Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff strives to calm street protests with promises to boost spending and target corruption

Rousseff outlines agenda targeting demands made by the one million protesters

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff proposed a wide range of actions to begin reforming Brazil's political system, fight corruption and improve public services, meeting some of the demands made by the millions of protesters who've taken to the streets the past week.

On Monday Rousseff met with four leaders of the main group behind the demonstrations before speaking later with governors and the mayors of 26 capital cities. The president shifted some of the burden for progress onto the back of Brazil's widely loathed congress — in particular, in calling for a plebiscite on political reform that only lawmakers have the authority to call.

Opposition politicians in congress, including a senator who is viewed as her biggest rival for next year's presidential election, blasted Rousseff's call for a plebiscite on political reform.

“It's the specific jurisdiction of congress to call a plebiscite,” said Sen. Aecio Neves. “To divert attention, she's transferring to congress a privilege that is already ours and isn't responding to the expectations of the population.”

Addressing governors and mayors, Rousseff said $23 billion would be allocated for spending on urban public transport, but did not provide details as to what form these new projects would arrive in. The free-transit activist group also said no concrete plans were given.

“I mainly want to repeat that my government is listening to democratic voices. We must learn to hear the voices of the street,” Rousseff told the governors and mayors. “We all must, without exception, understand these signals with humility and accuracy.” 

She added that her government would focus on five key issues: fiscal responsibility and controlling inflation, political reform, health care, public transport and education.

Protesters have filled cities across the country to demonstrate their grievances over issues such as poor public services, the expense of hosting next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.

Mayara Longo Vivian, one of the leaders of the Free Fare Movement who met with Rousseff in the capital Brasilia, said that because no concrete measures had been given the group’s “fight would continue.” They have been working since 2006 to eliminate public transport fares.

Vivian referred to the billions of dollars Brazil is spending on the World Cup, arguing, “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.”

At a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on Monday, 68-year-old sociologist Irene Loewenstein said Rousseff's action was a “necessary first step”, but not particularly meaningful nor uprising.”

“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.”

Monday marked the beginning of a more hands-on approach for Rousseff following the sharp criticism she received for being silent during protests last week. She only made brief comments on 17 June and then addressed the nation during a ten minute, pre-recorded speech on Friday, a week after a million people had flooded the streets in protest.

Since then, the demonstrations have shrunk and become less widespread, while Rousseff appeared stronger on Monday when outlining her agenda.

Many of the means she listed, including using oil royalties to fund education and a program to attract foreign doctors to work in areas underserved by Brazilian physicians, had already been proposed by before but had been met stiff resistance in congress. By placing the issues before the public at this sensitive time, the president is racketing up pressure on congress, an institution widely loathed by the population, to not serve as a bottleneck for the proposals.

Some scattered protests flared Monday, and two women died after being hit by a car as they tried to block a highway in the state of Goias near the nation's capital. The highway patrol in Goias said the driver fled and was being sought.

Protests in Sao Paulo state blocked road access to the nation's largest port in Santos, causing a huge backlog of trucks trying to unload products. In Brasilia, a group of about 300 students protesting against corruption blocked some streets.

The protests have hit in the wake of a nation about to host the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, seen by many as a warm-up for the World Cup.

Experts said the protesters, though mostly disorganized, were in control thanks to support from the majority of Brazilians as seen in recent polls. That opened a window for concessions on their demands for less corruption and improvements to the nation's woeful public services.

Complicating matters, though, is Brazil's worsening economic climate, which Rousseff referred to Monday. The government has been struggling against both a lagging economy and rising inflation, which economists say require contradictory actions to fix. While the nation's benchmark interest rate could be slashed to stoke economic growth, it could also be raised to keep inflation at bay.

“Brazil will see several waves of protests,” said Guillermo Trejo, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S. 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.”