Thousands of Brazilian protesters criticise government corruption

Large rallies held in Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio calling for Rousseff’s impeachment

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have marched peacefully in more than 50 cities to demand President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and to criticise government corruption.

The demonstrations come as a sprawling graft inquiry is being held at state-run oil firm Petrobras.

The biggest of the protests, held on the 30th anniversary of Brazil's return to democracy after a long military regime, took place in Sao Paulo, an opposition stronghold where some 210,000 gathered on a main avenue, according to the polling institute Datafolha, one of the only entities in Brazil that makes scientific crowd estimates.

Large rallies were also seen in the capital Brasilia, the southern city of Porto Alegre and in Rio de Janeiro.

“We are here to express our indignation with the government-sponsored corruption and thieving, and to demand Dilma’s impeachment,” said Andre Menezes, 35, protesting on Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo.

“She may have not been directly involved in the corruption at Petrobras, but she certainly knew about it, and for me that makes her just as guilty and justifies her ouster,” he added.

In Rio, police estimated 15,000 people marched along the golden sands of Copacabana beach, where they waved Brazilian flags and many openly called for a military coup to dissolve the government.

“I don’t want my country to turn into a Venezuela, we don’t want an authoritarian government,” said Marlon Aymes, 35, helping carry a 20-foot long banner that read in English: “Army, Navy and Air Force. Please Save Us Once Again of Communism.”

“We want the military to dissolve Congress and call new elections, because the level of corruption is too widespread to do anything else,” he added.

In contrast to the widespread violence seen during Brazil’s 2013 protests, yesterday the only conflict reported was police using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a small group of protesters in Brasilia who authorities said were trying to enter the Congress. In Sao Paulo, police arrested about 20 young men who were carrying powerful fireworks and brass knuckles.

Ms Rousseff did not appear in public on Sunday, but her justice minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo went on national TV to hold an extensive live press conference defending the government.

He emphasised that Ms Rousseff would soon propose a series of anti-corruption measures in Congress that were promised during her re-election campaign.

He also defended the leader’s record as a leftist guerilla who stood up to Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime — and who was jailed for three years and brutally tortured because of it.

Ms Rousseff has said she fully supports peaceful demonstrations, even those demanding her impeachment, and Mr Cardozo added that the rallies “confirm that Brazil is a democratic state that allows for divergences, the existence of opposing opinions and that we’re far from any coup option”.

Much protester ire was focused on a kickback the scheme at Petrobras, which prosecutors call the biggest corruption scandal ever uncovered in Brazil. At least $800 million (€760 million) was paid in bribes and other funds by the nation’s biggest construction and engineering firms in exchange for inflated Petrobras contracts.

Top executives are already in jail and the attorney general is investigating dozens of congressmen, along with current and former members of the executive branch, for alleged connections to the scheme that apparently began in 1997 before Ms Rousseff’s party took power in 2003.

Ms Rousseff, a former chairwoman of Petrobras’ board, has not been implicated and so far is not being investigated, though top officials from her administration, including two former chiefs of staff, are caught up in the inquiry.

The marches add pressure on Ms Rousseff, whose poll ratings have never been lower and who is facing duel economic and political crises just three months into her second term.

Brazilian growth has been weak since Ms Rousseff took office in 2011. The country likely entered a recession in 2014 and most economists surveyed by the Central Bank forecast negative growth this year.

Inflation is rising and the local currency has plummeted against the dollar in recent weeks, making life more expensive in a nation with a surprisingly high cost of living and one of the world’s heaviest tax burdens.

Still, Brazil’s top opposition political figures, including a former president and the top candidates who ran against Ms Rousseff in last year’s election, say impeachment is undesirable, because the president is not accused of any connection to the Petrobras scandal, and because it could affect Brazil’s stability.