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Brazilians strike, protest against austerity

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

Riot police in Brazil tear-gassed demonstrators on Friday during a general strike that shut down transportation, schools and banks across much of the country in protest against economic austerity reforms.

The action paralyzed Sao Paulo, the country's economic powerhouse. The metro stopped and most bus and train services also temporarily halted before partly resuming service.

Metro systems also closed in the capital Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, another major city. Curitiba, where Brazil's huge "Operation Car Wash" anti-corruption investigation is based, was left without bus services, as was the big northeastern city of Recife, local media reported.

The Forca Sindical union said 40 million people had responded to the call for the nationwide strike. This could not be independently verified.

Street demonstrations grew throughout the day with more than 2,000 people in central Rio de Janeiro. Several thousand people gathered for what was expected to be a bigger gathering in Sao Paulo, where protesters planned to march toward the private home of President Michel Temer.

Riot police deployed in Brasilia to block off government buildings.

Although most protests took place peacefully, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear demonstrators blocking major roads in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Some of the protesters burned tires to form barricades, snarling commuter traffic.

In Rio, police fought against a small group of protesters, who set fires and attempted to fight with police before being driven back with tear gas and stun grenades.

Brazilians were protesting a series of reforms the center-right government says are needed to save Latin America's biggest economy from further damage after more than two years of deep recession.

The call for a general strike by unions and left-wing organizations came as government statistics on Friday showed unemployment has reached a record 13.7 percent, or more than 14 million people without jobs.

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

The strike had the greatest effect in heavily unionized parts of the economy, including transportation, banks, schools, the post office and some hospital staff. The metallurgical workers' union said 60,000 members put down their tools.

Although a spokesman for the National Civil Aviation Agency told AFP that operations at the airports are functioning normally, there were multiple reports of delayed and canceled flights.

- Liberal reforms -

Temer has said Brazil's economy faces a meltdown without severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening.

His most controversial measure has been to curb pension costs by raising the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women, up from the current 60 and 55.

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

Friday's strikes could become the biggest protest to hit the Temer administration since he took over from impeached president Dilma Rousseff last August.

Her predecessor, the former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, praised the strike, Valor Economico website said.

"This is a clear demonstration that people are determined to paralyze (the country) in protest against the government's stripping away of their rights," the site quoted him as saying.

But not all Brazilians agree.

Marcelo Faisal, a landscape architect travelling from Sao Paulo to Rio, said "reforms need to take place" and that the general strike 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," he said.

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 on record.

The 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 in which his PMDB party negotiated a $40 million bribe from the Odebrecht engineering conglomerate. Temer and his allies deny any wrongdoing.

Lula and a host of other leftist figures are also targets of anti-corruption prosecutors.