SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff scrambled to contain nationwide protests Monday by meeting with the leaders of a free-transit activist group that launched the first demonstrations more than a week ago and has called for new actions Tuesday.
Rousseff also talked to governors and mayors from several major cities, extending her more hands-on approach to the crisis after she was criticized for staying mostly silent and letting the unrest spiral out of control.
By mid-afternoon, neither government officials nor protest leaders from the Free Fare Movement had yet made any public statements, but many here suspect they were already powerless to stop the wave of unrest.
Some scattered protests flared Monday, and two women died after being hit by a car as they tried to block a highway in the state of Goias near the nation’s capital. The highway patrol in Goias said the driver of the car fled and is being sought.
Protests in Sao Paulo state also blocked road access to the nation’s largest port in Santos, causing a massive backlog of trucks trying to unload products. In Brasilia, a group of about 300 students protesting against corruption blocked some streets while a protest was expected in Rio de Janeiro later in the evening.
Experts said the protesters, though mostly disorganized, were in control thanks to support from the majority of Brazilians as seen in recent polls, opening a window for concessions on their demands for less corruption and improvements to the nation’s woeful public services.
Complicating matters, though, is Brazil’s worsening economic climate. The government has been struggling against both a lagging economy and rising inflation, both of which make increasing spending on public services difficult. It also is spending billions of dollars preparing for not just the Confederations Cup soccer tournament under way, but next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
“Brazil will see several waves of protests,” said Guillermo Trejo, a professor at the U.S.-based University of Notre Dame whose research focuses on social protests in Latin America. “This cycle will decline, and it’ll likely return to episodic protests once the media attention of the Confederations Cup goes away.”
But next year could be a bumpy ride, as Rousseff faces re-election, Trejo said. Already, the protests have become the largest of their kind in Brazil in at least two decades.
“Presidential elections are always a huge magnet for protests and hosting a major event like the World Cup will open a window for more,” Trejo said.
Three-quarters of Brazilians support the protests, polls show, while demanding more for the heavy taxes they pay. In fact, Brazilians pay more in taxes as a share of gross domestic product than any nation outside the developing world.
The U.S.-based political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group wrote Monday that the Brazilian leader is “crafting a strategy that tries to generate a sense of progress on protester demands while avoiding increasing spending” as she is “facing a dual challenge — one on the streets and a crisis of confidence in financial markets.”
“Her economic team is well aware that it has little room to engage in more spending to meet protester demands,” the note said.