Brazil: fare protesters open turnstiles in Rio

As many as 2,000 Brazilians demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro during evening rush hour on Feb. 6 to protest an increase in local bus fares from 2.75 reais (about US$1.15) to 3 reais (about $1.26); the fare hike, imposed by Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, took effect Feb. 8. The protesters marched about a mile from the Candelária area without incident, but as the demonstration approached the Estacião Central do Brasil, the city's main transit hub, dozens of youths reportedly from the Black Bloc charged into the station, jumping over turnstiles and inviting commuters to join them. Some protesters vandalized ticket booths, while others set fires in garbage cans outside the station, blocking cars and tying up traffic. The militarized police attacked the youths with tear-gas and concussion grenades, creating panic among crowds of commuters, and protesters responded with rocks and clubs. SuperVia Trens Urbanos, the company that runs the city's trains, decided to let passengers ride for free as the chaos continued. Police escorted thousands of commuters, some choking on tear gas, to the trains.

According to the police, 28 people were arrested at the protest. There was one serious injury: Santiago Andrade, a camera operator for TV Band, was hospitalized with head injuries and remained in a coma after four hours of surgery. One colleague said Andrade was hit by a police grenade, while other witnesses said he was hit by a flare, which could have been thrown by either side. Apparently he was shooting footage from a tree, and the injuries may have been caused by his fall when the object hit him.

The protest was organized by the Rio de Janeiro Free Pass Movement (MPL), with support from the Revolutionary Popular Student Movement (MEPR); some protesters carried the banners of the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), a Trotskyist group, and the Freedom and Socialism Party (PSOL), an electoral coalition. Anger over high transportation costs in Brazil, which was one of the triggers that set off massive demonstrations throughout the country in June, remains strong. The new increase in Rio means that a daily commuter there will be paying some 120 reais a month (about US$50), nearly a sixth of the minimum wage of 724 reais (about US$304) a month—more if the commuter needs to take more than one bus. Adding to popular resentment, the four companies that operate most of the buses are controlled by several of the city's oldest and wealthiest families.

"I totally support this protest," a health worker named Fabiana Aragon told a correspondent for the British daily The Guardian. She was spending almost a third of her 1,000 reais (about US$416) monthly income on transportation, she said, adding: "The situation now is absurd." (The Guardian, Feb. 5, from correspondent, Feb. 7 from correspondent; Terra, Brazil, Feb. 6; Página 12, Argentina, Feb. 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 9.

  1. Transit fare hikes spark Sao Paulo riots

    Rriot police on Jan. 8 fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a violent protest against a rise in public transport fares in the country's largest city, Sao Paulo. Television images showed small groups of rock-throwing, masked youths clashing with police in the center of the metropolis, amid burning piles of rubbish. Protesters smashed the windows of buses and vandalized bank agencies.

    Many Sao Paulo residents have been angered by the increase in public transport prices, with inflation in Brazil already running at more than 10%. More than 1.5 million Brazilians lost their jobs in the year to November, as Latin America's largest economy edged deeper into its worst recession in more than 25 years. (Reuters)