Brazil police, protesters clash near Confed match
Brazilian police fired tear gas Wednesday to disperse protesters near a stadium hosting a Confederations Cup football semi-final, as Brasilia adopted measures aimed at calming two weeks of social unrest.
The unrest outside the venue in Belo Horizonte, where Brazil beat Uruguay 2-1, was the latest in a wave of anti-government protests staged in part to denounce the high costs of hosting the event and next year's World Cup.
The demonstrators -- a week ago, 1.2 million people rallied nationwide -- have also been demanding tougher penalties against corrupt politicians and better public services in the world's seventh largest economy.
On Wednesday, the protesters secured two new concessions from the leftist government of President Dilma Rousseff, including Senate backing of a bill that would amend the penal code to make corruption a "heinous crime."
Nevertheless, protests continued and labor unions pledged to go ahead with a day of strikes and work stoppages on July 11.
Some 40,000 people flooded the streets of Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest metropolitan area and the capital of Minas Gerais state -- one of several protests nationwide.
Police said they used tear gas to disperse a small group of protesters who tried to remove metal barriers outside one of the access points leading to the Mineirao stadium.
Two car dealerships were ransacked and 24 people were detained for carrying gas masks, stones, knives and sticks, a police spokeswoman told AFP.
Earlier in the day, demonstrators briefly blocked five roads and set a bus ablaze in suburban Belo Horizonte.
Demonstrations were also held in a dozen other cities, including Brasilia, where 4,000 people rallied outside the National Congress.
"We are putting pressure on the government and politicians and it worked," said Carolina de Moraes, a 17-year-old student.
The nationwide protests in Brazil initially focused on a hike in transport fares before mushrooming to encompass a variety of gripes including corruption and the lack of investment in health and education.
Brazil has spent $15 billion to stage the Confederations Cup and the World Cup -- a sum protesters say should instead have been used to upgrade the substandard public services.
Beyond the Senate backing for tougher penalties on corruption, protesters earned a victory from the Supreme Court, which ordered the immediate detention of lawmaker Natan Donadon, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 2010 for embezzlement -- the first such move in 25 years.
On Tuesday, Congress had scrapped a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to curb the investigative powers of independent public prosecutors -- thereby making it harder to combat corruption.
In Brasilia, Rousseff huddled with leaders of the country's leading unions, which vowed to maintain their "day of struggle" set for next month even after the talks.
The unions are calling for a shorter work day, a readjustment of pensions and bigger investments in health and education as demanded by the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians that have taken to the streets in recent days.
"The July 11 mobilization is being maintained and we reaffirmed this to the president," said Carmen Foro, vice president of the Unified Workers' Central (CUT), Brazil's main national trade union.
"This is not a general strike but there will be mobilizations throughout Brazil and also symbolic work stoppages," Foro added.
Rousseff meanwhile pressed on with her plans for a popular plebiscite on political reform to defuse public anger.
She has also proposed to earmark $25 billion for public transport and urged tougher penalties for those found guilty of corruption.
The president dropped an earlier idea of holding a referendum on the creation of a constituent assembly on reform, in the face of strong protests from lawmakers and jurists.
The proposed plebiscite would be non-binding and allow for debate of several issues, while a referendum involves a popular vote which is binding on the government. No date has yet been set.
Rousseff herself is on next year's presidential ballot -- the election is to be held in October -- and recent unrest, along with her declining poll numbers could affect the race.
Her falling popularity comes as the Brazilian juggernaut has begun to sputter.
Last year, the economic grew a mere .9 percent, and although Brazil is near full employment, economic growth has remained stalled and inflation is rising.
In other concessions to the protesters, the House of Deputies has backed a bill that would allocate 75 percent of oil royalties to education and 25 percent to health.
The bill now goes to the Senate, but some of the articles could face a presidential veto as Rousseff said she wanted 100 percent of the revenues to go to education.
The government also announced plans to create 35,000 jobs in the public health sector, open to Brazilian doctors, but also foreigners if necessary. Some 12,000 medical experts are also to be trained in priority sectors.
But the proposal came under fire from several local associations, who scheduled protest rallies in a week's time.
"To say that the problem of Brazilian public health is a lack of doctors is simplistic. The problem is bad management and a lack of resources," said Florisval Mainao, president of the Sao Paulo Medicine Association.
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