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Brazilian troops secure soccer matches after protests

SÃO PAULO — Brazil is calling in additional national guard troops to boost security for an international soccer tournament after two weeks of protests against inflation and corruption rocked city centers nationwide.

The troops will be deployed to Salvador, Belo Horizonte, and Brasilia to reinforce security at Confederations Cup games, the Justice Ministry said in a press release on its website. Local authorities requested extra troops after more than 200,000 people demonstrated in 12 cities on Monday, and protesters gathered Wednesday at the venue of a match between Brazil and Mexico in the north-eastern city of Fortaleza.

Following a sixth night of protests that included a 50,000- strong march on city hall in São Paulo, hundreds of demonstrators Wednesday occupied and burnt tires on the Anchieta highway in São Bernardo, a working-class suburb. In Brasilia, protesters demanding improved public transport blocked a motorway, causing traffic to back up for miles.

What began as a protest over rising bus fares in several cities has turned into the biggest street demonstration in two decades, with marchers voicing discontent over poor public services, political parties and 6.5 percent inflation. An opinion poll published Wednesday showed President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating dropped eight percentage points from March to June.

“It’s everything from ending corruption to investing in schools,” Lucas Santi, 20, a law student at Universidade de São Paulo, said Tuesday night. Around him, protesters waving green and yellow Brazilian flags chanted “It’s not just about 20 cents,” referring to the increase in bus fares that sparked the unrest.

In Fortaleza, where Brazil plays Mexico this afternoon as part of the Confederations Cup tournament, a warm-up for the World Cup, one demonstrator held up a sign reading “Excuse the inconvenience, we’re improving the country.”

On Tuesday, Rousseff pledged to listen to demonstrators. On Wednesday, authorities decided to roll back transport fare hikes that had triggered the widespread unrest.

São Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin told reporters that metro, train and bus fares would revert to $1.35 from $1.44 starting next Monday, according to the current exchange rate, while Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said bus fares would go back to $1.24 from $1.33.

The decisions marked a major victory for the tens of thousands of citizens who have taken to the streets of both cities to vent their anger at the fare increases.

Several other Brazilian cities, including Porto Alegre and Recife, had already canceled the fare hikes.

The fare increases may appear modest but they were seen by many as a major burden in a country where the minimum monthly wage is currently only $306.

“The voices of the street want more citizenship, health, transportation, opportunities,” Rousseff, 65, said in Brasilia. “My government hears those voices.”

Since the start of protests, several state capitals, including Cuiaba and Porto Alegre, have taken steps to reduce bus fares, São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, told reporters Wednesday that he would meet with protest leaders this week. Revoking the 20-centavo increase would cost the city government 1.5 billion reais ($690 million) this year alone, he said.

“People are realizing nothing will get done if you wait for politicians to act,” said Sebastiana Alcantara, 60, a laboratory technician who was among demonstrators Tuesday night. Every day she takes a bus, train and subway in her three-hour commute to work from the outskirts of São Paulo.

The group Movimento Passe Livre, which has helped organize protests, said its supporters won’t leave the streets until the fare increase in São Paulo is revoked.

Rousseff’s approval rating fell eight percentage points from March to June to 55 percent, according to an IBOPE poll published Wednesday. The survey interviewed 2,002 people in 142 cities June 6-11 and has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

“I’m like the rest who are unsatisfied with Brazilian politics,” said Danilo Curvelo, 32, a web content editor who lives in the upscale Higienopolis neighborhood of São Paulo. “There’s no connection between what we want and what the government does.”

Gross domestic product in Latin America’s biggest economy expanded 0.9 percent last year, down from 2.7 percent in 2011 and 7.5 percent in 2010. Economists in the latest central bank survey forecast expansion of 2.49 percent this year. While that’s less than the 6.2 percent and 4.9 percent predicted for regional peers Peru and Chile, it’s more than the -0.08 percent estimate for Europe, according a Bloomberg survey of economists.

Consumer confidence fell to a three-year low in May, according to the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Rousseff, who as a student was imprisoned and tortured by the military government, was jeered at a packed Brasilia soccer stadium on June 15. Her administration, which is used to dealing with organized protests that have identifiable leaders to negotiate with, was surprised and confounded by the spontaneity and diversity of the demonstrations, said Gilberto Carvalho, Rousseff’s secretary-general.

“It would be pretentious to say we understand what’s going on,” Carvalho said during a congressional hearing two days ago. “If we are not sensitive, we’ll be caught on the wrong side of history.”

With assistance from Gabrielle Coppola and Fabiola Moura in São Paulo, Arnaldo Galvao and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia Newsroom, Joshua Goodman in Rio de Janeiro and Bill Faries in Miami. AFP contributed.

© 2013, Bloomberg News



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