Brazilians hold a demonstration with signs that read, “Speak up now or remain silent forever,” and “Don’t suffer in silence”, in Sao Paulo on Saturday. Picture: REUTERS
CRUX: Brazilians hold a demonstration in Sao Paulo on Saturday. One sign reads, ‘Speak up now or remain silent forever’. Picture: REUTERS

BRAZIL’s President Dilma Rousseff planned to use this month’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament to showcase her country’s readiness to stage the World Cup next year. Instead, it has become the venue for mass protests on whether the cup is worth the cost.

Two people died and hundreds were injured as 1-million took to the streets throughout Brazil last week, and about 250,000 protested across the country on Saturday demanding cheaper bus fares, better schools, more hospitals, and an end to burgeoning corruption. They also criticised the 30-billion real (R136bn) spent to prepare for the sporting event. Demonstrators clashed with police at several soccer venues on Saturday.

Brazil is spending three times more than initially planned to prepare for next year’s games, which the government said would allow the nation to showcase its hospitality and reflect its growing economy.

Instead Ms Rousseff was jeered at the opening Confederations event as images of violence in the streets of major cities overshadow the soccer matches. She pledged on Friday to meet protesters and improve public services while condemning the violence in her first public appearance in three days.

"I have both the obligation to hear the voice of the streets and to dialogue with all segments within the confines of law and order," Ms Rousseff said.

"If we let violence take us off our path, we will not only be wasting a big historic opportunity, but also will be running the risk of losing a lot."

While 40-million Brazilians emerged from poverty in the past decade, faster inflation and inadequate public services have eroded Ms Rousseff’s approval rating for the first time since taking office in January 2011.

Protesters this weekend fielded a range of grievances, from teachers marching for better pay to gay rights activists opposing a bill to let psychologists recommend medical treatment for homosexuality.

Protesters in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday lined up hundreds of soccer balls on the beach to represent the country’s murder victims. Riot police in Belo Horizonte struggled to contain rock-hurling crowds as an estimated 66,000 people protested, according to reports.

Brazil’s stocks, bonds and currency are being battered by an emerging markets sell-off after economic growth missed estimates made by analysts for a fifth straight time in the first quarter. The world’s second-biggest emerging market last year posted its second-worst economic performance in 13 years while inflation this month breached the 6.5% upper limit of the government target range.

The Ibovespa stock index fell 4.6% last week, completing its fourth straight weekly drop, as investors abandon emerging markets on expectations the Federal Reserve will begin tapering a bond-buying programme that had flooded emerging markets with cash in recent years.

The index has fallen 23% this year, the worst performer among 18 major equity markets.

Ms Rousseff’s approval rating dropped eight percentage points to 71% this month from March, according to a poll commissioned by the National Industrial Confederation and published on June 19.

A former Marxist guerrilla once imprisoned by the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, Ms Rousseff last night vowed to ensure order while promising to spend oil royalties on education and improve healthcare services.

Authorities in Rio and Sao Paulo earlier in the week revoked the bus fare increases that originally sparked the unrest. Public discontent overflowed into the streets on June 6 when students in Sao Paulo marched against a 7% rise in bus fares. The demonstrations have mushroomed, peaking on June 20 as nearly 1-million protesters marched throughout Brazil, according to estimates by newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

Meanwhile, anger is also focused on the cost of attending cup matches. The stadium in Brasilia is forecast to cost 14,300 real a seat, compared with 10,000 real a seat for the Cape Town arena, the costliest of the 2010 World Cup.

"For the government it was a marketing disaster," said Carlos Manhanelli, head of Sao Paulo-based communications and marketing firm Manhanelli Associados. "They wanted to sell an image abroad of a modern country with new stadiums, but they ignored the needs at home, people dying in hospitals."

Ms Rousseff has defended the spending, saying it will improve public infrastructure and stimulate economic growth. On Saturday night, she called on Brazilians to reciprocate the kind of hospitality the Brazilian soccer squad for decades received abroad in the World Cup.