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Millions Take to Brazil's Streets to Demand an End to Dilma Rousseff's Presidency

Officials estimated that more than 3.5 million people joined anti-government protests in cities across Brazil on Sunday. Calls for the president's impeachment were mixed with anger at corruption, and the country's shrinking economy.
March 14, 2016, 3:20pm
Imagen por Sebastiao Moreira/EPA

Record-breaking protests across Brazil have revealed the extent of dissatisfaction among the country's middle class squeezed by recession and angered by massive corruption.

Officials estimated that more than 3.5 million people joined yellow and green rallies in cities all over Brazil on Sunday calling for President Dilma Rousseff to go. The president is currently facing impeachment proceedings in congress over her alleged fiddling of the country's accounts to fund her reelection in 2014.

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There were also slogans against the governing Workers' Party, and consensus in support of the Lava Jato, or Car Wash, anti-corruption probe, which has been uncovering a massive bribery scheme within the state-owned oil and gas company Petrobras.

The probe has led to the arrest of several high profile politicians, bankers, and businessmen, accused of involvement in a billion-dollar kickback scheme while the country slipped into recession. The economy shrank by almost four percent last year.

The biggest protest took place in the centre of São Paulo. Respected research institute Datafolha estimated that there were 500,000 people on the city's streets. This would make it even bigger than the Diretas Já movement against the country's military dictatorship in 1984, which drew an estimated 400,000 people to the streets in support of direct presidential elections.

There were claims that there had been a million at the protest in Rio de Janeiro, which filled the beachside avenue in Copacabana. More conservative estimates put the numbers at between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

"The cost of living has increased a lot," said Maria Anna Brandão, 63, a retired public servant in Rio. "The middle class is suffering most because the poor are already pitiable and the rich just get richer."

Related: Brazil's President Just Came One Step Closer to Impeachment

There was a Carnival-like atmosphere in Copacabana, with families, retired couples, and celebrities taking part in good humor. Some carried inflatable dolls in the image of Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, along with banners and t-shirts supporting the Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro.

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Lula was directly pulled into the swirl of anti-corruption cases on March 4 when federal police called him in for questioning on his alleged involvement in the Petrobras scandal. Last week prosecutors filed charges against him for alleged money laundering in a separate, but related, case.

Related: Police Question Brazil's Ex-President Lula for Four Hours in Petrobras Scandal Probe

Simone Soares, 52, a businesswoman from Copacabana, said she was inspired to take part by her grandson.

"He is seven years old and he asked me, 'does everyone steal?'" she said. "We need a better country for him. I'm in favour of impeachment but I don't know if it's the solution."

Brazil's middle class expanded during Lula's mandate in which the family welfare benefit, Bolsa Familia, lifted millions out of poverty. But since 2014, 6.3 million Brazilians have left the top three socioeconomic classes, according to economists at Bradesco bank.

Research by Datafolha, though, found that while anti-government protests have grown in the past couple of years, the profile of those participating remains staunchly middle class, or above.

From more than 2,000 interviews in São Paulo, researchers concluded that three quarters of the protesters had reached higher education while about half had an income that was five to 20 times higher than the minimum salary of 880 reals, or around $245 dollars.

In a conference call with the US-based think tank Atlantic Council last week, Pedro Dias Leite, political editor of the leading political magazine Veja, said the protest movement has become less spontaneous and more directly aligned with the strategies of the political opposition since it began in 2013.

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"They have never been so close as they are right now," he said. "The leaders of the civic movement, the protesters, are really close to the politicians right now."

However, while opposition leaders including Aecio Neves, who lost the presidential election in 2014 to Rousseff, appeared at the protests, the public resisted attempts to convert the events of the day into a party political platform.

And while there were small protests elsewhere in support of Rousseff, Lula, and the Workers' Party, there were no signs of violence or open conflict between the two sides.

In a statement released on Sunday night, the presidential press office tried to put a positive spin on the massive show of discontent.

"The peaceful nature of the demonstrations that took place on Sunday demonstrates the maturity of a country that knows how to live with divergent opinions and knows how to ensure respect for its laws and institutions."

Related: While Murders of Black Women in Brazil Rise Sharply – Murders of White Women Fall

Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow