Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called for an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday, one day after a protester was killed and an estimated 1.25 million people rallied nationwide demanding better public services.
The mass demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, are taking place as soccer-mad Brazil is hosting teams from around the world for the Confederations Cup, a dry run for next year’s World Cup tournament.
Many Brazilians are angry over the expensive preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Several of the demonstrations have been held outside stadiums, and a mammoth march is scheduled for June 30 to Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium on the day of the Confederations Cup final.
In Rio, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, then charged a large crowd of protesters after a smaller group hurled rocks at the officers.
The mounting pressure on Rousseff’s government in the face of Brazil’s biggest street protests in 20 years prompted her to also cancel a trip to Japan planned for next week.
More than 1.25 million people marched on Thursday in more than 100 cities across this country of 194 million people, according to police and experts quoted by the local media.
The marches began as a protest two weeks ago against a raise in bus fares, but quickly expanded into a wider call for an end to corruption in the world’s seventh-largest economy, a call fueled by resentment over the US$15 billion cost of hosting the Confederations Cup and the World Cup.
The announcement on Wednesday that the controversial fare hikes would be canceled in Rio and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s two most populous cities, did nothing to placate the protesters.
About 300,000 protesters marched to City Hall in Rio de Janeiro to vent their anger.
In Brasilia, where 30,000 people protested, one group broke through the police barrier surrounding Brazil’s foreign ministry and hurled home-made firebombs at the building.
At least 35 people were wounded, three seriously, as law enforcement struggled to keep the crowd at bay, police said.
The first fatality of the protest was an 18-year-old man who was struck by a car while he protested in the southeastern city of Ribeirao Preto, police said.
Most of the protesters are middle-class, educated youths marching to express their outrage at the high cost of living and the poor quality of public services.
In Sao Paulo, an estimated 110,000 people flooded the main Paulista Avenue to celebrate the fare rollback and keep the pressure on Rousseff’s leftist government to increase social spending.
The protest was largely peaceful except for clashes between a group of leftists marching behind their red banners and a majority of demonstrators who objected to the presence of political parties.
Protesters say they want higher funding for education, health and housing. They are also railing against what they view as rampant corruption within the political class.
Social media networks have been key to the organization of the mass protests, with demonstrators using the slogan “It’s more than just 20 cents” — a reference to the bus fare hikes — to rally people to their cause.