NITEROI, Brazil -- Demonstrators protesting the impeachment process threatening Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff occupied dozens of highways in major cities during rush hour Thursday morning, causing long backups. Organizers claimed that 30 highways in nine Brazilian states were blocked.
It was a taste of the civil disruption that the president’s supporters threaten if, as seems likely, Brazil’s Senate decides to suspend her and stage an impeachment trial in a vote next month.
An overwhelming majority of lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, have already voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment on charges that she manipulated government accounts.
Many lawmakers voting for her ouster blamed an enormous corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras that has implicated members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and its coalition allies.
Rousseff has not been formally accused of any corruption offenses, and Brazil is split between those who demand her removal and those who say she is the victim of a bloodless, right-wing coup.
“You are either in favor of impeachment or against it. There is no maybe,” said Felipe Peçanha, 27, from the independent media collective Midia Ninja, which published photos and video from roadblocks across Brazil.
In Sao Paulo, a dozen major highways were blocked by red-shirted protesters from the Homeless Workers’ Movement. Local television reported traffic chaos in South America’s biggest city. Roadblocks were also reported in Recife, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre and the capital, Brasilia.
“We will not accept the coup,” said a statement from the People Without Fear Front — an umbrella group of about 30 left-wing organizations behind Thursday’s roadblocks. Protesters say Rousseff’s vice president, Michel Temer, will reduce pensions and the housing and cash transfers that poorer Brazilians receive if he takes over.
In Niteroi, around 50 protesters from the Homeless Workers Movement blocked the main access highway to the road bridge that crosses the bay to Rio de Janeiro — the Olympic city's equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge — with a row of burning tires. They waved banners and chanted: “Here are the people, unafraid to fight.”
The group says it represents 40,000 families, many from the outer suburbs of Brazilian cities where public services such as sanitation are shoddy and crime and poverty are constant threats. It organizes members to occupy unused land and then negotiates with the government to build them low-cost homes.
“To achieve housing is the first step,” said Vitor Guimarães, 25, a political science graduate and one of the group’s unpaid coordinators. “From there, you go to a whole conjunction of rights.”
Those protesting in Niteroi said housing was as important to them as the fight against Rousseff’s impeachment.
Jessica Celestino, 23, said the protests would end “when I have a house.” Elizabete Fernandes, 48, said she thought impeachment was “horrible.”
Just over half an hour after the Niteroi demonstration started, the protesters filed off the highway, firemen hosed down the smoldering tires, and the traffic began to roll. Bystanders said they supported the protest.
On May 1, Brazilian unions plan nationwide demonstrations and cultural events to protest impeachment and demand “more rights and democracy.”
But Ricardo Ismael, a professor of political science at Rio's Pontifical Catholic University, said the protests will make no difference. "The tendency is that the Senate will give impeachment," he said.
Guilherme Simões, 31, who marshaled the Niteroi demonstrators, said that even if Rousseff is removed, the activists would confront a Michel Temer administration with more protests and occupations.
“The coup looks consolidated. But the role of social movements is to face this government of the traditional right,” Simões said.