Angered by COVID response, Brazilians protest against Bolsonaro

Tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets Saturday to demand the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing increasing pressure as the pandemic exacts a devastating toll.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the Esplanede of Ministries in Brasilia, on July 24, 2021. (EVARISTO SA / AFP)

It was the fourth weekend of protests called by leftist political parties, labor unions and social groups against Bolsonaro, who is being investigated for allegedly turning a blind eye to a scheme to embezzle government funds in the purchase of vaccines.

Protest marches were planned in 400 cities and towns.

In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of people in red clothes and wearing face masks marched with banners bearing slogans berating the embattled leader, including "No one can take any more" and "Get out corrupt criminal."

Organizers said they were part of a day intended to galvanize the country "in defense of democracy, the lives of Brazilians and getting Bolsonaro out."

In Rio and elsewhere, protesters complained about Brazil's late-starting vaccination program and high unemployment rate, and demanded more emergency aid for poor people grappling with the pandemic.

"It is very important that everyone who feels offended or oppressed by this government comes out to the streets, because we need to fight for the return to democracy," Laise de Oliveira, a 65-year-old social worker, told AFP.

Brazilian press carried images and reports of streets thronged with anti-Bolsonaro demonstrators in 20 of Brazil's 26 states through early afternoon.

- Record low approval -

Neither the organizers nor the authorities have released an overall estimate of the number of people attending the marches.

But large demonstrations were planned in Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous city with 12.3 million residents, and the capital Brasilia.

Bolsonaro, criticized for remarks in favor of exploiting protected areas of the Amazon, his views on guns, and an ambitious privatization program, is enduring his worst stretch since coming to power in 2019.

His approval rating is at a record low 24 percent and polls suggest he could lose October's presidential election to his main rival, leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose Workers Party was one of the forces behind Saturday's demonstrations.

Brazil has suffered nearly 550,000 deaths because of Covid, a toll surpassed only by that of the United States, which has almost 120 million more people.

Bolsonaro has been famously dismissive of the health crisis, the need to wear face masks, and lockdown measures to halt the spread of the virus.

On June 30 the opposition in congress presented an impeachment complaint that is an amalgam of some 100 others already filed with more than 20 different charges against the president.

But Bolsonaro still has enough support in congress to block these initiatives, including that of the speaker, who decides whether the complaints are allowed to proceed.