As Brazil’s biggest street protests in two decades claimed a sixth life, officials sought to quell unrest by increasing penalties for corruption and suspending transportation contracts to allow greater public participation.
A 21-year-old student died in clashes between protesters and police yesterday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third-largest urban area, after a soccer match in which the national team beat Uruguay, Folha de S.Paulo reported. In the coastal town of Guaruja, a truck ran over and killed a protesting teenager, the newspaper said. About 500 protesters gathered today in the northeastern city of Fortaleza ahead of a Confederations Cup soccer semifinal between Italy and Spain.
Demonstrations that began three weeks ago against an increase in bus fares have since given voice to discontent over grievances such as government corruption. The Senate yesterday passed a bill to toughen the punishment for graft, while Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, after reversing the bus-fare increase last week, said he was suspending the renewal of 46 billion reais ($21.1 billion) in public transit contracts to invite proposals from citizens.
“There are a lot of banners being waved in this movement, but none higher than the fight against corruption,” Henrique Ziller, a 54-year-old auditor for a body that supervises government spending, said during demonstrations that brought out 4,000 in Brasilia yesterday. “We have money but it’s diverted. It goes to corruption.”
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. Underscoring the sluggish economy, Brazil’s currency has weakened 6.2 percent this year, helping lead the Ibovespa stock benchmark to a 28 percent slump in dollar terms.
Brazil’s central bank cut its 2013 economic growth forecast to 2.7 percent from 3.1 percent today, and said the outlook for inflation, already running above its 6.5 percent target limit, is unfavorable. In their quarterly inflation report, policy makers said increases in prices for food, fuel and public tariffs were partially responsible for “the worsening of family and business sentiment.”
Lawmakers are rushing to tackle a legislative agenda put forth by President Dilma Rousseff this week to address protesters’ demands for a crackdown on corruption and improved health care and education. She also called for a plebiscite to overhaul the political system.
The plebiscite will ask voters to decide on longstanding proposals to move away from the current voting system based on party lists toward a U.S.-styled one based on electoral districts, Rousseff aide Gilberto Carvalho said in an interview today. Carvalho also called for an end to campaign financing by private companies, saying the system leads to corruption. The government will send the request for a plebiscite to Congress by July 2, Jose Ramos, a presidential spokesman, said this week.
Senate leader Renan Calheiros, himself a target of anti-corruption protests, suspended a recess to allow the upper house to approve a bill classifying corruption as a so-called heinous crime, putting it in the same category as rape and murder and doubling the minimum sentence to four years. The lower house on June 25 passed a bill earmarking 75 percent of Brazil’s oil royalties for education and 25 percent for health. The approved version modified Rousseff’s call for all of the revenue to go to schools.
Other protest-spawned proposals that are being debated include a bill to eliminate bus fares for students and a constitutional amendment ending the use of secret ballots in disciplinary votes against fellow lawmakers. The governor of Goias state, which surrounds the capital Brasilia, decreed free public transit for students yesterday, the G1 news website reported.
Officials including Finance Minister Guido Mantega and Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa have supported the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands.
In Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, police deployed helicopters yesterday to scare off protesters and fired tear gas and rubber bullets after an initially peaceful march that Globo TV estimated at 50,000-strong. Demonstrators have capitalized on media attention on the Confederations Cup, a dry run for the World Cup next year. The tournament, which started June 15, has been baptized the “Demonstrations Cup” in placards and chants.
The largest protests occurred on June 20, when more than 1 million took to the streets across the country and clashed with police in dozens of cities.
Scattered protests also took place today in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, while in Rio de Janeiro, Governor Sergio Cabral said he would meet demonstrators camped outside his offices at the Guanabara Palace, formerly the seat of Brazil’s national government.
Sports were also on the minds yesterday of protesters in Brasilia in the form of 594 soccer balls -- one for each lawmaker -- lined up in front of Congress. Crowds gathered in the afternoon to kick the balls into fountains surrounding the building. Vendors sold popcorn and chocolate as people walked around with trash bags picking up litter. Peaceful at first, the protests turned violent in the evening as demonstrators fought police.
Lama Miranda, a 51-year-old airline employee demonstrating with her teenage daughter in Brasilia yesterday afternoon, said she was skeptical that lawmakers will address protesters’ concerns and improve their lives.
“We feel inflation every day, in our medical bills, in education, in the food we buy,” she said. Congress’ efforts to reduce corruption “are good if they’re actually put into practice.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Cuadros in Sao Paulo at firstname.lastname@example.org; Arnaldo Galvao in Brasilia Newsroom at email@example.com; Anna Edgerton in Brasilia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at email@example.com.