Brazil's President Rousseff ends her silence on protests and vows reforms

President tells Brazilians apart by protests that she will boost transport and battle graft, as she recalls her own struggle against dictatorship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 9:11am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 6:53am

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spoke about her generation's struggles in battling a dictatorship during a prime-time speech meant to connect with the nation's disenchanted youth.

The 10-minute address ended Rousseff's much-criticised silence in the face of violent protests in major cities.

But it drew a mixed response, with some praising her conviction and others sceptical it would bring an end to the unrest.

Rousseff promised to make improvements in urban transport and to battle corruption, but offered few details as to how that would happen.

She added she would soon hold a meeting with leaders of the protest movement, governors and the mayors of major cities.

But it remained unclear exactly who could represent the massive and decentralised groups of demonstrators taking to the streets and venting anger against woeful public services despite a high tax burden.

Rousseff said her government would create a national plan for public transport in cities - a rise in bus and subway fares in many cities was the original complaint of the protests.

She also backed a plan before congress to invest all oil revenue royalties in education and reiterated a promise she made earlier to bring in foreign doctors to areas that lack physicians.

"I want institutions that are more transparent, more resistant to wrongdoing," Rousseff said in reference to perceptions of deep corruption in Brazilian politics, which is emerging as a focal point of the protests. "It's citizenship and not economic power that must be heard first."

Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel who fought against Brazil's 1964-1985 military regime and was imprisoned for three years and tortured by the junta, pointedly referred to earlier sacrifices made to free the nation from dictatorship.

"My generation fought a lot so that the voice of the streets could be heard," Rousseff said. "Many were persecuted, tortured and many died for this. The voice of the street must be heard and respected and it can't be confused with the noise and truculence of some troublemakers."

Edvaldo Chaves, a 61-year-old doorman in Rio's upscale Flamengo neighbourhood, said he found the speech convincing.

"I thought she seemed calm and cool. Plus, because she was a guerilla and was in exile, she talks about the issue of protests convincingly," Chaves said.

"I think things are going to calm down. We'll probably keep seeing people in the streets but probably small numbers now."

But Bruna Romao, an 18-year-old store clerk in Sao Paulo, said Rousseff's words probably would not have an impact.

"Brazilians are passionate," she said. "We boil over quickly but also cool down fast. But this time it's different. People are in full revolt. I don't see things calming down anytime soon."

One million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide on Thursday night to denounce everything from poor public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.

The protests continued on Friday, as about 1,000 people marched in western Rio de Janeiro city, with some looting stores and invading an enormous US$250 million arts centre that remains empty after several years of construction.

Police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas as they were pelted with rocks. Police also said some protesters were armed and shots were fired at officers.