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Scattered street protests pop across Brazil

Source : AP
Last Updated: Wed, Jun 19, 2013 21:00 hrs

Scattered street demonstrations popped up around Brazil on Wednesday as protesters continued their collective cry against the low-quality public services they receive in exchange for high taxes and rising prices.

In one of several protests, about 200 people blocked the Anchieta Highway that links Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, and the port of Santos before heading to the industrial suburb of Sao Bernardo do Campo on Sao Paulo's outskirts. Another group of protesters later obstructed the highway again.

In the northeastern city of Fortaleza, 15,000 protesters clashed with police trying to prevent them from reaching the Castelao stadium before Brazil's game with Mexico in the Confederations Cup soccer tournament.

Riot police used gas bombs and pepper spray to keep protesters from advancing past a barrier some 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the stadium. A police car was burned by demonstrators, who also threw rocks and other objects at officers. The protest disrupted fans' efforts to get in the stadium for Brazil's second match at the World Cup warm-up tournament.

"We are against a government that spends billions in stadiums while people are suffering across the country," said Natalia Querino, a 22-year-old student participating in the protest. "We want better education, more security and a better health system."

Earlier, hundreds of protesters cut off the main access road to the stadium, and police responded by diverting traffic away from the road. Official vehicles of the international soccer organization, FIFA, were among those struggling to reach the stadium.

In the city of Belo Horizonte, some 2,000 protesters took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration, while protesters were reported gathering in Niteroi, across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro.

The actions followed another night of mass marches around Brazil and nearly a week of unrest that has shocked the country's leaders ahead of a papal visit next month and next year's World Cup soccer tournament.

Beginning as protests against bus fare hikes, the demonstrations have quickly ballooned to include broad middle-class outrage over the failure of the government to provide basic services and ensure public safety, even as Brazil's economy modernizes and tax rates remain some of the highest in the world.

Protest organizers, who have widely employed social media, called for mass demonstrations Thursday in Sao Paulo and Rio, the country's two biggest cities. The Rio action promised the most volatility, with protesters planning to march to Maracana stadium where Spain and Tahiti are to play in a Confederations Cup match. Police said they would not allow protesters to interrupt the game.

Soldiers from Brazil's elite National Force have been sent to Fortaleza, Rio, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Brasilia to bolster security during tournament games.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter urged protesters to stop linking their anger against the government to the Confederations Cup. The cost of building stadiums for the FIFA tournaments has been a regular complaint at marches.

In an interview with Brazil's Globo TV network, Blatter said he could "understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard."

"We did not impose the World Cup on Brazil," he said.

On Tuesday night, tens of thousands of Brazilians flooded central Sao Paulo, with the protest following the rhythm of mobilizations that drew some 240,000 people across Brazil the previous night. Though mostly peaceful, small bands of radicals split off in Sao Paulo to fight with police.

Fernando Grella Vieira, head of the Sao Paulo state public safety department, said 63 people were detained during Tuesday's protests. He told Globo TV that police would guarantee the right to demonstrate but would "repress all forms of vandalism."

Police said those arrested had looted stores during the protest in downtown Sao Paulo and were caught running away with clothing, TV sets, microwave ovens and computers.

TV footage showed protesters breaking into shuttered newsstands and stealing cigarettes and candy. Other images showed demonstrators smashing windows of banks and stores.

Local governments in at least four cities have responded to the unrest by agreeing to reverse bus and subway fare hikes, and Sao Paulo's fare hike could also be rolled back. It's not clear that will calm the country, though, with the protests already expanding to take on a wide range of other issues.

Beyond complaints about transit fares, protesters haven't produced any concrete demands even as they've waved signs, gone on social media and chanted their anger at the entire governing system. A common cry at the rallies: "No parties!"

"What I hope comes from these protests is that the governing class comes to understand that we're the ones in charge, not them, and the politicians must learn to respect us," said Yasmine Gomes, a 22-year-old squeezed into the plaza in central Sao Paulo where Tuesday night's protest began.

President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during Brazil's 1964-85 dictatorship, has hailed the protests for raising questions and strengthening Brazil's democracy. "Brazil today woke up stronger," she said in a statement Tuesday.

Yet Rousseff offered no actions that her government might take to address complaints.

The protests have raised troubling questions about the country's ability to provide security ahead of it playing host to some of the world's biggest events, including the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Mass protests are rare in this 190 million-person country, with demonstrations generally attracting small numbers of politicized participants.

Many now protesting in Brazil's streets hail from the country's growing middle class, which government figures show has ballooned by some 40 million people over the past decade amid a commodities-driven economic boom.

The protesters say they've lost patience with endemic problems such as government corruption and inefficiency. They're also slamming Brazil's government for spending billions of dollars to host the World Cup and Olympics while leaving other needs unmet.

A November government report raised to $13.3 billion the projected cost of stadiums, airport renovations and other projects for the World Cup. City, state and other local governments are spending more than $12 billion on projects for the Olympics in Rio.

Attorney Agatha Rossi de Paula, who attended Tuesday's protest in Sao Paulo along with her mother, called Brazil's fiscal priorities "an embarrassment."

"We just want what we paid in taxes back, through health care, education and transportation," said the 34-year-old. "We want the police to protect us, to help the people on the streets who have ended up with no job and no money."

So far, the mass gatherings have shown no evidence of any central leadership, although they've been tied to smaller activist organizations such as one asking for lower transit fares. Groups of Brazilians have also staged small protests in other countries, including Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Denmark.

A cyber-attack knocked the government's official World Cup site offline Tuesday, and the Twitter feed for Brazil's Anonymous hackers group posted links to a host of other government websites whose content had been replaced by a screen calling on citizens to come out to the streets.

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AP writers Jenny Barchfield and Rob Harris in Rio de Janeiro, Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Tales Azzoni in Fortaleza and Jill Langlois in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.




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