Brazilians Protest against Austerity in Main Cities


Protesters against plans to end Brazil's generous pension system occupied the finance ministry in the capital Wednesday and paralyzed commuter traffic in the financial center Sao Paulo.

More than 500 activists from leftist groups led by the Movement for the Landless burst into the ministry building in Brasilia before the start of the workday. Police reported that protesters had broken windows.

"We're going to stay as long as possible," the group's director, Marcos Baratto, told G1 news website.  "We have come to leave a message for the government that we will not accept loss of our rights."

In Sao Paulo, the financial powerhouse of Latin America's biggest economy, city buses were canceled and the metro system only provided partial service, G1 reported. Although transport services gradually improved during the day, the mega-city's streets saw the biggest traffic jams of the year, Brazilian media reported.

Staff at public schools in Rio de Janeiro went on strike, trash collectors stopped work in Curitiba and the metro was shut down in Belo Horizonte, according to G1.

Protesters' main target was pension reform planned by the center-right government of President Michel Temer. 

Temer -- who says that far-reaching austerity reforms are needed to bring responsibility to Brazil's budget and to lift the country from two years of recession -- wants to set retirement age at 65.

Currently, many people are able to retire at 54.

The government says the country will be bankrupted if nothing is done. Already, Congress has approved Temer's request for a 20-year budget spending freeze.

- Summer of discontent -

Brazil is nearing the end of a long, hot summer but there's nothing sunny about the country's struggle to exit recession amid a growing corruption struggle.

Despite a healthy stock market and government assurances that the economy will start growing later this year, ordinary people are hurting. Unemployment is at a record 12.6 percent, amounting to about 13 million jobless people.

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles acknowledged that Brazil "faces its worst (economic) crisis in history."

Temer took over last year after his leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff was impeached for illegally manipulating government accounts with unauthorized loans.

He has made a return to economic health his main goal and says that he doesn't care if austerity measures increase his already rock bottom popularity.

However, Temer's credibility among Brazilians is being hurt further by a ballooning graft scandal over embezzlement from state oil company Petrobras.

On Tuesday, the scandal entered new territory with requests by the prosecutor general to the Supreme Court for authority to investigate scores of politicians.

Reportedly they include five ministers, as well as the presidents of both houses of Congress. Temer has said he will not fire ministers unless they are actually charged with crimes.

However, earlier phases in the scandal have already claimed several other ministers, raising questions over Temer's ability to keep a congressional coalition together for the all-important vote on pension reform.