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Anti-austerity strike snarls Brazil cities

Rosa SULLEIRO with Sebastian SMITH in Rio de Janeiro
Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators during a general strike against the Brazilian social welfare reform project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 28, 2017

Brazilian demonstrators were tear-gassed by riot police Friday during a general strike attempting to shut down transport, schools and banks in protest at economic austerity reforms.

Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous city and financial powerhouse, was worst hit.

Police fired tear gas to clear highways of protesters while bus lines, the metro and trains all stopped working in the early hours, bringing the city temporarily to a standstill before some services resumed.

In Rio de Janeiro, protesters lit fires on a major bridge, disrupting commuter traffic, while police also used tear gas to force a small crowd of them from outside the main bus station. Many banks were shut.

Much of the city was unaffected, however, with private businesses such as cafes and shops opening normally and most transportation running as usual.

In the capital Brasilia and in Belo Horizonte, another major city, the metro systems were completely closed down.

Curitiba, the city where Brazil's huge "Operation Car Wash" anti-corruption investigation is based, was left without bus services, as was the big north-eastern city of Recife.

Unions and leftwing organizations called for a general strike to oppose center right President Michel Temer's push for a sharp reduction in pension benefits and other austerity reforms.

Temer says the reforms are needed for Brazil to escape a two year recession that has driven investors out of the once booming emerging market. But with unemployment hitting another record high Friday -- at 13.7 percent -- many Brazilians say ordinary people shouldn't have to pay the price.

"We can't keep quiet anymore with a government that is not legitimate, which wasn't elected to dismantle the rights of workers," said Ricardo Jacques, a striking bank employee in Sao Paulo.

The strike appeared to be having greatest effect in heavily unionized parts of the economy, including transportation, schools, the post office and some hospital staff.

A spokesman for the National Civil Aviation Agency told AFP that "operations at the airports are functioning normally."

However, there were multiple reports of delayed or cancelled flights. At Congonhas, one of the airports serving busy Sao Paulo, the departures board carried numerous notices of cancellations.

At Sao Paulo's international airport, Guarulhos, only a handful of flights were delayed, the airport said.

Police deployed in large numbers to protect government buildings in Brasilia ahead of demonstrations planned later in the day.

- Pensions crisis -

Temer has said that without severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening, Latin America's biggest economy faces a meltdown.

The most controversial measure is to curb pension costs by raising the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women, up from 60 and 55 at present.

The government is also pushing for a liberalization of labor laws and has succeeded in getting Congress to pass a 20-year spending freeze.

Friday's strikes could become the biggest protests to hit the Temer administration since he took over from impeached president Dilma Rousseff last August. So far, however, the only partial observance of the general strike call left the presidency relieved, Estadao news service reported.

Marcelo Faisal, a landscape architect travelling from Sao Paulo to Rio, said "reforms need to take place" and that the general strike call was not living up to the hype.

"They didn't succeed in getting people to adhere to the strike, so they burned tires to block some points here and there, which just causes some disruption," Faisal said.

Brazilians' anger over the country's economic drift, however, is real.

The economy shrank 3.8 percent in 2015 and is expected to have contracted a further 3.5 percent in 2016, the most painful recession in a century.

This miserable economic scenario is dovetailing with the country's worst corruption crisis in history. The "Car Wash" probe has uncovered a massive network of embezzlement and bribery at the heart of Brazil's economic and political elite.

Eight of Temer's ministers are under investigation and the president himself has been accused of chairing a meeting where his PMDB party negotiated a $40 million bribe from the Odebrecht engineering conglomerate. Temer and his allies deny any wrongdoing.