Brazil protests back despite proposed reforms

SAO PAULO (AP) - Protesters on Tuesday returned to the streets in low-income suburbs of Brazil's biggest city to demand better education, transport and health services, one day after President Dilma Rousseff proposed a wide range of actions to reform Brazil's political system and services.

Police said at least 500 people blocked streets for several hours in a peaceful protest in the districts of Capao Redondo and Campo Limpo on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.

At the same time, police in Rio de Janeiro were looking for a looter who killed a police officer after a protest on Monday.

Police said eight people, including the police officer, were killed in the Nova Holanda slum in a clash with demonstrators who had looted stores and robbed people.

"We think the people who are most interested in the demands being made in the street demonstrations of the past several days are those who live in these kind of suburbs," said Mr Guilherme Boulos, one of the leaders of Tuesday's protests.

So far, many Brazilians don't appear appeased by President Rousseff's proposals, which shifted some of the burden for progress onto Brazil's widely loathed Congress by calling for a plebiscite on political reform lawmakers will have to approve. The divided Congress would likely struggle to take any quick action on such a plebiscite.

Protesters have filled cities across this vast country to air a wide spectrum of grievances including poor public services and the high cost of hosting next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.

President Rousseff told governors and mayors meeting with her Monday that her administration would allocate US$23 billion (S$29.5 billion) for new spending on urban public transportation, but she didn't provide details on what the new projects would be. Four leaders from the free-transit activist group that launched the demonstrations more than a week ago said she also gave them no concrete plans while meeting with them on Monday.

She said her government would focus on five priorities: fiscal responsibility and controlling inflation; political reform; health care; public transportation, and education.

Ms Mayara Longo Vivian, one of the leaders of the Free Fare Movement, said their "fight would continue" despite President Rousseff's promises. The movement has been working since 2006 to eliminate public transport fares.

Ms Vivian referred to the billions of dollars Brazil is spending on the World Cup, saying, "If they have money to build stadiums, they have money for zero tariffs" on public transportation.

"The people are on the street, the left is on the street, with legitimate agendas," she said. "Only with concrete measures from the state will this situation be reversed."

In her weekly column posted on Tuesday on the presidency's website, President Rousseff said: "The money spent to build or renovate stadiums for the World Cup is not part of the federal budget and does not affect funds earmarked for health and education."

President Rousseff added that the money for the World Cup "was financed and will be paid back by the companies and state governments that use these stadiums". At a Monday demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, 68-year-old sociologist Irene Loewenstein said she wasn't impressed with Rousseff's plans.

"It's a necessary first step, but not a particularly meaningful nor surprising one," she said. "Neither Dilma nor any other politician here is capable of even understanding, much less putting into practice, the kind of systematic change the people are demanding. It's just not within their world views."

Many of the actions proposed by President Rousseff, including using all oil royalties to fund education and attracting foreign doctors to work in underserved areas, had already met with stiff resistance in Congress in previous iterations.

Opposition politicians, including a senator viewed as President Rousseff's biggest rival in next year's presidential election, blasted her call for a plebiscite.

"It's the specific jurisdiction of Congress to call a plebiscite," said Senator Aecio Neves, grandson of the first elected president after Brazil's dictatorship. "To divert attention, she's transferring to Congress a privilege that is already ours and isn't responding to the expectations of the population."

Experts said the protesters, though mostly disorganised, were in control thanks to support, as shown in polls, from the majority of Brazilians. The demonstrations have hit as Brazil hosts the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, seen as a warm-up for the World Cup.

Complicating matters, though, is Brazil's worsening economic climate, which President Rousseff referred to on Monday. The government has been struggling against both a lagging economy and rising inflation.

"Brazil will see several waves of protests," said Dr Guillermo Trejo, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US whose research focuses on social protests in Latin America.

"This cycle will decline, and it'll likely return to episodic protests once the media attention of the Confederations Cup goes away."

But next year could be a bumpy ride as President Rousseff faces re-election, Prof Trejo said. Already, the protests have become the largest of their kind in Brazil in at least two decades.

"Presidential elections are always a huge magnet for protests and hosting a major event like the World Cup will open a window for more," Prof Trejo said.

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