Brazilian leader ends silence over protests

June 21, 2013

More than a week of massive, violent protests across Brazil invited only stoic silence Friday from President Dilma Rousseff, even after she had called an emergency meeting with a top cabinet member in response to the growing unrest.

Only on Friday night did the government confirm that Rousseff would address the nation a few hours later, but through a prerecorded message. She was expected to meet in the evening with top bishops from the Catholic church about the protests’ effects on a papal visit still scheduled for next month in Rio and Sao Paulo state.

Trying to decipher the president’s reaction to the unrest has become a national guessing game, especially after about 1 million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets the night before across the country to denounce everything from poor public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for next year’s World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

The protests continued Friday, as about 1,000 people marched in western Rio de Janeiro city, with some invading an enormous $250 million arts center that remains empty after several years of work. Police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Other protests broke out in the country’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, and in Fortaleza in the country’s northeast, and demonstrators were calling for mobilizations in 10 cities on Saturday.

The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops came out in favor of the protests, saying that it maintains “solidarity and support for the demonstrations, as long as they remain peaceful.”

“This is a phenomenon involving the Brazilian people and the awakening of a new consciousness,” church leaders said in the statement. “The protests show all of us that we cannot live in a country with so much inequality.”

Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel who fought against Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime, had never held elected office before she became president in 2011 and remains clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight.

She is the political protege of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic ex-union leader whose tremendous popularity helped usher his former chief of staff to the country’s top office. A career technocrat and trained economist, Rousseff has a tough managerial style that, under Lula, earned her the moniker “the Iron Lady,” a name she has said she detests.

While Rousseff has stayed away from the public eye, Roberto Jaguaribe, the nation’s ambassador to Britain, told the CNN news channel Friday that the government was first trying to contain the protests.

He labeled as “very delicate” the myriad demands emanating from protesters in the streets.

“One of our ministers who’s dealing with these issues of civil society said that it would be presumptuous on our part to think we know what’s taking place,” Jaguaribe said. “This is a very dynamic process. We’re trying to figure out what’s going on because who do we speak to, who are the leaders of the process?”

— Associated Press

Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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