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Brazil protesters vow to hold big demo

SAO PAULO (AP) — Protesters promised to hold their biggest demonstrations yet against a hike in public transport fares on Monday, stoking fears of more clashes with police and raising questions about security during big events such as the current Confederations Cup and a papal visit next month.

With the nation’s reputation on the line, authorities vowed to avoid the sort of bloody confrontations that shocked the city last week. Police commanders said publicly they would not fire rubber bullets during the protest, nor would riot police units be used.

Authorities said they would respond with force only if protesters destroy property.

On Thursday in Sao Paulo, riot police charged into crowds of peaceful protesters, firing rubber bullets and tear gas and beating some demonstrators. Protest organizers said more than 100 people were hurt. Police would only confirm that about a dozen others suffered injuries.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets again on Sunday when several hundred protesters marched near Maracana stadium before a Confederations Cup match between Italy and Mexico, part of an eight-team warm-up tournament for next year’s World Cup finals.

But there were no clashes on Monday as about 1,000 people carried out a protest ahead of a Confederations Cup match between Tahiti and Nigeria in the city of Belo Horizonte, where police helicopters buzzed overhead and mounted officers patrolled the stadium area.

The protests were set off by a 10-cent hike in public transport fares, but they have clearly moved beyond that issue to tap into widespread frustration in Brazil about a heavy tax burden, politicians widely viewed as corrupt and woeful public education, health and transport systems.

“It’s about much more than those 10 cents,” demonstrator Bruno Bisaglia said after Thursday’s protests. “Society that is sick of corrupt politicians not making good on their promises to make improvements.”

Ariadne Natal, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo whose research focuses on violence, said the protesters want to “take advantage of this moment when we have foreign visitors, when the world’s press is watching, to showcase their cause.”

“The problem we’ve seen is that the police action is trying to prevent these protests,” she said. “What we need to figure out is how the protests as well as the big events can be carried out democratically.”

Brazilians have long accepted malfeasance as a cost of doing business, whether in business or receiving public service. Brazil loses more than $47 billion each year to undeclared tax revenue, vanished public money and other widespread corruption, according to the Federation of Industries of Sao Paulo business group.

But in the last decade, about 40 million Brazilians have moved into the middle class and they have begun to demand more from their government. Many are angered that billions of dollars in public funds are being spent to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics while few improvements are made elsewhere.

Protests are routine in Brazil, but few turn violent, and security experts say the protests aren’t the main danger for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will descend on Brazil from now through the Olympics.

“The biggest threat to those visiting Brazil for the Confederations Cup and other events we’ll host remains petty crime,” said Paulo Storani, a security consultant and former commander of an elite police unit in Rio.

“Whether a protest turns violent depends upon both sides: whether those demonstrating break laws and if the police overreact,” he said. “But visitors are not being targeted by the protests. People simply need to be vigilant and avoid areas where protests will happen.”

For the Confederations Cup, Brazilian officials are using drones, thermal cameras and thousands of troops to patrol the six stadiums hosting matches in six different cities.

Storani and other security experts said visitors will be most vulnerable once they venture away from secured areas, and may even face increased risks of petty crime because many police have been called off their regular patrols to focus on the stadiums and protests.

Chris Cokayne, a 38-year-old business student from South Africa in Rio for a few days for a seminar, said he’d barely noticed the protests and that he doesn’t “feel threatened in any way.”

“There are so many cops around, it feels really secure to me,” he said as he walked along Copacabana beach with two friends.

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