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Brazil protesters give president a tenuous truce, as she says their voices are being heard

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SAO PAULO - Cristiano Gulias took a deep drag from his mini-cigar and did the unthinkable — he started a political discussion in a coffee shop the morning after Brazil's national soccer team won a major championship, rather than a debate on the team's performance.

He's part of a post-protest phenomenon, the rapid politicization of a nation whose people have finally "awakened," as millions of Brazilians chanted during hundreds of demonstrations during the past two weeks.

Mass movements that sent more than 1 million people into the streets on a single night recently have tapered off. But they've left behind a widespread and persistent political debate in a country where apathy toward government was endemic just a few weeks back. People like Gulias are talking political reform in cafes, elevators and homes, with an energy Brazil hasn't seen in decades.

Political observers say that President Dilma Rousseff, following a perplexing week of silence after massive protests broke out on June 17, now better understands this powerful political wave sweeping Brazil and is responding to it. Her actions have helped temporarily take the fire out of the street movement — but voters' attention squarely rests on leaders and their proposals to improve poor public services and fight corruption.

"Now is the time for the people to sit and bargain with our leaders," said Gulias, 84, who strongly supports the protests, as a fellow coffee shop regular nodded his head in agreement. "We're fighting for the fulfilment of a million broken promises politicians have given us. We've demanded that our voices be heard."

Despite a poll showing a plunge in her popularity, some argue Rousseff has started to rebound by showing Gulias and other citizens that she wants them to be heard within a political system most Brazilians complain has long since stopped listening to them.

On Tuesday, the president delivered to Congress her recommendations on what topics should be included in a national plebiscite on political reform, including: how campaigns should be financed; how Congressmen should be elected; whether to end secret votes in Congress; if the party coalition system in voting for deputies and city councilmen should be nixed; and if there should be an end to allowing temporary replacements for senators when they take other posts. It's now up to Congress to convene the plebiscite.

That's helped end the massive size of the protests, though they are still seen each day in a smaller and scattered fashion. Truckers continued to protest against highway tolls and blocked roads in eight states, crippling traffic in some areas.

Also helping Rousseff is the end of the high-profile Confederations Cup soccer tournament this past weekend, which Brazil won, and the beginning of the South American nation's winter school vacation. The tournament angered citizens upset with the billions of dollars spent on stadiums while they endure underfunded schools and hospitals, and the protests were originally organized by university students.

"She took her time, but since first responding Dilma is giving answers and putting forward proposals that address protesters' concerns," said Helena Singer, a sociologist and professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "Her strong backing of political reform was bold. She's made proposals on health care and education that were on the demonstrators' agenda. The worst thing she did was to delay, but she's responding to the protesters now."

In addition to pushing Congress to approve a plebiscite giving Brazilians the chance to vote on what sort of political reform they want to see, Rousseff also says she wants oil royalties used to fund education, announced $23 billion in new spending on urban transportation, and she said she'll import thousands of foreign doctors to work in underserved, poor areas.

She has ordered her Cabinet to focus on and devise solutions for five priority areas: fiscal responsibility and controlling inflation, political reform, health care, public transport and education.

All those moves helped calm the waters. While not offering immediate solutions to the problem of Brazil's poor public services, they at least gave protesters the sense that she was listening to them and starting to work on their demands.

The biggest danger facing Rousseff and the tenuous truce protesters seem to have given her is an area where her government has garnered the most criticism: its economic policy, which many say gives the state too big of a role, scaring away international investors in the short term and ultimately hobbling the nation's ability to economically evolve and become more competitive.

"None of Dilma's proposals address the underlying problem that the economic policy of her government seems lost, it's not effective," said Alexandre Barros, with the Early Warning political risk group in Brasilia. "The economy isn't growing and prices are rising. People can no longer consume as much as they want, creating anger and fear in the middle class."

A new poll from the respected Datafolha published Sunday in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper backs that up. It shows that 38 per cent of Brazilians think their spending power is on the decline, up from 25 per cent a year ago. It also showed 44 per cent think unemployment will rise, 13 percentage points higher than a year back.

The same poll found that 30 per cent of respondents rated Rousseff's government as "great/good," a sharp fall from the 57 per cent who gave it that rating three weeks ago before the demonstrations began.

Datafolha interviewed 4,717 people on June 27 and 28. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

The U.S.-based political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group said in a Monday research note that the poll numbers mark "the end of a cycle of politics in which incumbents held absurdly high approval ratings, but it doesn't mean Rousseff is politically dead."

For now, Brazilians largely seem to be digesting the upheaval seen and anger vented on the streets during the protests. They appear willing to give Rousseff the chance to respond, though the patience will not be long-lived.

"I don't think there is any consensus among the people of what all of this yet means," said Marcia Shimabukoro, a 22-year-old university student in Sao Paulo. "Before, we all felt alone and unable to provoke change. Now, we've shown we can become a powerful mass that must be heard. It's a cultural shift for my generation."

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