Brazil government braces for more social unrest

Thousands of Brazilians threatened fresh protests Tuesday over the huge costs of preparations for the World Cup, after the biggest demos 20 years shook Dilma Rousseff's government.

On Monday more than 250,000 people marched in major cities, railing against the government's investment of billion of dollars in major sporting events while, they allege, spending on education and health suffers.

The protests, held as the country staged football's Confederations Cup, a dry run for the World Cup, were largely peaceful, although clashes with police and acts of vandalism were reported in Rio, Porto Alegre and Maceio.

In Rio, where 100,000 marched, some tried to storm the state legislative assembly, set fire to a car and ransacked shops. Twenty police were hurt, along with several demonstrators.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse rowdy crowds and vandals in Belo Horizonte, where protesters tried to march on the Mineirao stadium, venue for a Nigeria-Tahiti Confederations Cup game.

Monday's demonstrations were the biggest in Brazil since those against corruption in 1992 under the rule of Fernando Collor de Mello, who was subsequently impeached.

"The government is worried," admitted President Rousseff's chief of staff Gilberto Carvalho, urging the oppposition not to get involved. "No one from either side should try to take advantage of the situation."

Rouseff herself sought to calm tempers, saying "peaceful demonstrations are legitimate and part of democracy."

New demonstrations were scheduled for Tuesday in Sao Paulo and for Thursday in several other cities, including Rio, one of the hosts of the Confederations Cup.

On Thursday, any unrest could affect the match between Spain and Tahiti in Rio's Maracana stadium and between Nigeria and Uruguay in Salvador.

In Sao Paulo, where the protests began early this month ostensibly over higher public transport fares, 65,000 marched Monday.

"The situation is still a bit confused. Such demonstrations attract a lot of people and get out of control on both sides: there are excesses both by the police and the demonstrators," said Alba Zaluar of Rio University.

"It was interesting to see that the young participants did not want to wave flags of specific political parties," she added.

"They wanted a more open movement but that opens the door to robbers, agitators and hoodlums, like in Europe."

The spark from the current wave of unrest was a nationwide hike in public transport fares but this quickly broadened to resentment over the billions of dollars the government is investing for the Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the 2016 Rio summer Olympics.

According to a survey by the Datafolha institute released Tuesday, 84 percent of the protesters queried in Sao Paulo said they had no political preference.

Some 77 percent of them are college graduates and 22 percent are currently students.

Some 53 percent are under the age of 25 and 71 percent said Monday was the first time they took part in street protests.

The main reasons they gave for joining the protests was the increase in mass transit fares from $1.5 to $1.6, which is costly in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $339.

The protests were coordinated via social media networks across the country.

"With the Confederations Cup, all eyes are on the country. But I wonder why these young people did not protest earlier," Zaluar said. "To demand more investment in health and education rather in stadiums, everybody agrees."

The disturbances come as Brazil is experiencing anemic growth (0.6 percent in the first quarter) while inflation reached an annualized 6.5 percent in May, the upper limit of the official target.

The disappointing indicators have dented Rousseff's popularity, particularly among the youngest and wealthiest Brazilians, recent polls show.

Brazil's first female president was jeered in Brasilia Saturday during the Confederations Cup opening game, although she retains high popularity and is favored to win re-election next year.

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