Thursday August 26 6:14 PM ET

Brazilians Protest Gov't, IMF Cuts

Brazilians Stage Biggest Anti-Cardoso Protest By Axel Bugge

BRASILIA (Reuters) - More than 60,000 Brazilians demanding an end to President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's IMF-sponsored austerity drive massed in front of Congress Thursday in the biggest ever protest against his government.

Police in the capital Brasilia gave the attendance estimate for the ``March of the 100,000,'' as left-wing opposition leaders have dubbed it, easily making it the largest protest against Cardoso since he took power in 1995. Organizers said 90,000 took part. ``From all points of view the protest was much smaller than the organizers predicted,'' said Communications Minister Joao Pimenta da Veiga. The protest passed without incident. Waving banners reading ``Out IMF, out Cardoso,'' members of Brazil's five Congressional opposition left-wing parties, workers and the Landless Movement which fights for land reform, gathered on the vast lawns in front of Congress. Some 10,000 policemen were mobilized to patrol the lawns, the size of about 10 soccer fields.

The marchers delivered a petition which they said had been signed by 1.3 million people asking Congress to investigate charges of corruption in last year's privatization of the giant state telephone company Telebras. ``Cardoso is open to dialogue but not the investigation,'' Arthur Virgilio, the government's chief whip in Congress, told reporters after talking with the president.

``We are here to demand the resignation of Cardoso, because his policies, created by the United States and IMF, are killing the people from hunger,'' said Genival Oliveira, a member of the Workers Party from Sao Paulo.

The president's popularity has slumped since a January devaluation and an austerity drive that brought higher taxes to reduce a massive budget deficit estimated at more than 8 percent of gross domestic product. ``If Cardoso resigns, it would be a gracious gesture, but Cardoso has no grace,'' Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, three-time failed presidential candidate for the Workers Party, told the throng of demonstrators. Political observers doubted the march could galvanize opposition to the government.

Analyst Carlos Lopes of the Santa Fe political consultancy predicted the petition for an investigation into the Telebras privatization would get nowhere in Congress. ``This will have no impact on day-to-day politics at all,'' he said.

Cardoso has criticized the protest, calling it ``the march of the directionless.'' A huge majority reelected him to a second term less than a year ago for his anti-inflation drive. Government officials say the opposition has no viable alternatives to the spending cuts, privatizations and inflation-fighting policies that they say will ensure Brazil's long-term economic stability. Brazil's economy is creeping out of recession and Cardoso's popularity could rise if growth takes off by the end of the year. Still, unemployment is rising and providing political ammunition for the opposition.

Brazil's currency, the real, has slid in recent weeks amid mounting social protests and fears that Cardoso's unpopularity could sap the political drive to push more spending cuts through Congress. Financial markets were calm Thursday.

The country obtained a $41.5 billion international loan package led by the International Monetary Fund last year, which includes strict budget targets.