Brazil Braces for More Protests Despite Rousseff Promise

Thousands of Brazilians took to the streets as the national soccer team prepares to meet Uruguay in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, reigniting mass protests that have made officials rush to respond to demands for better health care and education.

Fifty thousand marched toward the main stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third-largest urban area, the G1 news website reported, before the match that is part of a dry run for next year’s World Cup. Police prepared for another 50,000 to gather in Brasilia, where protesters tried to set fire to the Foreign Ministry building last week.

President Dilma Rousseff, saying she will listen to the “voices of the streets,” this week proposed a plebiscite to give citizens a stronger say in government while vowing to improve health care and boost education spending. She won support yesterday from Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa and the head of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, for political reform aimed at quashing corruption that has fueled the biggest street revolt in two decades.

“All I can hope is that they are peaceful and there are no clashes with the police,” national team striker Fred told reporters on the eve of today’s match. “We asked the people to unite and give only joy for at least 90 minutes of this game.”

Demonstrations began three weeks ago against an increase in bus fares and have since given voice to discontent over everything from government corruption to spending on stadiums for next year’s World Cup. While 40 million people emerged from poverty over the past decade, accelerating inflation and slow growth have pushed Rousseff’s approval rating down eight percentage points since March.

Brazil’s Currency

Brazil’s currency has weakened 6.4 percent this year, helping lead the Ibovespa stock benchmark to a 27 percent slump in dollar terms, the second-worst performance among 94 major indexes.

Calheiros, himself a target of anti-corruption protests, said yesterday he would suspend a Senate recess until lawmakers vote on Rousseff’s proposals to quell the protests.

In a late-night session, lower house lawmakers voted 430-9 to scrap a proposal that protesters said would have limited public prosecutors’ power to investigate corruption. The constitutional amendment No. 37, as it was known, was a rallying cry for many of the protesters.

The lower house also approved a bill earmarking oil royalties for education, in the process modifying Rousseff’s goal of funneling 100 percent of that revenue to schools. Instead, 75 percent will go to education and the remainder to improving health care. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Secret Ballots

Other proposals spawned by the protests and being debated include a proposal to eliminate bus fares for students and a constitutional amendment ending the use of secret ballots in disciplinary votes against fellow lawmakers.

Still, Rousseff had to partially backtrack on her biggest political gamble, a plebiscite to win support for rewriting part of the constitution to restructure the political system, amid claims by the opposition and jurists that such a move is illegal and unnecessary.

Instead, the government will seek ask voters to endorse specific actions based on government consultations with activists, unions and political parties, Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante said today. Those could include longstanding proposals to toughen campaign financing laws and a move away from the current voting system based on party lists toward a U.S.-styled one based on electoral districts. The government will send the request for a plebiscite to Congress by July 2, said Jose Ramos, a presidential spokesman.

More Accountable

“We need to include the people in the debate over reforms,” Barbosa, the nation’s first black chief justice, said yesterday after a meeting with Rousseff, in which he endorsed the president’s call to make politicians more accountable. “Brazil is tired of reforms by the elites.”

In a Datafolha poll among protesters in Sao Paulo, 30 percent of those interviewed said they would vote for Barbosa in next year’s presidential election compared to 10 percent for Rousseff. Barbosa said yesterday he was “flattered” by the support though has no desire to run for the post.

Seven Helicopters

In Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, authorities declared a public holiday and are deploying 5,000 extra security personnel ahead of today’s game, which FIFA chief Sepp Blatter is expected to attend. Soccer’s governing body said in a statement that it has “full trust” in the safety and security plan.

Crowds of protesters have gathered outside stadiums since the start 11 days ago of what they’ve taken to calling the “Demonstrations Cup.” In Belo Horizonte, an estimated 10,000 protesters clashed with police during a Mexico-Japan match. More than 1 million took to the streets on June 20 across Brazil, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. Four people have died.

Sport was also on the minds today of protesters in Brasilia in the form of 594 soccer balls -- one for each lawmaker -- lined up in front of Congress to push for goal-scoring reforms. Police fenced off the presidential palace and installed flood lights to assist in crowd control ahead of the protests. They’ll also block traffic and search protesters for explosives and dangerous objects to prevent attacks on public buildings, said Daniel Barroso, a police spokesman.

Legitimate Demands

Finance Minister Guido Mantega, in his first public remarks since last week’s unrest, downplayed the threat posed by the protesters, whose demands for a better quality of life he said are legitimate.

“In Brasilia we’re used to street movements, every week there’s thousands of demonstrators on one issue or another,” he said in congressional testimony today. “I didn’t see anyone in the street talking about the economy being out of control.”

Meanwhile, protesters are digging in for a long fight.

“We can’t stop now, we won’t stop,” said Carla Zambelli, the 32-year-old founder of Nas Ruas, an anti-corruption group planning a demonstration tomorrow in the northeastern city of Salvador. “The people showed that the main issues are corruption and miserable public services. Either the politicians stop stealing from us, or we’ll shut down Brazil.”

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