Brazil protesters keep up pressure on government

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By BRADLEY BROOKS, Associated Press

SAO PAULO (AP) — Protest leaders called for another huge demonstration in Brazil's largest city Tuesday, building on historic turnouts spawned by widespread frustration over decades of government red tape, high prices and shoddy services even as the nation's economic fortunes have risen.

With Sao Paulo girding for another march, the mobilizations have shown a rare spotlight on the growing discontent among the country's booming middle class that public infrastructure and quality of government haven't kept up with economic gains.

The protests started with a group incensed about a 10-cent hike in subway and bus fares, the Free Fare Movement, which is mostly composed of students. The demonstrations exploded Monday night, however, after images broadcast nationwide showed police attacking the fare protesters during a rally Thursday in Sao Paulo.

The thousands who have since filled Brazilian cities have largely hailed from the middle class, with many holding up signs complaining about grievances such as poor public safety and knotty bureaucracy.

"We're massacred by the government's taxes, yet when we leave home in the morning to go to work, we don't know if we'll make it home alive because of the violence," said Maria Claudia Cardoso, accompanied by her 16-year-old son at a march Monday in Sao Paulo.

"We don't have good schools for our kids. Our hospitals are in awful shape. Corruption is rife. These protests will make history and wake our politicians up to the fact that we're not taking it anymore!"

President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during Brazil's 1964-85 dictatorship, appeared to embrace the protests Tuesday, even though her government was a prime target. "Brazil today woke up stronger," she was quoted as saying by a statement released by her office.

"The massive size of yesterday's protests prove the energy of our democracy, the force of the voice of the street and the civility of our population," Rousseff said.

The movement has gathered Brazilians from all walks of life with a central lament: The government provides woeful services despite a large tax burden.

Brazilians have long tolerated pervasive corruption, even as millions have moved out of poverty over the past decade. Many of them have begun to demand more from their government and are angry that billions of dollars in public funds are being spent to host the World Cup and Olympics while few improvements are made on infrastructure elsewhere.

Just this week, Brazil was playing host to the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, seen as a warm-up to the World Cup.

Maria do Carmo Freitas, a 41-year-old public servant from Brasilia, said she was excited about the protests even though she hadn't taken part.

"I'm loving it. It's been a long time since we Brazilians decided to leave our comfort zone to tell our leaders that we're not happy about the way things are going," said Freitas. "We pay too much in taxes and we get bad services in exchange, bad hospitals, bad public education, public transportation is terrible."

Gilberto Carvalho, Rousseff's general secretary, said the protests reflect a richer population.

"The impression is that we have overcome some obstacles, but society wants more," Carvalho said.

The office of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human rights "urged the Brazilian authorities today to exercise restraint in dealing with spreading social protests in the country and called on demonstrators not to resort to violence in pursuit of their demands."

The U.N. body added in its Tuesday release that it "welcomed the statement by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that peaceful demonstrations are legitimate."

A survey by the Datafolha polling agency suggested a large majority of participants at the Sao Paulo protest Monday night had no affiliation with any political party and nearly three-quarters were taking part in the protests for the first time.

Local news media estimated more than 240,000 people participated in demonstrations Monday night that were mostly peaceful. However, violence was seen in Rio de Janeiro, where 20 officers and 10 demonstrators were injured in clashes, and in the cities of Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.

The vast majority of Rio's protesters were peaceful, but a splinter group attacked the state legislature building, setting a car and other objects ablaze. Protests also were reported in the cities of Curitiba, Vitoria, Fortaleza, Recife, Belem and Salvador.

Monday's protests came not only during the Confederations Cup but just one month before a papal visit, a year before the World Cup and three years ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The unrest is raising security concerns and renewed questions over Brazil's readiness to host the mega-events.

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 whose content had been replaced by a screen calling on citizens to come out to the streets.

In Rio, the confrontation between police and a small group of protesters dragged on late into the night despite sporadic rain. As the group moved on to the state legislature building, footage broadcast by the Globo television network showed police firing into the air. At least one demonstrator in Rio was injured after being hit in the leg with a live round allegedly fired by a law enforcement official.

Local news media reported that a high school student in Maceio was shot in the face after a motorist forced his way through the demonstrators' barricade. Protesters were attacking the car when a shot was fired. The extent of the 16-year-old's injuries was not immediately known.

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Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro, Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Jill Langlois in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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