Brazil calm, but discontent still simmers

June 23, 2013 - 6:34 PM
Brazil Confed Cup Protest

Protesters holding a Brazilian flag block the main road leading to the Castelao stadium before the start of a soccer Confederations Cup group B match between Nigeria and Spain in Fortaleza, Brazil, Sunday, June 23, 2013. Small gatherings occurred Sunday in a few cities, no clashes were reported. On Saturday a quarter-million Brazilians protested in more than 100, but the gatherings were less violent than those seen earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

SAO PAULO (AP) — After a week of protests at a frenetic pace, a restive calm settled over Brazil on Sunday, though there were a few peaceful demonstrations against corruption.

The protests that began more than a week ago in Sao Paulo quickly enveloped Brazil. A survey from the National Counties Federation said that every state in the nation had a protest of some sort in 438 counties, with the apex on Thursday when 1 million people went to the streets.

About 4,000 people marched on a road along Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana and Ipanema beaches Sunday, while a few hundred protested in the northeastern city of Fortaleza. No clashes were reported.

On Saturday a quarter-million Brazilians protested in more than 100 cities, but the gatherings were less violent than those seen earlier in the week. The movement, which arose with a sea of complaints of everything that ails the nation, has coalesced around demands for political reform to attack widespread corruption.

The sudden explosion of discontent and the political awakening of Brazilians has left everyone from President Dilma Rousseff on down bewildered, creating uncertainty about what will come next in the nation that is now hosting the Confederations Cup football tournament and has a papal visit next month, the World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

The Globo TV network reported Sunday that the Rousseff government was expected to announce its first concrete response Tuesday: additional funds for a health care program that aims to train more doctors.

It's clear that while the current fervor may calm down, Brazilians will use the big events as reasons to gather en masse and demand change.

"The protests will go on, the people have become politicized," Marcos Mahal, a 47-year-old economist, said during a protest in Sao Paulo. "The violence that we saw this week was carried out by marginal groups attempting to demoralize this people's movement, but it won't be successful. The peaceful masses will carry on."

A new poll said 75 percent of citizens support the demonstrations. Published by the weekly magazine Epoca, the survey was carried out by the respected Ibope institute, which interviewed 1,008 people across the country June 16-20. It had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Despite the overwhelming support for the protests, 69 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their lives and optimistic of the future. The nation has nearly full employment and has seen 40 million people move into its definition of middle class in the past decade.

But since registering 7.5 percent economic growth in 2010, Brazil's expansion slipped to just 0.9 percent last year. While Brazil has largely buffered itself from the global financial crisis on the back of domestic consumer spending, those who bought heavily on credit in recent years are stretched thin.

Inflation is ticking up and Brazil has a high cost of living, in large part because of government inefficiency in improving basic infrastructure such as roads, ports, railways and airports. That makes it more costly to produce goods and move them to consumers.

Brazilians also pay more taxes than any nation outside the developing world — 36 percent of gross domestic product.

For those sick of woeful health care, education, transportation and security, heavy spending on the Confederations Cup and the World Cup to follow have added to dissatisfaction. Brazil's World Cup will be the most expensive yet, with the government spending more than $13 billion.

At the watershed demonstration June 17 in Sao Paulo, protesters shocked themselves by massing tens of thousands of people for the first time in two decades for a demonstration on the streets of Brazil's biggest city. Dentist Sandra Amalfe marched with her 16-year-old daughter and echoed the complaints of many: "We need better education, hospitals and security — not billions spent on the World Cup."

The protests began as opposition to bus and subway fare increases, then became a laundry list of complaints over high taxes, poor services and World Cup spending, before coalescing in recent days around the issue of corruption that many believe contributes to those woes.

Many protesters were not appeased by a prime-time television address Friday night by President Dilma Rousseff, who said peaceful demonstrations were welcome and emphasized that she would not condone corruption. She said she would meet with movement leaders, if any could be located from the as-yet leaderless masses, and create a plan to improve urban transportation and use oil royalties for investments in education — both recycled plans that have been put forth in some fashion before.

"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."

On Saturday, protesters denounced legislation before congress that would limit the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes, a move 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 "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, Brazil's Supreme Court convicted two dozen people in the case, which was hailed as a watershed moment in the country's fight against corruption. But the defendants 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."

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Associated press writer Tales Azzoni in Salvador contributed to this report.