BRASILIA – Brazil’s embattled President Dilma Rousseff held crisis talks Friday to weigh her response to two weeks of mass protests as a top aide warned the unrest could affect Pope Francis’s Rio visit in July.
An estimated 1.25 million people marched in scores of cities on Thursday to demand better public services and slam the huge cost of staging next year’s World Cup. Two people have now died in incidents related to the protests.
Smaller protests were planned for late Friday in at least 35 cities, including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Curitiba and Fortaleza.
Rousseff, who remains relatively popular even as the protesters denounce the country’s political class as a whole, summoned her ministers to seek ways to regain the upper hand.
Her chief of staff however warned that Brazil must plan for the possibility that the unrest could be ongoing during World Youth Day, the Catholic youth festival due to be held in Rio in late July, which the pope is due to attend.
“We have to be prepared,” Gilberto Carvalho said in Brasilia ahead of a meeting with organizers of the Catholic event.
The demonstrations have overshadowed football’s Confederations Cup, which Brazil is currently hosting and which is seen as a dry run for next year’s World Cup tournament.
Many Brazilians are angry over the multi-billion-dollar expense of preparations for the World Cup and for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Several protests have been held outside stadiums and a mammoth march is scheduled for June 30 to Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium on the day of the Confederations Cup final.
The secretary general of world football’s governing body FIFA however insisted Friday that the World Cup must be held next year in Brazil as planned, no matter what happens.
“The Confederations Cup is taking place in Brazil and the World Cup must be held in Brazil,” Jerome Valcke told local media ahead of a meeting with World Cup organizers.
“There is no plan B,” he added.
Earlier Friday, FIFA said it has no plans to scrap the Confederations Cup currently under way, and that no team wants to pull out despite the huge protests.
“At no stage has FIFA considered or discussed abandoning the Confederations Cup with the local authorities,” FIFA media chief Pekka Odriozola said. “We are monitoring the situation with the authorities.”
“We support the right of free speech,” he added. “We condemn violence.”
Carvalho conceded that the nationwide protests – which began two weeks ago after a hike in bus fares – reflect widespread public resentment.
“We must understand that these demonstrations are calling for change. They signal popular dissatisfaction,” he noted.
“This big group of Brazilians who emerged from exclusion to become consumers want new rights and this is all good,” he added.
More than 40 million Brazilians are estimated to have been lifted out of poverty and to have entered the lower middle class in the past decade, but growth is slowing and popular frustration mounting.
Thursday’s marches were largely peaceful but were marred by violence and acts of vandalism by small groups of hardliners, notably in Rio and Brasilia.
Two fatalities were reported.
An 18 year-old man was struck by a car while protesting in the southeastern city of Ribeirao Preto and a 54-year-old woman died of heart attack after an explosive device detonated in the northern city of Belem.
In Rio, where some 300,000 people rallied in the city center, Mayor Eduardo Paes on Friday reviewed the damage from violence that left 62 people injured, including eight police officers.
“I have no doubt that most of the demonstrators had good intentions and only wanted to assert their rights,” he told a press conference at City Hall.
“Unfortunately, groups – a minority – through their acts of vandalism, have tarnished this demonstration which is part of the city’s democratic history.”
He said public buildings and bank branches were damaged, shops looted, seven cars destroyed and the biggest Samba cultural center, which had been fitted with giant screens for Confederations Cup match viewing, were gutted.
Fires also damaged some of the buildings at the Sambadrome where Rio’s sumptuous Carnival parades are held.
Early Friday, 100 hooligans ransacked the municipal council in Caucaia, a suburb of the northeastern city of Fortaleza, according to press reports.
The unrest quickly expanded from anger over the state of Brazilian public transport into a wider protest against corruption in the world’s seventh largest economy.
The movement has no political hue and no clearly identified leadership.
“We have demonstrators without leaders facing politicians without leadership who kept silent,” the daily O Globo said in an editorial.
Meanwhile, the Passe Livre Movement campaigning for free public transport in São Paulo said it would no longer call for demonstrations after fare hikes were reversed.