Brazil, once revered, now rocked by protest

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SAO PAULO -- In 2007, just as this country was being revered for its strong economy and fight against poverty, officials here announced that Brazil had at last arrived on the world stage with its selection as host of soccer's biggest event, the 2014 World Cup.

Two years later, the president at the time, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, shed tears of joy as Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the site of the 2016 Olympics.

But now hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who have been protesting in dozens of cities nationwide are starting to tell the world a different story.

From the wealthy cities of the south to glitzy Rio de Janeiro to outposts in the Amazon, people across Brazil's social strata have been swarming the streets night after night for more than a week to vent their rage against the status quo. The biggest outpouring came Thursday, when 1 million people protested nationwide, astonishing Mr. Lula's friend and successor, President Dilma Rousseff, and her Cabinet.

The spark was a strike against a 9-cent bus-fare hike, with the bulk of the protesters coming from the middle class.

They are tired of paying what they call first-world tax rates for third-world services, from pitiful roads to decrepit airports.

The protests, which continued Saturday in several cities, come as the "Brazilian miracle" -- a reference to how this once-sleepy giant morphed into one of the world's top economies -- is now seemingly grinding to a halt.

"I never saw a Brazilian miracle taking place," said Mareli Volpato, 43, who works in an investment bank and has been protesting in the streets of Sao Paulo. "Corruption in politics is affecting everybody. This is killing Brazil."

Though the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, recent days have seen some protesters burning cars, looting stores and clashing with police.

A former Marxist guerrilla who was jailed in the 1970s by a military dictatorship, Ms. Rousseff said Brazilian society should not tolerate the "violent and authoritarian minority" of those who have resorted to violence. But she also struck a conciliatory tone, saying "the voice of the streets needs to be heard and respected."

But it appeared too early to tell whether her words had defused the demonstrations. One protester in Sao Paulo on Saturday, Tiago Luiz de Marcos, 28, said Ms. Rousseff "talked and talked" but simply "made people want to fight for their rights."

Emerson Silva, 22, a computer technician who is part of the new middle class, said people are feeling the pinch but are watching with growing frustration as the government directs billions of dollars to ensuring the World Cup and the Olympics are a success.

Particularly galling to demonstrators has been the sensation that the country's political class seems to enrich itself at the expense of a middle class that has trouble making ends meet and poorer Brazilians who in some cases do not have enough to eat.

Though Ms. Rousseff remains popular, her Workers Party has drawn the ire of protesters. High-ranking officials in the government of her predecessor, Mr. Lula, have been convicted in the mensalao scandal, in which huge payoffs were made to secure votes from members of congress.

The demonstrations have drawn comparisons to uprisings in Turkey or other parts of the Middle East, starting small and morphing into something much larger.

But unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Brazil is an established democracy that has made inroads against poverty. Demonstrators in Brazil are also venting over a range of complaints and calling for sometimes nebulous changes, such as a more accountable government.


First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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