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Brazil leader breaks silence about protests

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 1:30am  ET

Brazil's Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, center, applauds with workers outside the Itamaraty Palace, where the foreign ministry has their headquarters, as they surround the building to give it a symbolic hug after being damaged by protesters the previous night in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, June 21, 2013. Protesters have expressed frustration with corruption and what they say are high taxes and poor public services. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

BRADLEY BROOKS
Associated Press

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) -- Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ended her near-silence about days of massive, violent protests, saying in a prime-time TV broadcast Friday that peaceful demonstrations were part of a strong democracy but that violence could not be tolerated. She promised to improve public services and hold a dialogue with protest leaders.

But it remained unclear exactly who could represent the massive and decentralized groups of demonstrators taking to the streets, venting anger against woeful public services despite a high tax burden.

"I'm going to meet with the leaders of the peaceful protests, I want institutions that are more transparent, more resistant to wrongdoing," Rousseff said in reference to perceptions of deep corruption in Brazilian politics, which is emerging as a focal point of the protests. "It's citizenship and not economic power that must be heard first."

Though offering no details, Rousseff said that her government would create a national plan for public transportation in cities -- a hike in bus and subway fares in many cities was the original complaint of the protests. She also reiterated her backing for a plan before congress to invest all oil revenue royalties in education and a promise she made earlier to bring in foreign doctors to areas that lack physicians.

The leader, a former Marxist rebel who fought against Brazil's 1964-1985 military regime and was imprisoned for three years and tortured by the junta, pointedly referred to earlier sacrifices made to free the nation from dictatorship.

"My generation fought a lot so that the voice of the streets could be heard," Rousseff said. "Many were persecuted, tortured and many died for this. The voice of the street must be heard and respected and it can't be confused with the noise and truculence of some troublemakers."

She'd been widely criticized for being all but invisible amid the protests and failing to engage with the people who were demanding her government's attention.

Edvaldo Chaves, a 61-year-old doorman in Rio's upscale Flamengo neighborhood, said he found Friday's speech convincing.

"I thought she seemed calm and cool. Plus, because she was a guerrilla and was in exile, she talks about the issue of protests convincingly," Chaves said. "I think things are going to calm down. We'll probably keep seeing people in the streets but probably small numbers now."

But Bruna Romao, an 18-year-old store clerk in Sao Paulo, said Rousseff's words probably wouldn't have an impact.

"Brazilians are passionate," she said. "We boil over quickly but also cool down fast. But this time it's different, people are in full revolt. I don't see things calming down anytime soon."

Trying to decipher the president's reaction to the unrest had become a national guessing game, especially after some 1 million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide Thursday night to denounce everything from poor public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

The protests continued Friday, as about 1,000 people marched in western Rio de Janeiro city, with some looting stores and invading an enormous $250 million arts center that remains empty after several years of construction. Police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas as they were pelted with rocks. Police said some in the crowd were armed and firing at officers.

Local radio was also reporting that protesters were heading to the apartment of Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral in the posh Rio neighborhood of Ipanema.

Other protests broke out in the country's biggest city, Sao Paulo, where traffic was paralyzed but no violence reported, and in Fortaleza in the country's northeast. Demonstrators were calling for more mobilizations in 10 cities on Saturday.

The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops came out in favor of the protests, saying that it maintains "solidarity and support for the demonstrations, as long as they remain peaceful."

"This is a phenomenon involving the Brazilian people and the awakening of a new consciousness," church leaders said in the statement. "The protests show all of us that we cannot live in a country with so much inequality."

Rousseff had never held elected office before she became president in 2011 and remains clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight.

She's the political protege of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic ex-union leader whose tremendous popularity helped usher his former chief of staff to the country's top office. A career technocrat and trained economist, Rousseff's tough managerial style under Silva earned her the moniker "the Iron Lady," a name she has said she detests.

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