Protests hit Brazil’s biggest cities, adding to unrest

SAO PAULO,  (Reuters) – Small but violent protests in several Brazilian cities this week have added to a sense of growing unrest in Brazil at a time when inflation, crime and President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity are all taking a turn for the worse.

An estimated 5,000 protesters, including many university students, blocked main avenues and vandalized buildings in central Sao Paulo, causing traffic chaos for the fourth time in eight days on Thursday. When police tried to disperse the crowd, violence erupted, injuring dozens and leading to nearly 200 arrests.

Demonstrations also were held in Rio de Janeiro and the southern city of Porto Alegre, raising the prospect they could spread as Brazil prepares to host soccer’s Confederations Cup – a warm-up event for next year’s World Cup – for two weeks starting today.

Police have taken an increasingly hard line against the protests, firing rubber bullets and tear gas, injuring several bystanders and journalists covering the demonstrations. One widely circulated image showed police firing pepper spray at a TV cameraman filming the protests in Sao Paulo.

The crackdown has touched a nerve in a country that endured two decades of repression under a military dictatorship that ended in 1985.

The protests themselves have rallied around opposition to a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares to the equivalent of about $1.60, leading some pundits to blame them on inflation running at 6.5 percent annually and an economy that has cooled down considerably after last decade’s boom.

Those issues contributed to a decline of 8 percentage points in Rousseff’s public approval rating in a poll released this week, although it still remains high at 57 percent. Interviews with protesters indicate a wide range of grievances, from rising murder rates to anti-abortion laws to growing frustration with insufficient and overcrowded public transportation.

Many of the protesters in Sao Paulo appeared to be middle-class university students, carrying smartphones and high-end cameras, while local media reported a significant presence of left-wing political parties.

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