SAO PAULO/RIO DEIRO (Reuters) - Road blocks and marches hit Brazilian cities on Thursday as disparate groups criticized spending on the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament and sought to revive a call for better public services that swept the country last June.
Less than a month before the tournament kicks off, and four months before a presidential election, Thursday's protests will gauge the ability of demonstrators to once again rally frustrated Brazilians and the competence of police to manage unrest that occasionally escalated over the past year into violence and vandalism.
A main thoroughfare was blocked with burning tires in Brazil's biggest city of Sao Paulo and protesters stormed a building in the capital Brasilia. Marchers in Rio de Janeiro blocked traffic on the two main streets in the city center.
Looters took advantage of a three-day police strike in the northeastern city of Recife, a World Cup venue. Supermarkets, shops and vehicles were ransacked. The army and units of a special national gendarmerie have been called in to keep order.
Groups, including the Homeless Workers Movement, marched towards a World Cup stadium in Sao Paulo, site of the tournament's June 12 kickoff, that has become a target because of families displaced by its construction.
One banner carried by demonstrators read: "The cup without the people, all to the streets again!"
In Brasilia the Homeless Workers Movement entered the headquarters of Terracap, the state company that manages the city's 1.4-billion-real ($630 million) stadium - the country's most expensive.
Protests are planned in up to 50 cities throughout the day, as demonstrators hope to rekindle momentum that led to millions of people hitting the streets last year during the Confederations Cup, a two-week World Cup warmup.
Last year's demonstrations prompted President Dilma Rousseff, who faces a bid for re-election in October, to address the nation and acknowledge deficiencies in public services and investment in everything from education and health care to transportation and security.
In a speech on Thursday, Rousseff attacked critics of her government's Cup preparations and called on the nation to welcome Cup visitors with "the hospitality that is part of the Brazilian soul," the Globo newspaper reported on its website.
After a near-decade of steady growth before she took office, Brazil now struggles with a sluggish economy, persistent inflation, increasing crime and lackluster investment.
Thursday's protests come in a week which has already seen widespread strikes from dissatisfied labor unions across Brazil, from bus drivers in Rio de Janeiro to military police in the northeastern city of Recife.
($1 = 2.22 Brazilian reais)
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Rio de Janeiro and Pedro Fonseca and Nacho Doce in São Paulo. Editing by Paulo Prada, W Simonm Bernard Orr and Jeb Blount