Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Protesters target cup final in Rio

A protester wearing a Brazilian flag holds his hands up as he faces police officers near the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro (AP)

More than 5,000 anti-government protesters marched near the Maracana stadium before a major football match, venting their anger about the billions the Brazilian government is spending on major sporting events rather than public services.

Sharp clashes broke out several hundred yards away from the Rio De Janeiro stadium about 30 minutes before the final of the Confederations Cup began on Sunday, as a minor scuffle between police and a few protesters escalated.

Officers quickly quashed the unrest, unleashing a barrage of tear gas canisters and stun grenades, scattering the crowd, but not before some protesters retaliated with Molotov cocktails and powerful fireworks.

Though smaller in size, the march was the latest in a wave of protests that has spread across the country in recent weeks. Many are calling the protest movement the biggest seen here in decades, with more than one million people having taken to the streets nationwide on June 20. The demonstrations have dwindled in size and frequency in recent days as officials from all levels of government have scrambled to calm public anger with poor public services and a heavy tax burden.

Still, the atmosphere was tense outside Maracana on Sunday. Some clusters of protesters tried to break through the security perimeter police set-up around the stadium, but were pushed back and not able to get past authorities.

President Dilma Rousseff has suffered the brunt of the political damage. The first national poll conducted after the protests ignited showed a steep drop in her approval rating and throws in doubt what had seemed an easy re-election next year.

She decided not to attend Sunday's final of the Confederations Cup, which saw Brazil beat Spain in what is seen as a warm-up for next year's World Cup to be hosted in Brazil.

Other top government officials and even football legend Pele also skipped the match in a major embarrassment for a government that had hoped to use the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio to showcase Brazil's arrival as a global power.

The demonstrations began earlier this month over a rise in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo before developing into a nationwide movement denouncing a range of problems such as government corruption, poor education and healthcare. The Estado de S Paulo newspaper reported that 490 protests had taken place in Brazil in the last three weeks, peaking at 150 on June 20, when violent clashes between protesters and police were seen in several cities.

Many demonstrators have said they had learned their mass actions could prompt a quick government response. They also said they anticipated other high-profile events they could use to speak out, including this month's visit by Pope Francis, the World Cup, a presidential election a few months later and the Rio Olympics.

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