with the shoddy state of public services, protesters are using the Confederations Cup as a counterpoint to amplify their concerns. The tournament had a shaky start at the weekend when police clashed with demonstrators outside stadiums at the opening matches in Brasilia and Rio.

"For many years the government has been feeding corruption. People are demonstrating against the system," said Graciela Cagador, a saleswoman protesting in Sao Paulo. "They spent billions of dollars building stadiums and nothing on education and health."

More protests are being organised. It is unclear what response from authorities - such as a reduction in the rise in transport fares - would lead the loose collection of organisers across Brazil to consider stopping them.

For President Dilma Rousseff, the protests come at a delicate time, as price rises and lacklustre growth loom over her expected run for re-election next year.

Polls show Rousseff is still widely popular, especially among poor and working-class voters, but her approval ratings began to slip in recent weeks for the first time since taking office in 2011. She was booed at Saturday's Confederations Cup opener as protesters gathered outside.

Through a spokeswoman, Rousseff called the protests "legitimate" and said peaceful demonstrations were "part of democracy". A leftist guerilla as a young woman, she said it was "befitting of youth to protest".

Some were baffled by the protests in a country where unemployment remains near record lows, even after more than two years of tepid economic growth.

"What are they going to do - march every day?" asked Cristina, a 43-year-old cashier, peeking out at the protest from behind the curtain of a closed Sao Paulo butcher's shop. She said corruption and other age-old ills in Brazil were unlikely to change soon.

The marches began this month with an isolated protest in Sao Paulo against a small increase in bus and subway fares.