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Fresh Protests in Brazil Despite Government Concessions

  • Reuters

Demonstrators throw at police officers outside Mineirao stadium during Confederations Cup semifinal match between Brazil and Uruguay, Belo Horizonte, June 26, 2013.

Demonstrators throw at police officers outside Mineirao stadium during Confederations Cup semifinal match between Brazil and Uruguay, Belo Horizonte, June 26, 2013.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets on Wednesday in new demonstrations calling for a crackdown on corruption and better public services, just a day after Congress ceded to a handful of the key demands galvanizing protests across the country.

Police deployed in force and shut down traffic in the central esplanade of the modernistic capital of Brasilia ahead of Wednesday's marches.

In Belo Horizonte, some 50,000 people gathered to demand improved education and healthcare as Brazil's third-largest city hosted a Confederations Cup semi-final soccer game between Brazil and Uruguay. Police fired tear gas at stone-throwing marchers to stop them from reaching the stadium.

Almost two weeks after a wave of discontent suddenly erupted into Brazil's biggest protests in 20 years, the country's shaken political leadership is scrambling to respond to popular pressure for change.

On Tuesday night, Congress rejected a constitutional amendment that would have limited the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes, a measure protesters saw as a self-serving attempt by politicians to avoid corruption probes.

“Our representatives are listening to the people now. We are creating a new political consciousness,” said Amanda Caetano, spokeswoman for a group called “Enough is Enough” that hopes to mobilize 10,000 people in Brasilia to demand an end to the privileges enjoyed by politicians.

In another response to the protests, the lower house of Congress voted overnight in favor of a bill allocating royalties from future oil production to education and health programs. And a Senate committee approved a measure that would cut taxes on public transport, making it easier for cities and states to lower bus and subway fares.

The Senate is also expected to vote later on Wednesday on a bill that introduces stiffer sentences for corruption.

It was a relatively small protest against an increase in transport fares, and an ensuing police crackdown earlier this month, that ended up igniting the unrest that has shaken Latin America's largest country and economy.

Several Brazilian cities have since agreed to roll back the fare increases, but the leaderless protest movement has widened its focus to a litany of grievances, from the billions of dollars spent on soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup to a “gay cure” bill in Congress that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as an illness.

But one common theme remains: a deep distrust of a political class that is widely viewed as corrupt, overpaid and more worried about serving itself than society at large.

Most of the protests have unfolded peacefully, though some have been marred by vandalism and looting. Last Thursday, for instance, a demonstration by an estimated 40,000 people in Brasilia turned violent when vandals threw Molotov cocktails at the iconic building that houses Brazil's Foreign Ministry.

Calls for political reform

The demonstrations against Brazil's political establishment have jolted politicians of all stripes and clouded the outlook for left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to seek re-election next year.

Rousseff sought to defuse the protests by proposing on Monday that Brazil hold a plebiscite to convene a constituent assembly that would adopt political reforms to make the political system more accountable and transparent.

The proposal lasted 24 hours. Rousseff withdrew the plan for an assembly late Tuesday after it was shot down by politicians and lawyers who questioned the legality of a president bypassing Congress to amend the constitution.

Her Workers' Party government and its coalition allies are now discussing putting political reforms to the country in a referendum later this year after consulting Congress.

However, many, including the chief justice of Brazil's Supreme Court, doubt that a meaningful overhaul of Brazil's political system to increase transparency and accountability will prosper without the input of the general public.

Political analysts are waiting to see how the protests will affect Rousseff's approval ratings in new opinion polls. Her popularity had already begun to slip prior to the protests, hurt by concerns about high inflation and a sluggish economy.