Brazil bracing for widespread anti-government, World Cup protests

SAO PAULO – Protesters blocked two of Sao Paulo’s main highways Thursday, burning tires, waving banners and causing chaos during the morning commute in the sprawling metropolitan area as officials braced for a wave of anti-government demonstrations in several Brazilian cities, many of them protesting the high spending on next month’s World Cup.

The biggest demonstrations were expected in Sao Paulo, which will host the Cup opener on June 12, and in Rio de Janeiro, where the final match will take place in July. The protests in Rio aren’t expected to get rolling until later in the day.

Protesters allowed traffic to begin flowing again after blocking the main Tiete and Pinheiros roadways in Sao Paulo for about four hours. But another group of a few hundred protesters took to the city’s main business thoroughfare, Avenida Paulista.

Authorities said there were about 15 separate protests in the city so far. Most were gatherings of a few hundred people, though about 1,500 demonstrators gathered near the Itaquerao soccer stadium in Sao Paulo, which is set to host the opening match of the World Cup.

The demonstrations are being viewed as a test of the government’s ability to contain protests ahead of football’s marquee event.

Massive anti-government protests across Brazil last year overshadowed the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament to the World Cup, with more than a million people taking to the streets on a single night.

Many of the demonstrations turned violent, with demonstrators and police clashing. At least six people were killed in connection with the protests, most being run over by cars as rallies packed busy streets.

Brazilians are angry at the billions spent to host the World Cup, much of it on 12 ornate football stadiums, one-third of which critics say will see little use after the big event. Those who have taken to the streets call on the government to focus spending instead on improving the country’s woeful health, education, security and infrastructure systems.

Some of Thursday’s rallies will also focus on homeless groups calling for free or low-cost housing, and at least two big unions demanding better wages and working conditions, particularly during the World Cup.

The Brazilian government hopes that the Cup and then the 2016 Olympics in Rio will put Brazil in the global spotlight, showing advances the country has made in the past decade in improving its economy, pulling tens of millions out of poverty.