SAO PAULO (AP) — Demonstrators took to the streets once again across Latin America’s biggest country in a new wave of protests that have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people denouncing poor public services and government corruption.
The biggest of the more than 80 protests appeared to hit Rio de Janeiro, where tens of thousands of people waving flags and carrying banners blocked several streets and avenues in a peaceful demonstration. Police cordoned off the area around Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium, worried that protesters would try to disrupt the Confederations Cup soccer match under way inside.
Crowds also gathered in dozens of other towns as well on the main street of Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, marking a week since protests first erupted there over a hike in subway and bus fares. The demonstrations have since ballooned into a national phenomenon, with many middle-class Brazilians hitting the streets to decry a spectrum of everyday problems amid a commodities-fueled economic boom.
Mass protests are rare in this 190 million-person country, with demonstrations generally attracting small numbers of politicized participants. The ongoing, growing marches have caught Brazilian governments by surprise just a month before a papal visit and one year before Brazil plays host to the World Cup soccer tournament.
“I think we desperately need this, that we’ve been needing this for a very, very long time,” said Paulo Roberto Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old clothing store salesman in Rio.
In the northeastern city of Salvador, police shot tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to disperse a small crowd of protesters trying to break through a police barrier blocking one of the city’s streets. One woman was injured in her foot.
Elsewhere in Salvador some 5,000 protesters gathered in Campo Grand Square.
“We pay a lot of money in taxes, for electricity, for services, and we want to know where that money is,” said Italo Santos, a 25-year old student as he walked with friends toward the square.
Despite the energy on the street, many protesters said they were unsure how the movement would win real political concessions. People in the protests held up signs asking for everything from education reforms to free bus fare. They’ve also denounced the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Rodrigues da Cunha said. “On the one hand we need some sort of leadership, on the other we don’t want this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party.”
Not surprisingly in the land of samba, Thursday’s protests quickly took on the feel of a party in the afternoon, without much of the vandalism and confrontations with police that had marked earlier demonstrations.
People of all ages, many of them draped in flags, gathered in front of the majestic domed Candelaria church in downtown Rio, while groups elsewhere pounded out Carnival rhythms or chanted slogans targeting Rio state’s governor.
Vendors circulated among the masses, hawking popcorn, soft drinks, churros and even hot dogs grilled on the spot over smoldering charcoal. Men and women collecting recyclables darted about snatching up crumpled tin cans from under protesters’ feet.
At one point, a police helicopter flew over the crowd, which booed and pointed green lasers at the craft.
When shirtless youths, many of them with T-shirts wrapped round their faces, pushed and jostled their way through the crowd, people spontaneously broke out into a chant of “Without violence!”
Several city leaders have already accepted protester demands to revoke an increase in bus and subway fares in the hopes that anti-government anger cools. In Sao Paulo, where demonstrators blocked Paulista Avenue, organizers said they would turn their demonstration into a party celebrating the lower transit fares.
But many believe the protests are no longer just about bus fares and have become larger cries for systemic changes.
That message went to the heart of Brazilian power, the capital of Brasilia, which saw its largest demonstration yet with 20.000 people gathered in the Esplanada dos Ministerios, the government center.
The crowd marched down the enormous plaza with signs highlighting different causes and rainbow flags defending gay rights. Many also denounced a pending bill in Brazil’s Congress that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as an illness.
Police formed a barrier in front of Congress to keep protesters from climbing on the roof of the building as they did Monday, when 10,000 protesters filled the capital.
“The house is ours, the house is ours!” some 50 demonstrators chanted as they ran into the pool facing Congress.
A stronger line of defense was formed in front of the presidential palace, where President Dilma Rousseff was meeting with advisors, according to her press office. Spokespeople not say whether the president was discussing the protests going on throughout the country.
“This is the start of a structural change in Brazil,” said Aline Campos, a 29 year old publicist in Brasilia. “People now want to make sure their money is well spent, that it’s not wasted through corruption.”
Associated Press writers Ricardo Zuniga in Salvador, Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.