RIO DE JANEIRO — More than 5,000 anti-government protesters marched Sunday near the Maracana stadium before a major international soccer match, venting their anger about the billions of dollars the Brazilian government is spending on major sporting events rather than public services.
Sharp clashes broke out several hundred yards (meters) away from the stadium about 30 minutes before the game began, as a minor scuffle between police and a few protesters escalated.
Officers quickly quashed the unrest, unleashing a barrage of tear gas canisters and stun grenades, scattering the crowd, but not before some protesters retaliated with Molotov cocktails and powerful fireworks. At one point, an officer ran into a nearby gas station and told several people holed up inside they needed to get out or they were "all going to die here!"
Though smaller in size, the march was the latest in a wave of protests that has spread across this continent-sized country in recent weeks. Many are calling the protest movement the biggest seen here in decades, with more than 1 million people having taken to the streets nationwide on just the night of June 20.
The demonstrations have dwindled in size and frequency in recent days as officials from all levels of government have scrambled to calm public anger with woeful public services and a heavy tax burden.
Still, the atmosphere was tense outside Maracana on Sunday. Some clusters of protesters tried to break through the security perimeter police set-up around the stadium, but were pushed back and not able to get past authorities.
Despite the smaller protests, demonstrator Eliane Milazzo, a 54-year-old high school teacher marching with her daughter and son-in-law, said the Brazilian people won't let their leaders off the hook and that the protests will go on.
"They've got to continue because the reasons people are out on the street are not going to go away overnight," she said. "I know I will continue to go to the streets and so will my family until we see real changes in our everyday lives."
President Dilma Rousseff has suffered the brunt of the political damage. The first national poll conducted after the protests ignited showed a steep drop in her approval rating and throws in doubt what had seemed an easy re-election next year.
Rousseff decided to not attend Sunday's final match of the Confederations Cup football tournament, which pits Brazil against Spain in what's seen as a warm-up for next year's World Cup to be hosted in Brazil.
Other top government officials and even football legend Pele are also skipping the match in a major embarrassment for a government that had hoped to use the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio to showcase Brazil's arrival as a global power.
"People are angry with Congress, angry with the terrible hospitals and worse schools," said Tania Nobrega, a 56-year-old psychologist protesting near Maracana in Rio. "But they don't want Dilma's head. People are sick of the status quo here, and that means they're fed up not only with the (ruling Workers Party) but also with all parties."
The demonstrations began earlier this month over a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fare in Sao Paulo before morphing into a nationwide movement denouncing a range of problems such as government corruption, poor education and health care.
The sudden outrage has bewildered the country's political class, which took several days to find their footing and respond to the demonstrations, both with words and action.
Several city and state governments reversed the hike on public transportation fares that sparked the first protests, but the demonstrators had moved well beyond that issue.
On June 21, Rousseff delivered a prerecorded prime time speech on TV that did little to calm the protests. She then convened a June 24 meeting with protest leaders and all the governors and mayors of capital cities, in which she announced $23 billion in new transportation investments. She also said she would import foreign doctors to work in underserved areas while promising a five-point plan to focus on public services and corruption.
The president is expected to deliver to Congress early this week her proposal for a national plebiscite letting citizens vote on political reforms.
The protests have mostly died down since the proposals were made.
The Estado de S. Paulo newspaper reported Sunday that 490 protests had taken place in Brazil in the last three weeks, peaking at 150 on June 20, when violent clashes between protesters and police were seen in several cities.
Many demonstrators have said they had learned their mass actions could prompt a quick government response. They also said they anticipated other high-profile events they could use to speak out, including July's visit by Pope Francis, next year's World Cup, a presidential election a few months later and the Rio Olympics three years from now.
"I don't think the demonstrations will stop people from coming to the World Cup, but I hope they don't come," said Tatiana Poggi, a history professor at Sunday's protest near Maracana. "It's a way foreigners help us protest. Boycott the big event."
Brazilian officials were doing all they could to make sure Sunday's protests didn't interrupt the finals match, which would be watched by millions around the world.
Officials were mobilizing the biggest security operation yet seen for a football game in Brazil, with about 6,000 regular police and almost 500 police investigators patrolling the area around Maracana and a large contingent of elite federal troops also on patrol.
No clashes between protesters and police were reported a few hours before the match was set to begin, but demonstrators remained fierce in their anti-government chants.
"Here in Brazil we took too long to wake up to discover they spent billions on stadiums, but they say there's no money for hospitals, no supplies for doctors," said protester Mariela Simao. "They tried to take action to show the population they are doing something, but they could do more."