, RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 20 – Brazil’s two biggest cities rolled back transit fare hikes that had triggered massive protests as demonstrators clashed with police outside a Confederations Cup match.
The move Wednesday by authorities in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro marked a major victory for the protests, which are the biggest Brazil has seen in two decades and have evoked comparisons with the Arab Spring and the unrest in Turkey.
The demonstrations were triggered by the rate hikes, but have swelled with fury at the government’s lavish spending on the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup, which critics say comes at the expense of social programs.
Sao Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin said metro, train and bus fares would revert to $1.35 from $1.44 from next Monday at the current exchange rate, while Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said bus fares would go back to $1.24 from $1.33.
Several other Brazilian cities, including Porto Alegre and Recife, had already canceled their own fare hikes.
The fare increases may appear modest but they were seen by many as a major burden in a country where the minimum monthly wage is currently only $306.
The current wave of unrest began nearly two weeks ago in Sao Paulo and rapidly spread to other cities just as the country on Saturday kicked off the Confederations Cup, a dry run for next year’s World Cup.
The government has earmarked $15 billion for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup — events aimed at showcasing Brazil’s recent economic boom and rising global stature.
But the protesters — including many young people who feel left behind by the vaunted economic growth — have accused the government of neglecting health and education while pouring funds into sports stadiums.
In Fortaleza, where Brazil beat Mexico 2-0 in their second Confederations Cup match, some of the roughly 10,000 protesters hurled stones at security forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
One person suffered an eye injury and a second was taken away on a stretcher in Fortaleza, one of six cities hosting matches in the Confederations Cup and where elite police units have fanned out to protect the sites.
“Forward, forward,” the demonstrators shouted as a cordon of police blocked access to the $240 million Castelao stadium. An indignant woman declared “this is a dictatorship” as police fired rubber bullets.
The justice ministry had ordered a crack federal police unit to deploy in five Confederations Cup host stadiums located in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Ceara as well as in the federal district of Brasilia.
The National Force, composed of police and firefighters from different states that are called up for duty on special occasions, is a “conciliatory, mediating” force, “not repressive,” the ministry said.
In Fortaleza, a city of 3.5 million where 6,000 additional state police troopers were deployed, protesters railed against the country’s political class, accusing it of corruption and mismanagement.
“We are protesting the use of public funds for the construction of stadiums, money that should be used for education,” said 18-year-old Matheus Dantas, amid a sea of Brazilian flags.
“Brazil, we are going to wake up — a professor is worth more than Neymar,” the demonstrators in Fortaleza shouted, referring to a popular star of the national team.
Ahead of the match against Mexico, Neymar joined his Selecao teammates in backing the escalating social protests and chided President Dilma Rousseff’s government for failing to deliver adequate social services.
“Saddened by all that is occurring in Brazil,” Neymar said in a statement.
“I always had faith that it would not be necessary to come to the point of having to take to the streets to demand better conditions for transport, health, education and security,” he said.
Thousands of people also marched in peaceful protests in several cities, including Belo Horizonte, suburban Sao Paulo and Niteroi, a city near Rio where some 7,000 people marched peacefully.
As night fell in Niteroi, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse scores of demonstrators who ransacked a bank branch, set up barricades, lit fires and tried to overturn a bus.
On Tuesday, at least 50,000 people flooded the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city and the nation’s industrial capital, to vent their anger at the country’s politicians, including Rousseff.