SOLIDARITY: Riot police face off against demonstrators during protests against poor public services, police violence and government corruption in São Paulo on Tuesday night. Picture: REUTERS
SOLIDARITY: Riot police face off against demonstrators during protests against poor public services, police violence and government corruption in São Paulo on Tuesday night. Picture: REUTERS

SÃO PAULO — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sought on Tuesday to defuse a massive protest movement sweeping the country, acknowledging the need for better public services and a more responsive government as demonstrations continued in some cities around the country.

Speaking the morning after more than 200,000 Brazilians marched in more than a half-dozen cities, Ms Rousseff said her government remained committed to social change and was listening attentively to the many grievances expressed at the demonstrations.

"Brazil woke up stronger today," Ms Rousseff said in a televised speech in Brasilia. "The size of yesterday’s demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population."

Monday’s demonstrations were the latest in a flurry of protests in the past two weeks that have fed on widespread frustration with poor public services, police violence and government corruption.

The protests, organised mostly by university students through snowballing social media campaigns, marked the first time that Brazilians have taken to the streets on such a large scale since economic volatility and a corruption scandal led to the toppling of a president in the early 1990s.

The demonstrations started as small protests in a few cities against an increase in bus and subway fares but quickly ballooned into a national movement after police fired rubber bullets at protesters in São Paulo last week in clashes that injured more than 100 people.

Eager to ease tension and prevent future protests, officials in at least five cities, including important state capitals such as Porto Alegre and Recife, announced plans on Tuesday to lower bus fares.

But demonstrations continued in a few cities, including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where thousands gathered in front of the city’s landmark cathedral and marched on its main avenue in what protesters hoped would be a final push to persuade local officials to cancel the increase in bus fares.

Tuesday night’s demonstrations were marred by a small group of rioters who smashed the windows of São Paulo’s city hall and then set fire to a police security post and a TV broadcaster’s transmission van.

Protests then continued mostly peacefully, fading before midnight, but rioters began pelting the windows of nearby businesses with stones and burning trash in the street, TV channel O Globo reported. It said at least 20 people were arrested for looting.

The justice ministry said it would send federal troops to the cities hosting the two-week Fifa Confederations Cup soccer tournament, which kicked off in Brazil on Saturday, to reinforce security.

São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, a prominent figure in Ms Rousseff’s left-leaning Workers’ Party, said in a meeting with leaders of the protest movement on Tuesday that he was considering a cut in bus fares but needed to find ways to compensate for the loss in revenue.

It remains unclear, however, whether that would be enough to halt the protests, given that protesters have embraced so many other causes.

Rousseff turns to Lula

Ms Rousseff travelled to São Paulo on Tuesday to meet Mr Haddad and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and political mentor. A former metalworker and union boss who led massive protests in the late 1970s, Mr Lula remains an important power broker in Brazilian politics.

The unrest comes at a delicate time for Ms Rousseff, whose administration is struggling to rein in high inflation and get the economy back on track after two years of sluggish growth.

Polls show Ms Rousseff remains widely popular but her approval ratings have begun to slip in recent weeks for the first time since taking office in early 2011.

A leftist guerrilla in her youth who was jailed for conspiring against Brazil’s military dictatorship, Ms Rousseff said the sight of so many young Brazilians marching for their rights moved her.

She also said her government sympathised with the many grievances expressed at the demonstrations, from calls for more spending on education and healthcare to better and more affordable public transportation.

"My government hears the voices clamouring for change, my government is committed to social transformation," Ms Rousseff said.

"Those who took to the streets yesterday sent a clear message to all of society, above all to political leaders at all levels of government."