BRASILIA, Brazil — President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil ended her near-silence about more than a week of massive, violent protests, saying in a primetime TV broadcast Friday that peaceful demonstrations were part of a strong democracy but that violence could not be tolerated. She promised to make improvements to public services, but said it could not be done overnight.
Rousseff said she will soon hold a meeting with leaders of the protest movement, governors, and the mayors of major cities. 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.
Rousseff said that her government will 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 already made to bring in foreign doctors to areas that lack physicians.
“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.”
Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel who fought against Brazil’s 1964 to 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,” she 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.”
Edvaldo Chaves, a doorman in Rio’s upscale Flamengo neighborhood, said he found the 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,” said Chaves, 61. “I think things are going to calm down. We’ll probably keep seeing people in the streets but probably small numbers now.”
Trying to decipher the president’s reaction to the unrest had become a national guessing game, especially after some 1 million antigovernment demonstrators took to the streets nationwide the night before to denounce everything from poor public services to the billions spent 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 Governor 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 is the political protege of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic former 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.
While Rousseff stayed away from the public eye for most of the week, Roberto Jaguaribe, the nation’s ambassador to Britain, told news channel CNN Friday the government was first trying to contain the protests.
He labeled as “very delicate” the myriad demands emanating from protesters in the streets.