A quarter-million Brazilians took to the streets in the latest wave of sometimes-violent protests that are increasingly focusing on corruption and reforming a government system in which people have lost faith. A new poll shows that 75 per cent of citizens support the demonstrations.
The turnout in Saturday’s protests was lower than the one million participants seen on Thursday and there was less violence. But in the city of Belo Horizonte, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who tried to pass through a barrier and hurled rocks at a car dealership. The city of Salvador also saw demonstrations turn violent.
The protests have become the largest public demonstrations Latin America’s biggest nation has seen in two decades. They began as opposition to transportation fare hikes, then became a laundry list of causes including anger at high taxes, poor services and World Cup spending, before coalescing around the issue of rampant government corruption.
Many protesters were not appeased by a prime-time television address on Friday night by President Dilma Rousseff, who said that peaceful protests were welcome and emphasised that she would not condone corruption. She also said she would meet with movement leaders and create a plan to improve urban transportation and use oil royalties for investments in education.
“Dilma is underestimating the resolve of the people on the corruption issue,” said Mayara Fernandes, a medical student who took part in a march in Sao Paulo. “She talked and talked and said nothing. Nobody can take the corruption of this country anymore.”
A new poll published on Saturday in the weekly magazine Epoca showed that three-quarters of Brazilians support the protests. The poll was carried out by the respected Ibope institute. It interviewed 1,008 people across Brazil June 16-20 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
On Saturday, protesters denounced congressional legislation, known as PEC 37, that would limit the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes – which many fear would hinder attempts to jail corrupt politicians.
Federal prosecutors were behind the investigation into the biggest corruption case in Brazil’s history, the so-called “mensalao” cash-for-votes scheme that came to light in 2005 and involved top aides of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva buying off members of congress to vote for their legislation.
Last year, the supreme court condemned two dozen people in connection to the case, which was hailed as a watershed moment in Brazil’s fight against corruption. However, those condemned have yet to be jailed because of appeals, a delay that has enraged Brazilians.
“It was good Dilma spoke, but this movement has moved too far, there was not much she could really say,” said Victoria Villela, a 21-year-old university student in the Sao Paulo protest. “All my friends were talking on Facebook about how she said nothing that satisfied them. I think the protests are going to continue for a long time and the crowds will still be huge.”
Across Brazil, police estimated that about 60,000 demonstrators gathered in a central square in Belo Horizonte, 30,000 shut down a main business avenue in Sao Paulo, and another 30,000 gathered in the city in southern Brazil where a nightclub fire killed over 240 mostly university students, deaths many argued could have been avoided with better government oversight of fire laws.
Tens of thousands more protested in more than 100 Brazilian cities, bringing the nationwide total on Saturday to 250,000, according to a police count published on the website of the Globo TV network, Brazil’s largest.
In the northeastern city of Salvador, where Brazil’s national football team played Italy and won 4-2 in a Confederations Cup match, some 5,000 protesters gathered about five kilometres from the stadium, shouting demands for better schools and transportation and denouncing heavy spending on next year’s World Cup.
They blocked a main road and clashed with riot police who moved in to clear the street. Protesters said police used rubber bullets and even tossed tear gas canisters from a helicopter hovering overhead. The protesters scattered and fled to a nearby shopping mall, where they tried to take shelter in an underground parking garage.
“We sat down and the police came and asked us to free up one lane for traffic. As we were organising our group to do just that, the police lost their patience and began to shoot at us and throw [tear gas] canisters,” said protester Rodrigo Dorado.
That was exactly the type of conflict Rousseff said needed to end, not just so Brazilians could begin a peaceful national discussion but because much of the violence is taking place in cities hosting foreign tourists attending the Confederations Cup.
Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech, but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands.
With “no objective information about the nature of the organisation of the protests”, wrote Igor Gielow in a column for Brazil’s biggest newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, “Dilma resorted to an innocuous speech to cool down spirits.”
Outside the stadium in Belo Horizonte where Mexico and Japan met in a Confederations Cup game, Dadiana Gamaleliel, a 32-year-old physiotherapist, held up a banner that read: “Not against the games, in favour of the nation.”
“I am protesting on behalf of the whole nation because this must be a nation where people have a voice ... we don’t have a voice anymore,” she said.
She said Rousseff’s speech wouldn’t “change anything”.
“She spoke in a general way and didn’t say what she would do,” she said. “We will continue this until we are heard.”