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She's the political protege of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic ex-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.
"The government has to respond, even if the agenda seems unclear and wide open," Marlise Matos, a political science professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said before Rousseff spoke. "What I'd like to see as a response is a call for a referendum on political reform. Let the people decide what kind of political and electoral system we have."
Brazil watchers outside the country were puzzled by the government's long silence amid the biggest protests in decades, although Peter Hakim, president emeritus at the U.S.-based Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, said he appreciated the complicated political picture, especially with protests flaring in some areas where political opponents to Rousseff hold sway.
Hakim called said that for the government the protests were "a puzzle in the midst of a huge labyrinth maze and she can't figure out the best direction to take."
Carlos Cardozo, a 62-year-old financial consultant who joined Friday's protest in Rio, said he thought the unrest could cost Rousseff next year's elections. Even as recently as last week, Rousseff had enjoyed a 74 percent approval rating in a poll by the business group the National Transport Confederation.
"People want to see real action, real decisions, and it's not this government that's capable of delivering," Cardozo said.
Social media and mass emails were buzzing with calls for a general strike next week. However, Brazil's two largest nationwide unions, the Central Workers Union and the Union Force, said they knew nothing about such an action, though they do support the protests.
A Thursday night march in Sao Paulo was the first with a strong union presence, as a drum corps led members wearing matching shirts down the city's main avenue. Many protesters have called for a movement with no ties to political parties or unions, which are widely considered corrupt here.
In the absence of such groups, the protests have largely lacked organization or even concrete demands, making a coherent government response nearly impossible. Several cities have cancelled the transit fare hikes that had originally sparked the demonstrations a week ago.
Demonstrations for Saturday have been called by a group opposing a federal bill that would limit the power of prosecutors to investigate crimes.
The one group behind the reversal of the fare hike, the Free Fare Movement, said it would not call any more protests. However, it wasn't clear what impact that might have on a movement that has moved far beyond its original complaint.
Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota hit back at protesters the morning after his modernist ministry building was attacked by an enraged crowd Thursday night. At one point, smoke had billowed from the building, while demonstrators shattered windows along its perimeter.
Standing before the ministry, Patriota told reporters he "was very angry" that protesters attacked a structure "that represents the search for understanding through dialogue." Patriota called for protesters "to convey their demands peacefully."
Most protesters have been peaceful, and crowds have taken to chanting "No violence! No violence!" when small groups have prepared to burn and smash. The more violent demonstrators have usually taken over once night has fallen.
At least one protester was killed in Sao Paulo state Thursday night when a driver apparently became enraged about being unable to travel along a street and rammed his car into demonstrators. News reports also said a 54-year-old cleaning woman had died Friday after inhaling tear gas the night before while taking cover in a restored trolley car.
The unrest is hitting the nation as it hosts the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, with tens of thousands of foreign visitors in attendance.
For some, the police response to the protests has been yet another reason to hit the streets.
"Even though I didn't see much of police violence on TV because the coverage was focused on the vandalism, I heard about it from friends and family," said 26-year-old journalist Marcela Barreto, who was marching in Rio Friday. "And I wanted to show the government it's not going to work. We're not scared."
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