Bus Fare Protests Add to Commuting Woes in Brazil Cities

More than a hundred people were arrested and dozens wounded as police in Sao Paulo clashed with activists last night in the latest and most rowdy in a rising tide of protests against bus fare increases in Brazil.

Security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas to quell last night’s protests, the fourth disturbance in a week in Latin America’s business capital. The protests, organized on social networking sites, have become more violent and spread across Brazil in recent weeks as cities implement annual fare adjustments that are further draining wallets strained by slower economic growth and 6.5 percent inflation.

After last night’s confrontation, which led to record rush hour congestion in Sao Paulo, protest organizers vowed to return to street barricades as early as today to continue their fight to eliminate bus fares. Authorities condemned acts of vandalism and said they won’t negotiate with those perpetrating violence.

“It’s impossible to ignore the dimension that these protests have acquired in the entire country,” Andre Perfeito, chief economist at Gradual Investimentos, wrote in a note to clients today in which he argued that strong inflation threatens to erode the past decade’s economic gains. “A Tropical Spring could be approaching.”

Among those injured last night were seven reporters from Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, one of whom was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet that left her vision impaired.

Abolishing Fares

The Sao Paulo-based organization behind the demonstrations, called the Free Fare Movement, wants to abolish bus fares altogether. While the movement has existed since 2005, its following has grown after Sao Paulo last month announced it was raising fares 7 percent, or 20 centavos, to 3.20 reais ($1.50).

The near-daily marches, while so far limited to a few hundred students on Brazil’s political fringe, coincide with a sudden drop in President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating. Even as the government spends billions to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, frustration with inflation, the poor state of public transport and urban violence is rising among Brazil’s expanding middle class.

The protests have angered commuters in Brazil’s biggest cities and are increasingly catching the attention of the government, which has been cutting taxes on food and fuel to shield poorer Brazilians who use public transport from inflation.

Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo has called on police to investigate the movement’s leaders after several protesters, some with Mohawks and waving red flags bearing the insignia of Brazil’s Communist Party, were filmed vandalizing buildings and destroying bus windows at recent marches.

No Negotiation

Sao Paulo’s Mayor Fernando Haddad of the ruling Workers’ Party said today that he won’t negotiate with protesters until they renounce violence. A fare increase that went into effect this month was below inflation and prices would be even higher if not for 600 million reais in city subsidies, he said.

“We’re not going to play the game of it’s all or nothing,” Haddad said in an interview on Globo TV.

Adding to traffic in Sao Paulo yesterday was a railway strike, which forced more cars on the road. Congestion in the city reached a record for the year, stretching 176 kilometers (109 miles) at 7 p.m. local time, according to a city agency that monitors traffic.

Protests also took place last night in Rio de Janeiro, blocking traffic on the main downtown thoroughfare.

“I’m here because of the abusive prices being charged by buses,” said 24-year-old Rafael Guarnier, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask that’s become a symbol for the online hacking group Anonymous, said at the Rio protest. “It’s only 20 cents, but for everyone here it’s a lot.”

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