Connect to share and comment

Brazil’s winter of discontent

Young people have staged epic protests across the country — and even on the other side of the world. They've already made some gains. How far will they go?

Brazil student protestEnlarge
Students take part in a protest against corruption and price hikes at the National Congress in Brasilia on June 20, 2013. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story published early Wednesday. Check back for more updates on this unfolding story.

BRASILIA, Brazil — “We have woken up,” reads a banner youths are carrying in their march on congress. They're also holding bandanas soaked in vinegar — for protection from tear gas.

Hundreds of protesters bypass shield-wielding police to scramble up a ramp and storm the roof of Brasilia's congress. Now they whoop, sing and dance, casting giant shadows over Oscar Niemeyer's iconic bowl architecture.

That was the stunning scene, Monday night, in Brazil's capital, as protesters simultaneously marched through the streets of 10 other cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, braving a sometimes violent backlash from police.

Protesters dance on the roof of Brazil's congress. Evaristo SA/AFP/Getty Images

The turnout is estimated to have grown to more than 200,000 nationwide in that evening's protests — the country's biggest in 20 years — against a slew of new economic woes in a changing Brazil.

On Tuesday night, protests raged on in Sao Paulo, drawing some 50,000 marchers, a handful of whom clashed with police as they tried to enter City Hall.

Now, about 10,000 people are protesting outside the soccer stadium in Fortaleza ahead of today's Brazil vs. Mexico match.

Protesters have already made some gains: officials in important state capitals such as Porto Alegre and Recife announced plans Tuesday to lower bus fares, one of the original demands.

But with more rallies expected this week, this movement shows no sign of abating.

“This is the moment to show that the whole of Brazil is fighting, and that we have a voice,” said Jacqueline Ferreira, a 20-year-old student. “Even my mother told me to go the streets, because she said ‘this cause is true, the time is rigfht.’”

The time is indeed crucial. An international soccer tournament called the Confederations Cup kicked off here Saturday. Many are watching this closely as a test run for soccer's massive World Cup, which has required major infrastructure and stadium revamps, to be hosted here about a year from now.

Rio de Janeiro will also host Pope Francis next month for World Youth Day, and the Olympics in 2016.

Brazil is also at a turning point. Over the past decade of economic growth, some 30 million people moved up to the middle class. Their expectations are transforming along with them. Now that they no longer have to scrabble to survive, they're demanding not just democracy, but better democracy, with better representation and services commensurate with their hefty tax burden.

But economic growth is slowing substantially, even as inflation still rises, which is squeezing wallets in Latin America's largest economy.

Pressure is mounting on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Earlier this month she experienced her first significant drop in public opinion polls — losing 8 points to stand at 57 percent.

As a 20-year-old leftist guerrilla, Rousseff was arrested and tortured by the military dictatorship. Her governing Workers Party members once participated in huge protests to end dictatorial rule.

In a televised address Tuesday, she sounded almost as if she'd been marching right along with them.

"Brazil woke up stronger today," Rousseff said. "The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population."

But that empathetic tone came in stark contrast with Brazil's police crackdown on protesters.

Now the government says it will beef up the military presence for tighter security around Confederations Cup games.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of demonstrators trying to enter Rio's Maracana stadium. Tasso Marcelo/AFP/Getty Images

The spark: bus fare hikes

The recent bout of demonstrations started last week in Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city and financial hub, with a rally against a 10-cent bus fare hike. Its organizers, the Free Fare Movement, drew in some 5,000 people. A higher ticket price was the last straw for some commuters in a sprawling, congested city where journeys can take upward of two hours.

The rally seemed peaceful, but the police hit back forcefully, spraying tear