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Is this the Samba revolution? Brazil’s leadership in crisis as one million take to streets

President meets Cabinet as violent demonstrations in 100 cities jeopardise World Cup and 2016 Olympics

Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff called an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday after nationwide protests that saw more than a million people take to the streets in at least 100 cities.

The meeting in Brasilia followed a night of deep unrest when it seemed the government was close to losing control, with vandalism, looting and arson hitting several major cities, killing two and injuring at least 77.

In Rio de Janeiro, at least 300,000 people demonstrated in the city centre, with a minority of youths in balaclavas fighting pitched battles with police in the surrounding streets for hours afterwards.

Peaceful protesters trying to flee the battles were caught up in the chaos, with demonstrators smashing bus shelters, letting off fireworks and pulling down lampposts and traffic lights. Police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, sound bombs and rubber bullets, forcing people away from the city centre.

Late at night, one of the largest commercial streets in Rio, the Avenida Rio Branco, was devastated with windows broken in most buildings and piles of burning rubbish adding to the thick blanket of smoke and tear gas hanging heavy in the air. 

One protester died after being hit by a car in the city of Ribeirão Preto, in Sao Paulo state. In a video uploaded to Facebook that apparently shows the incident, the driver of a black SUV is forced to reverse by protesters blocking the road, before spurting forwards and running over several demonstrators.

The 18-year-old man died from his injuries shortly afterwards, while the driver has not been found. A 54-year-old female street cleaner also died of a heart attack in the Amazon city of Belem after inhaling tear gas.

In the capital Brasilia, protesters besieged the Ministry of Foreign Relations, smashing windows and setting fires. Other government buildings were attacked in the city centre. Clashes were also reported in Porto Alegre in the south, in the university town of Campinas north of Sao Paulo and in the northern city of Salvador.

The largest protests yet – over poor public services, corruption and police brutality – took place despite the government backtracking on the six-pence increase in bus fares that originally sparked the unrest – begging the question of what, if anything, political leaders can do to quell the unrest.

Jeffrey Lesser, a Professor of modern Brazilian history at Emory University in the US, said he believed it was vital that President Rouseff appeared in public to make a connection with ordinary Brazilians. He said: “She is not appearing in public and addressing people. She is hiding away. She needs to make a more clear commitment to the concerns – education and health – that people are upset about.

“This generation are angry the promise of the Workers’ Party [the leftist party that has ruled Brazil for a decade] has not been fully fulfilled. She is a technocrat not a charismatic politician, but she needs to convince people that she is defined by their issues, not just by the World Cup and Olympics.

“If she and other ruling politicians in Brazil do not start speaking the language of the protesters, then I think very soon we will see new political figures and movements emerge that will be very popular.”

The widespread unrest – unimaginable less than a week ago – has led to much speculation that FIFA might be forced to cancel the ongoing Confederations Cup for safety reasons. Local media reported that at least one of the eight teams involved was pressuring FIFA to cancel, postpone or move the tournament because of fears for the well-being of players’ families.

Reports also indicated that FIFA would seek to claim compensation from Brazil should the Confederations Cup – or even next year’s World Cup – be disrupted. Such a prospect is sure to be a bitter tonic for protesters, many of whom are already unhappy with the £16 billion that has already been earmarked for Brazil to prepare for those tournaments and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“At no stage, I repeat at no stage has FIFA, the Local Organising Committee nor the federal government discussed or considered cancelling the Confederations Cup,” said a FIFA spokesman.

He told a briefing that the eight teams involved in the tournament were being kept updated about the security situation in Brazil. “We have not received any request to leave from any teams,” he said.

Yesterday the Movimento Passe Livre, the anti-bus fare group that sparked the protests, said they would not be organising any more marches because of fears the movement was being hijacked.

It remained unclear last night what direction the uprising will now take, with conflicting reports of when the next major protests would be – and no clear leaders of the movement.

Video: Brazil Congress attacked