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Brazil protesters keep up pressure on government

Wednesday - 6/19/2013, 12:14am  ET

Protestors gather in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Some of the biggest demonstrations since the end of Brazil's 1964-85 dictatorship have broke out across this continent-sized country, uniting multitudes frustrated by poor transportation, health services, education and security despite a heavy tax burden. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)

BRADLEY BROOKS
Associated Press

SAO PAULO (AP) -- About 50,000 protesters energetically returned to the streets of Brazil's biggest city Tuesday night, a demonstration of anger toward what they call a corrupt and inefficient government that has long ignored the demands of a growing middle class.

The protests were well organized via social media and mostly peaceful, like those the night before that drew 240,000 to the streets in several cities to demonstrate against the shoddy state of public transit, schools and other public services in this booming South American giant. Many railed against a gap between Brazil's heavy tax burden and its notoriously poor infrastructure.

Demonstrations have ballooned from initial protests last week called by a group complaining about the high cost of a woeful public transport system and demanding a rollback of a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares.

While the protests have grown, reversing that fare hike remains the one concrete demand emanating from the streets. The rest, so far, are expressions of deep anger and discontentment -- not just with the ruling government, but with the entire governing system. A common chant at the rallies has been "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.

Nearby, Bruno Barp, a 23-year-old law student said he had high hopes for the growing movement.

"The protests are gaining force each day, there is a tremendous energy that cannot be ignored," Barp said as demonstrators poured into the central plaza, which was aflutter with banners and echoing with chanted slogans. "All Brazilians are fed up with the government and the poor services we receive, everyone is ready to fight for a change."

Although Brazilian demonstrations in recent years generally had tended to attract small numbers of politicized participants, the latest mobilizations have united huge crowds around a central lament: The government provides woeful public sector even as the economy is modernizing and growing.

The Brazilian Tax Planning Institute think tank found the country's tax burden in 2011 stood at 36 percent of gross domestic product, ranking it 12th among the 30 countries with the world's highest tax burdens.

Yet public services such as schools are in sorry shape. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found in a 2009 educational survey that literacy and math skills of Brazilian 15-year-olds ranked 53rd out of 65 countries, behind nations such as Bulgaria, Mexico, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, and Romania.

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

They 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 next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics, while leaving other needs unmet.

A November report from the government 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. Nearly $500 million was spent to renovate Maracana stadium in Rio for the World Cup even though the venue already went through a significant face-lift before the 2007 Pan American Games.

Attorney Agatha Rossi de Paula, who attended the latest 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."

An organization advocating for lower bus fares initiated the protesting last week, but demonstrations have since ballooned with no centralized leadership. Groups of Brazilians also staged small protests Tuesday in other countries, including Portugal, Spain and Denmark.

A cyber-attack knocked the government's official World Cup site offline, 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.

Tuesday's march in Sao Paulo started out peacefully but turned nasty outside City Hall when a small group lashed out at police and tried to invade the building.

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