SAO PAULO – Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators again took to streets in several Brazilian cities Saturday after the president broke a long silence to promise reforms, but the early protests were smaller and less violent than those of recent days.
Police estimated that about 60,000 demonstrators gathered in a central square in the city of Belo Horizonte, largely to denounce legislation that would limit the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes in a country where many are fed up with the high rate of robberies and killings. Many fear the law would also hinder attempts to jail corrupt politicians and other powerful figures.
In Belo Horizonte, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who tried to pass through a barrier and hurled rocks at a car dealership.
President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship, made a televised 10-minute appearance Friday night backing the right to peaceful protest but sharply condemning violence, vandalism and looting.
She promised to be tougher on corruption and said she would meet with peaceful protesters, governors and the mayors of big cities to create a national plan to improve urban transportation and use oil royalties for investments in education. Much of the anger behind the protests has been aimed at costly bus fares, high taxes and poor public services such as schools and health care.
Many Brazilians, shocked by a week of protests and violence, hoped that Rousseff’s words would soothe tensions and help avoid more violence, but not all were convinced by her promises of action.
A rapidly growing crowd blocked Sao Paulo’s main business street, Avenida Paulista, to press their demands.
Victoria Villela, a 21-year-old university student who joined the crowd, said she was “frustrated and exhausted by the endless corruption of our government.”
“It was good Dilma spoke, but this movement has moved too far, there was not much she could really say. All my friends were talking on Facebook about how she said nothing that satisfied them. I think the protests are going to continue for a long time and the crowds will still be huge.”
Around her, fathers held young boys aloft on their shoulders and older women gathered in clusters with their faces bearing yellow and green stripes, the colors of Brazil’s flag.
In the northeastern city of Salvador, where Brazil’s national football team was set to play Italy in a match for the Confederations Cup, some 5,000 protesters gathered about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the stadium, shouting demands for better schools and transportation and denouncing heavy spending on next year’s World Cup.
About 1,000 demonstrators trying to reach the stadium were kept at bay by police firing rubber bullets and using pepper spray.
Rodrigo Costa, a 32-year-old civil engineer in the city, said that it was good just to see a popular movement force “a head of state to go on TV and talk about the problems of the country.”
“She didn’t touch on all the issues that the people want to see improved,” Costa said. “But I think that just in general it was a good message.”
Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech, but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands.
With “no objective information about the nature of the organization of the protests,” wrote Igor Gielow in a column for Brazil’s biggest newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, “Dilma resorted to an innocuous speech to cool down spirits.”
At its height, some 1 million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide on Thursday night with grievances ranging from public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for international sports events.
Outside the stadium in Belo Horizonte where Mexico and Japan met in a Confederations Cup game, Dadiana Gamaleliel, a 32-year-old physiotherapist, held up a banner that read: “Not against the games, in favor of the nation.”
“I am protesting on behalf of the whole nation because this must be a nation where people have a voice ... we don’t have a voice anymore,” she said.
She said Rousseff’s speech wouldn’t “change anything.”
“She spoke in a general way and didn’t say what she would do,” she said. “We will continue this until we are heard.”
Social media and mass emails were buzzing with calls for a general strike next week. But Brazil’s two largest unions, the Central Workers Union and the Union Force, said they knew nothing about such an action, though they do support the protests.
At the protest in Salvador, 32-year-old public worker Mariana Santos said that demonstrators want Rousseff and the rest of Brazil’s government to be held accountable if they fail to keep their promises.
“Dilma said she was going to make a pact with unions, students, with everyone, to fix things,” Santos said. “If they hold the World Cup and she has not done what she said she will do, the people may decide they don’t want the Cup.”
Associated press writers Tales Azzoni and Ricardo Zuniga in Salvador and Rob Harris in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, contributed to this report.