Brazilians turn out in protests against embattled president

The street protests are seen as a symptom of President Dilma Rousseff's declining approval.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
Protesters in Sao Paolo, Brazil on Sunday.

Brazilians took to the streets on Sunday for a day of nationwide protests against embattled President Dilma Rousseff that are widely seen as a key test of her ability to weather the political and economic crises lashing the country.

The president faces impeachment proceedings over alleged fiscal mismanagement with the country in the throes of the worst recession in decades and amid a sprawling investigation into corruption at the state-run oil giant Petrobras.

Observers say a big turnout at Sunday's protests could further hamper Rousseff's ability to fight for her political survival amid record-low approval ratings. But anemic turnout could breathe new life into her administration by suggesting that the majority of the population opposes her ouster.

Although Rousseff herself had raised fears of possible clashes between supporters of her Workers' Party and the anti-government demonstrators, no such incidents appeared to mar Sunday's protests, which had a festive, almost Carnival-like atmosphere.

Planned in more than 300 cities and towns throughout the country, the demonstrations were publicized largely through social media, with organizers saying they expected high turnout. Their prediction appeared to be largely playing out, although precise crowd estimates were hard to come by.

Organizers estimated that about 1 million people turned out in Rio de Janeiro, but police officials — whose crowd estimates are generally a fraction of that of organizers — have not provided their own count. An estimated 100,000 people are thought to have taken part in the demonstration in the capital, Brasilia, and events in the central city of Belo Horizonte and the northeastern coastal city of Recife also appeared to draw thick crowds. In Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital, crowds began to flood the main thoroughfare hours ahead the scheduled start of the event.

Demonstrators in the city, a hotbed of dissatisfaction with Rousseff and her governing Workers' Party, brandished Brazilian flags and signs reading "Workers' Party out."

"She (Rousseff) has to go," said Sao Paulo protester Patricio Gonzaga, an unemployed 32-year-old metal worker. "She is the person responsible for the mess our economy is in — the inflation, recession and unemployment. She is to blame for me being unemployed and having trouble supporting my family."

In Rio de Janeiro, multitudes defied the threatening rain clouds overhead to converge on Copacabana Beach the morning after heavy rains that caused widespread flooding throughout the city. Dressed largely in the yellow and green hues of the Brazilian flag, the Rio demonstrators filled the broad avenue that runs along the beach, chanting anti-government slogans and singing the national anthem.

Demonstrators across the country stressed that their anger extended well beyond Rousseff and her Workers' Party, saying the so-called Car Wash investigation into corruption at Petrobras had compromised the entire political class.

"Of course I want to see Rousseff booted out," said Rio demonstrator Maria de Lima Pimenta, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher. "But then the problem becomes, who will replace her? They're all crooks."

Protest organizers stressed the movement wasn't linked to any opposition political party, and signs endorsing parties were largely absent from the demonstrations. But several top politicians turned out, including Aecio Neves, the opposition politician who narrowly lost to Rousseff in the 2013 run-off, as well as Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin. Both were booed.

"We need to turn the page," said Alckmin, a day after he spent the day with Rousseff as the two surveyed damage from flooding in the mega-city late last week.

The Petrobras scandal has ensnared key figures from Rousseff's Workers' Party, including her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as well as members of opposition parties.

Political tensions in Brazil have spiked since earlier this month when Silva was briefly detained by police for questioning as part of the corruption probe. Silva's supporters and detractors gathered in front of his apartment in the Sao Paulo area, and scuffles broke out between the two groups.

On Wednesday, the tension was ratcheted up another notch, as Silva was charged in a separate case with money-laundering.

In a show of solidarity with the former president, several hundred people gathered outside of Silva's apartment early Sunday. At one point, Silva himself went down to greet the approximately 400 supporters.

News reports have said Rousseff has offered Silva a ministerial post that would shield him from possible imprisonment on corruption and money laundering charges. Under Brazilian law, only the Supreme Court can authorize the investigation, imprisonment and trial of cabinet members.

Speaking on Friday, Rousseff said she would be "extremely proud" to have Silva, the once-wildly popular leader who governed Brazil from 2003-2011, but declined to say whether he would join the government.

Asked whether she would resign amid mounting pressure, Rousseff objected to the very idea of demanding the resignation of an elected president without concrete evidence the leader had violated the constitution.

She said that "if there is no reason to do so, I will not step down," calling on journalists at the event in Brasilia to "at least attest that I don't look like someone who is going to step down."

Rousseff's second term in office runs through the end of 2018.

Prominent politicians from opposition parties and also from within the broad governing coalition have floated the idea of a "semi-presidential" regime as a way out of the political crisis. Under the proposal, Rousseff would remain head of state and a head of government figure would be created. Observers say the proposal would likely not be a fast fix, however, as it would have to win approval from Congress.

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