SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Brazilian authorities are trying to determine the source of rumors that led thousands of people concerned about their government assistance payments to make a run on banks last weekend.
Word spread that the government would be canceling its Bolsa Familia program, which provides cash transfers to poor families, and crowds began to form Saturday around banks in at least 12 states, and in some cases smashed windows, local press reported.
The reaction to the rumors demonstrated the importance of the government’s flagship antipoverty program, which has been the subject of sometimes heated political debate.
The program generates support for the ruling center-left Workers’ Party among the country’s poor, leading some observers to question whether the rumors and resulting chaos may have been politically motivated.
A government minister said President Dilma Rousseff’s administration did not want to “politicize” the incident, though it wants answers about who was behind it.
“This is absurdly inhuman. The author of this rumor is a criminal, and that’s why we’ve told the federal police to find out where the rumor came from,” Rousseff said Monday. “Our commitment to the program is deep, strong and definitive. We will not give up on Bolsa Familia.”
Launched by then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2003, the program guarantees a minimum level of income to poor families on the condition that their children attend school and are vaccinated.
The program has been responsible for a significant part of Brazil’s social successes, as the poverty rate dropped by 50% from 2003 to 2011, and is one of the government’s most internationally praised projects, according to Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
The program serves 13.8 million families, who receive a minimum stipend of about $35 a month, and 70% of its adult recipients also work, the government says.
Much of the recent tumult took place at banks in the country’s northeastern region, where the program is most in demand.
Farmers Julia and Ademir de Sousa said they were injured in a motorcycle accident in their rush to reach the nearest bank Saturday. They struck a cow and had to go to a hospital instead.
“I didn’t have any money, and we took off with just the clothes on our backs to go get some,” Julia de Sousa, 32, told local paper Folha de S. Paulo on Wednesday. “It was desperation.”
Like many others, they heard via cellphone from concerned friends and relatives that the assistance program was ending.