Indians protest at Brazil's party

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The Independent US

It should have been a time of celebration, but Brazil's 500th anniversary commemorations yesterday were marred by a mass demonstration against the official festivities.

A wall of heavily armed police and soldiers stopped thousands of protesters from reaching the visiting dignitaries, including the presidents of Brazil and Portugal.

Since their inception one year ago, the "Brazil 500 years of Discovery" celebrations have attracted criticism from indigenous Indians, dispossessed rural workers and the country's black population.

They say that holding festivities to mark the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral on 22 April 1500 ignores years of exclusion and oppression by the old colonialist power.

Jorge Tarachuque, one of the organisers of the "Other 500 Years" protest, said: "People feel very strongly about the way they've been treated during the past 500 years.

"We knew that the world was listening which is why we were determined to make our voices heard."

Tensions between the protesters and the authorities had been simmering all week in Porto Seguro, where the Portuguese first landed.

During earlier demonstrations staged by the landless movement of rural workers, or MST, riot police were stoned and two protesters seriously wounded. On Friday night, around 3,000 MST members tried to force their way back into Porto Seguro, demanding an audience with Brazil's President Cardoso.

Jose Rainha, one of the leaders of the landless movement, said: "After 500 years of massacres and corruption we wanted a meeting with the president to discuss the plight of rural workers. But he refused to see us and this has made a lot of people very angry."

In a show of force, the authorities drafted 5,000 military policemen - including riot troops - and 1,000 soldiers on to the streets of the north-eastern seaside resort. They also used undercover police officers to infiltrate the "Other 500 Years" demonstration.

Banners with anti-presidential slogans were forbidden.

Yesterday's march also brought together Indians from 185 tribes across the country. The 2,000-strong delegation of indigenous people included representatives from isolated tribes in the Amazon. Yriwana, a 34-year-old Indian from the Karaja tribe, said: "The Portuguese took our land from us and killed my ancestors. We want recompense for the years of misery we have suffered."

But Indian leaders insisted that their march remain largely peaceful, after the president held out a last-minute olive branch. He invited a delegation of tribal leaders to have lunch with him in Porto Seguro to discuss their communities' problems.

Despite the attempted show of unity between the government and the Indians, President Cardoso - acting on the guidance of his security advisers - cancelled all but two of his planned public appearances at the anniversary party.

The heavy police presence attracted much criticism in the media, which accused the government of turning the party into a show of military strength.

The official celebrations attracted thousands of tourists to the tropical coastline of north-eastern Brazil. But the £1m replica of Cabral's ship - paid for by the Ministry of Sport and Tourism - was deemed unseaworthy and remained in a port 450 miles away. The celebrations cost an estimated £12m.

Pedro Alvares Cabral reached the coast of what became Brazil after being blown off course while heading for India.

After sighting land, he claimed the new territory for the Portuguese crown and named it Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross). The former colony declared independence in April 1822.