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Jun 21, 2013

Brazil leaders to discuss protests

There were more violent scenes in Rio de Janierio as protesters clashed with riot police

RIO DE JANEIRO -- FIFA has no plans to cancel the Confederations Cup in Brazil despite the violent anti-government protests spreading across the country, the governing body said Friday.

Brazil awoke Friday to city centers still smoldering after a night that shocked the nation: 1 million protesters took to the streets in scores of cities, with clusters clashing violently with police during anti-government demonstrations.

President Dilma Rousseff, a standoffish leader who has been virtually mute in the face of the most violent protests in recent memory, called a meeting with top Cabinet members. She faced sharp criticism in Brazil's media for what many called her lack of any leadership.

It was not clear what action her government might take or if she would appear before the nation to give an address. There were growing calls on social media and in emails for a general strike next week.

Standing before the battered government building he presides over, Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said he "was very angry" that protesters attacked a structure "that represents the search for understanding through dialogue." Patriota called for protesters "to convey their demands peacefully"

"I believe that the great majority of the protesters are not taking part in this violence and are instead looking to improve Brazil's democracy via legitimate forms of protest," Patriota said.

An estimated 1 million protesters took to the streets in more than 80 cities on Thursday night in the biggest show of anger yet against the government, which is being accused of corruption, high prices and a lack of investment in public services.

The worst confrontations unfolded late into the night in Rio de Janeiro, where more than 300,000 people protested in the city which is hosting key Confederations Cup games. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during battles through the streets.

But world football's governing body is pressing ahead with the eight-team Confederations Cup, which serves as a test event for the 2014 World Cup, in which 32 teams will be playing in the sport's showcase tournament.

When asked about the possibility of canceling the Confederations Cup, FIFA said in a statement to The Associated Press: "To date, neither FIFA nor the LOC (local organizing committee) have ever discussed any such possibility."

Mass protests have been rare in recent years in Brazil, a country of 190 million people, but an outpouring of public anger has been mushrooming over the last week.

What started as demonstrations against increases in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have galvanized Brazilians to take their grievances to the streets, and led to a violent police crackdown.

Some protesters have denounced the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The government is projecting that $13.3 billion will be spent on stadiums, airport renovations and other projects for the World Cup, with an estimated $3.5 billion on venues.

"We want hospitals and schools in FIFA standards," read one banner outside the Maracana Stadium in Rio on Thursday ahead of Spain's match against Tahiti.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has urged protesters not to "use football to make their demands heard."

Blatter surprised the Brazilian government by unexpectedly leaving Brazil this week to go to Turkey for the under-20s World Cup. Blatter is due back in Brazil next week for the semifinals and final of the Confederations Cup.

Despite the violence, the majority of protesters have been peaceful. In massive demonstrations through this week, as small groups began to vandalize, crowds would often turn and start to chant, "No violence! No violence!"

But the pattern in cities across this continent-sized nation has been that once night falls, the violence begins. Protesters and police clashed in several cities into the early hours Friday, as people vented anger over a litany of complaints, from high taxes to corruption to rising prices.

At least one protester was killed in Sao Paulo state when a car rammed into a crowd of demonstrators after the driver apparently became enraged about being unable to drive along a street.

In Rio de Janeiro, running clashes played out between riot police and clusters of mostly young men with T-shirts wrapped around their faces. But peaceful protesters were caught up in the fray, too, as police fired tear gas canisters into their midst and at times indiscriminately used pepper spray.

Thundering booms echoed off stately colonial buildings as rubber bullets and gas were fired at fleeing crowds.

At least 40 people were injured in Rio, including protesters like Michele Menezes, a wisp of a woman whose youthful face and braces belie her 26 years. Bleeding and with her hair singed from the explosion of a tear gas canister, she said she and others took refuge from the violence in an open bar, only to have a police officer toss the canister inside.

The blast ripped through Menezes' jeans, tearing two coin-sized holes on the back of her thighs, and peppered her upper arm with a rash of small holes.

"I was leaving a peaceful protest and it's not the thugs that attack me but the police themselves," said Menezes, removing her wire-rim glasses to wipe her bloodshot eyes.

She later took refuge in a hotel, along with about two dozen youths, families and others who said they had been repeatedly hit with pepper spray by motorcycle police as they also sheltered inside a bar.

Protesters said they would not back down.

"I saw some pretty scary things, but they're not going to shake me. There's another march on the 22nd and I'm going to be there," said 19-year-old university student Fernanda Szuster.

Asked if her parents knew she was joining in the protests, Szuster said: "They know and they're proud. They also protested when they were young. So they think it's great."

She added, though, that she wouldn't tell her father the details of the police violence. "If he knew, he would never let me leave the house again."

In Brasilia, the national capital, police struggled to keep hundreds of protesters from invading the Foreign Ministry and the crowd set a small fire outside. Other government buildings were attacked around the city's central esplanade. There, too, police used tear gas and rubber bullets trying to scatter demonstrators.

Clashes were also reported in the Amazon jungle city of Belem, Porto Alegre in the south, the university town Campinas north of Sao Paulo and the northeastern city of Salvador.

"This was meant to be a peaceful demonstration and it is," artist Wanderlei Costa, 33, said in Brasilia. "It's a shame some people cause trouble when there is a much bigger message behind this movement. Brazil needs to change, not only on the government level, but also on the grass-roots level. We have to learn to demonstrate without violence."

The protests took place one week after a violent police crackdown on a much smaller demonstration against an increase in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo galvanized Brazilians to take their grievances to the streets.

The unrest is hitting the nation as it hosts the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, with tens of thousands of foreign visitors in attendance. It also comes one month before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Brazil, and ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, raising concerns about how Brazilian officials will provide security.

"I think we desperately need this, that we've been needing this for a very, very long time," said Paulo Roberto Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old clothing store salesman in Rio.

Despite the energy on the street, many protesters said they were unsure how the movement would win real political concessions. People in the protests have held up signs asking for everything from education reforms to free bus fares while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the Olympics.

"We pay a lot of money in taxes, for electricity, for services, and we want to know where that money is," said Italo Santos, a 25-year old student who joined a rally by 5,000 protesters at Salvador's Campo Grand Square.

"This is the start of a structural change in Brazil," said Aline Campos, a 29-year-old publicist in Brasilia. "People now want to make sure their money is well spent, that it's not wasted through corruption."

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