SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A backlash against Brazil’s nationwide protests took hold on Friday after widespread rioting overnight, as even the leftist group at the movement’s core said it was done organizing marches for now because of growing discord and violence.
President Dilma Rousseff held an emergency meeting with top aides after 1 million people in over 100 cities took to the streets. But there was still no word from her or her ministers by midafternoon, highlighting how there may be no easy response to unrest that has taken the country by surprise and contributed to a selloff in local financial markets.
Sporadic protests flared again on Friday, although they were much smaller than Thursday’s marches. Additional demonstrations were likely prior to a Brazil versus Italy soccer game on Saturday, part of a warm-up event for next year’s World Cup, while groups were exchanging proposals on Facebook and elsewhere to schedule possible protests early next week.
The unrest blossomed over the past week as Brazilians, frustrated by a range of problems from corruption to poor public transport, responded to calls on social media and took part in the country’s biggest demonstrations in 20 years.
Unlike other recent protest movements such as the Arab Spring, Brazil’s protesters are not targeting any individual politician and Rousseff remains relatively popular. Many demonstrators are part of the middle class, which benefited from a recent economic boom, but they are upset about paying European-level taxes for what some describe as African-level public services.
The peaceful, even celebratory atmosphere that had attracted many university students and even their parents to demonstrations over the past week took a big and possibly lasting hit on Thursday night.
TV images showed masked youths looting stores, setting fires and defacing buildings including the foreign ministry in Brasilia, which had its windows smashed. The violence was widespread, occurring in at least a dozen cities, and appeared to be fueled by fringe movements and common criminals taking advantage of the disorder.
Two people died as a result of the protests, local media reported, including one after a car plowed into a crowd. More than 60 were injured in Rio de Janeiro alone.
Radio, TV, Twitter and other social media crackled on Friday with condemnations of the violence, while the unity that had prevailed among protesters at the heart of the movement also showed signs of breaking down.
The Free Fare Movement in Sao Paulo, an activist group that was instrumental in the rise of the protests, said it would stop organizing new demonstrations for now after street fights broke out among protesters with different objectives on Thursday.
Douglas Belome, a bank teller and member of the Free Fare group, said things turned ugly when some protesters sought to prevent left-wing political parties from waving their flags.
“At least for now, there are no new demonstrations scheduled,” he told Reuters, expressing regret for the violence.
The group’s decision will not totally halt the protests, since the movement has taken on a life of its own on social media and now includes a wide range of grievances and groups.
The marches have deeply embarrassed the country as it hosts the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament for the World Cup taking place in several cities hit by the protests. TV images have shown terrified fans and tourists running past clashes between police and demonstrators to get to stadiums.
World soccer body FIFA on Friday condemned the violence but said it had not considered cancelling either the Confederations Cup or the big event next year.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli told reporters that his team was banned from leaving the hotel because of the unrest.
Polls have shown that a large majority of Brazilians support the protesters and their aims. But the demonstrators’ primary tactic of blocking main roads has begun to wear on some people.
For example, Paulista Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Sao Paulo, has been cut off for long periods at least half a dozen times in the last two weeks. Vandals destroyed bus stops and stoplights in Rio and other cities on Thursday night, making commutes even more difficult than usual on Friday.
“I support these (protests), but I think it’s out of control,” said Nilson Chabat, a 31-year-old gas station attendant on his way to work on Friday in Sao Paulo. “Many of us are angry but you can’t just go make a mess every day.”
It’s unclear what Rousseff can do in the short term, apart from making a general appeal for calm. Mayors of several cities already tried to yield to one of the protesters’ main demands this week by rolling back a recent hike in bus and subway fares, but the demonstrations only grew.
Rousseff, a leftist guerrilla in the 1970s, has expressed solidarity with the protesters’ aims and has appeared hesitant to order a crackdown that could just make the crowds even angrier. But she is also at risk of having her probable re-election bid next year complicated by both the unrest and the backlash against the scenes of violence.
Some think she is already tardy in her response.
Fernando Rodrigues, a columnist for Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, wrote that Rousseff’s silence on Thursday night “sums up the lack of action by politicians.”
“They seem, in essence, to be only rooting for the tsunami to pass,” he said. (Reporting by Brian Winter and Silvio Cascione; Editing by Todd Benson and Eric Beech)