Thousands of demonstrators have flooded into a square in Brazil’s economic hub, Sao Paulo, for the latest in a historic wave of protests against the state of public transport, schools and other public services.
Sparked earlier this month by a hike in bus and subway fares and organised via social media, the nationwide protests are giving voice to growing discontent over the gap between Brazil’s high tax burden and the low quality of public infrastructure, echoing similar mobilisations in Turkey, Greece and other parts of the globe where weariness with governments has exploded in the streets.
Thousands of people marched on Sao Paulo’s City Hall building, where a small group fought police in an attempt to force their way in. Another protest sprang up in the working class Rio de Janeiro suburb of Sao Goncalo.
After an estimated turnout of 240,000 people in 10 cities on Monday, the protests are turning into the most significant in Brazil since the end of the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, when crowds rallied to demand the return of democracy.
Although demonstrations in recent years generally have tended to attract small numbers of politicised participants, the latest mobilisations have united huge crowds around a central lament: the Brazilian government provides a woeful public sector even as the economy is modernising and growing.
The Brazilian Tax Planning Institute think-tank found the country’s tax burden in 2011 stood at 36% 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 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found in a 2009 educational survey that literacy and maths 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 40 million over the past decade amid a commodities-driven economic boom.
They say they have lost patience with endemic problems such as government corruption and inefficiency. They also criticise Brazil’s government for spending billions on sports stadiums in advance of hosting next year’s World Cup tournament and the 2016 Olympics, while leaving other needs unmet.
The government spent nearly 500 million US dollars to renovate the Maracana stadium in Rio for the World Cup even though the venue had a significant facelift before the 2007 Pan American Games. City, state and other local governments are spending nearly 12 billion dollars on projects for the Olympics in Rio.
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 where content had been replaced by a screen calling on citizens to come out to the streets.
An organisation advocating lower bus fares initiated the protesting last week, but demonstrations have since ballooned with no centralised leadership. Groups of Brazilians also staged small protests yesterday in other countries including Portugal, Spain and Denmark.
The latest march in Sao Paulo started peacefully but turned nasty outside City Hall when a small group lashed out at police and tried to invade the building.
Different groups of protesters faced off against one another, with one chanting “peace, peace” and trying to form a human cordon to protect the building, while another group tried to clamber up metal poles to get inside. At one point, one person tried to seize a metal barrier from another who was trying to use it to smash the building’s windows and doors.
Vandalism and violent clashes with police similarly marred the end of Monday’s mostly peaceful march in Rio, which left the city centre stinking of tear gas. That march attracted 100,000 people, ending with a small splinter group doing damage to the historic state legislature building. Another mass protest is planned for Rio on Thursday.
The protests have raised questions about the country’s readiness to host the coming high-profile events including a papal visit to Rio and rural Sao Paulo next month. Brazil is playing host this week to the Confederations Cup, which is seen as a warm-up for next year’s World Cup.
Police and military had spent the past year pacifying hillside slums in Rio to prepare for the events, even as grievances were apparently growing among the country’s middle class.
President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, hailed the protests, even though her government has been a prime target of demonstrators’ frustrations.
“Brazil today woke up stronger,” she was quoted as saying in a statement released by her office.
“Those who took to the streets delivered a message to society as a whole and most of all to levels of government. The massive size of yesterday’s protests proves the energy of our democracy, the force of the voice of the street and the civility of our population.”