ADRIANA GOMEZ, Associated Press
SAO PAULO (AP) â?? Protesters began a wave of demonstrations around Brazil on Thursday, burning tires and blocking highways to draw attention to housing and education needs before next month's World Cup.
In Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, demonstrators blocked two key roads into the city and hundreds protested near one of the stadiums built for soccer's premier tournament.
"Our goal is symbolic. We don't want to destroy or damage the stadium," said Guilherme Boulos, head of the Homeless Workers Movement, whose activists gathered at Itaquerao Stadium. "What we want is more rights for workers to have access to housing and to show the effects the Cup has brought to the poor."
The group claims many people have been forced out of their homes because of rising rents in the neighborhood around the new stadium.
About 1,500 people at the rally waved red banners and Brazilian flags as black smoke rose from burning tires spoiling the view of the stadium. Dozens of riot police blocked the main entrance next to a construction zone where cranes and other machines were lined up to carry materials still needed to finish the arena.
The day's biggest demonstrations were expected in Sao Paulo, a city of 11 million people that will host the World Cup's opening match on June 12, and in Rio de Janeiro, where the final match takes place in July. The protests in Rio were expected later in the day.
Groups also planned anti-government demonstrations in other cities hosting World Cup games. Some were called by two big unions that are demanding better wages and working conditions.
The demonstrations were being watched as a test of the government's ability to maintain security during the World Cup.
Huge anti-government protests across Brazil last year overshadowed the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament for the World Cup. Many of the demonstrations saw clashes between activists and police, and at least six people were killed.
Many Brazilians are angry at the billions spent to host the World Cup. Protesters have said the government should focus spending instead on improving Brazil's woeful health, education, security and infrastructure systems.
Brazilian leaders had hoped the World Cup and then the 2016 Olympics in Rio would put a favorable spotlight on the country, showing advances over the past decade in improving its economy and pulling tens of millions out of poverty.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.