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Will Brazil's About-Face Drive Back Protests?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, music may often get Brazil into the move for a carnival, but it's also inspiring and being inspired by protests going on in that country. We'll hear some of it in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to learn more about the protests. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Brasilia and other cities, in recent days. Major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are coming to Brazil soon, but economic growth is slowing down. And people are increasingly frustrated by high living costs and poor services. Here's what one protester told NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: All the government takes all the money. We see them, like, with all the corruption, all the time. And we, the public don't get anything. We just got tired.

HEADLEE: The last straw seemed to have been a 20-cent hike in bus fare. That's something that some mayors have since overturned since the protests began. But to get more details, I'm joined now by Vincent Bevins. He's the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and he's based in Sao Paulo. Welcome.

VINCENT BEVINS: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: Let's talk about this bus fare. I do understand that that's not the only demand that the protesters have, but some municipal government, including that of Sao Paulo, has agreed to scrap that increase. Has that in any way satisfied protesters?

BEVINS: Yes. I mean, it's certainly going to change the dynamic going forward. Because the group that started all of this - it's a group called Movimento Passe Livre, which wants free transportation for everyone - has said, since the beginning, this is what they wanted and they would stay on the streets until they got it. The protests recently have gotten so big and so broad that they want to take some time to reorganize and think about what the next protest would be organized around.

HEADLEE: This is not the first protest in Brazil over the past two decades, but it's certainly the largest. Why now? What is the atmosphere in Brazil that's caused so many people to take to the streets.

BEVINS: It is the most significant mass protest in over 20 years, and I think the easiest way to understand this is through series of events that took place. This 20 cent bus fare hike was an issue most people weren't too interested in, even though bus fares here are very high by international standards and can take up to 25 percent of a worker's salary, if he's on minimum wage. But these issues weren't hugely on the minds of Brazilians, nor were really the protests surrounding the World Cup and the Olympics, those have been going on for a year without too much attention being paid to them by the public or the media.

What really changed was that last Thursday a relatively small protest organized by the Free Fare Movement, or the Movimento Passe Livre, against the bus fare hike was attacked, by all accounts, savagely and brutally by police, injuring over a hundred protesters and journalists and bystanders alike. And this really put the spotlight on this particular protest and the fact that some people thought maybe the government's not letting us protest at all.

And so a combination of those three things, and then the first games of the Confederations Cup, which is the test run for the 2014 World Cup, gave sort of everyone that had something to complain about, a significant and legitimate place to go to voice those complaints.

HEADLEE: Can you tell me what it's like there on street level, what these protests look like, what they sound like?

BEVINS: Well, I was there. I was there on Thursday just trying to cover it, and I very unexpectedly got loads of tear gas in the face, right away, and then had other colleagues shot with rubber bullets for the rest of the night. Since then, there's been a huge reaction against that kind of tactics on the part of the police. The government has totally changed tack on whether or not these protestors are legitimate or if they're vandals, which was the original - the original characterization.

So Thursday was very tense. It felt like it was a war zone. But since then, it's been sort of more of a carnival atmosphere, the police standing by as people celebrate and chant - and then the president coming out saying that she supports the protests, and the mayors of many of the big cities of Brazil doing exactly what the protestors have asked for. So there's been a huge shift since this rather unfortunate night last week.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the LA Times Brazil Correspondent Vincent Bevins about protests in Brazil. Let me talk a little bit about the government and how they're handling this. I saw that the president, who's a socialist, to all accounts left-leaning, has actually lost popularity in the country. I wonder if these protests will stop once the Confederation Cup is over, and whether that means that it's just a waiting game for the government, that they won't have to make substantive changes, just wait for the protests to end.

BEVINS: One poll came out a few weeks before the protests got out of hand saying that President Dilma Vana Rouseff's popularity levels had dropped a bit - still massively popular, still one of the most popular governments that I can think of in a large country in the world. As of now, there's no one that's legitimately challenging her for her reelection in 2014. So things are worse for her than they were six months ago, but they're still looking pretty good.

It is very possible that now that this core protest group has gotten their demands, that it will fall onto somebody else to organize the new big protest, and it's unclear who that will be and if they'll be effective. And as to whether or not the government is forced in to giving concessions, it's tough to know exactly what it would be that they could do in the short term.

The government's been already locked in a fight with the opposition in Congress and some states to dedicate 100 percent of oil royalties, which is going to be a huge source of income for the country in the next five, 10 years - she's already been in a fight, for almost a year, to try to dedicate all of that to education, which is one of the main things the protesters are asking for. So even if the protests continue, there's not much that she can do to give into them if she wanted to.

HEADLEE: As we've mentioned, more than once, Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup. The pope is coming in just - in a month. The Olympics are coming two years later. I want to play a clip that's gone viral on YouTube. This is Brazilian Carla Dauden speaking in a video that she posted. And she called this video "No, I'm Not Going to the World Cup."


CARLA DAUDEN: I think the World Cup and the Olympics are great events, but they're not what our country needs right now. We do not need stadiums. We need education. We do not need Brazil to look better for the world. We need our people to have food and health. We do not need more parties. We need people with jobs and a sustainable way of living.

HEADLEE: Vincent, I've seen signs that say, "I'm a stadium, invest in me."

BEVINS: Exactly.

HEADLEE: "I'm the cup, invest in me."

BEVINS: Right.

HEADLEE: Is this a relatively common opinion?

BEVINS: I think this is something that when the spotlight fell on these particular protests against the preparations for the World Cup, this really tapped into a nerve. Over the last 10 years, Brazil has grown quite a bit, and 40 million people have come out of poverty and into the middle class. And Brazil has been protecting this image abroad of an advanced middle-class country, capable of putting on these huge events, and they've been spending the money to put on these huge events, quite a lot of money. And quite a lot - and everyone knows a lot of this money could get siphoned away to either corrupt politicians or private interests.

And so if you contrast this with an education system where some teachers don't show up, some teachers may not even know how to read, hospitals with huge lines, this is sort of a dream that of the middle-class advanced Brazil that had been promised by the government that has not yet been achieved. And it's very easy to look at a stadium that was built in Brasilia that costs more than any stadium's ever cost in the history of stadiums, and compare that with the very obvious needs on the ground.

HEADLEE: And in addition, I understand that there have been tens of thousands of Brazilians have been evicted, or will be evicted, so they can clear that ground to build some of these facilities.

BEVINS: Right. And the way that this has been done on very local levels, especially in Rio de Janeiro, has often been at the expense of the very poor people living close to the development zones. The government's said it's tried to do its best to repay these people, to get these people into better living conditions, but there's a lot of legitimate complaints about this being done too quickly, and with too much concern about what the world will think when they get here rather than developing the local communities.

HEADLEE: So Vincent, what we have here is people who are very angry over some very structural problems that can't be fixed with just the lowering the transportation or taking away the 20 cent hike. We have events that are coming years down the road, and as you said, the president doesn't have a whole lot of control in terms of making immediate changes. That sounds like it's a set up for a long-term period of civil unrest.

BEVINS: This dream of a new middle-class Brazil, if it's not realized, there'll be a lot of people demanding that the government come through.

HEADLEE: And so the protests that are planned for the days ahead, I know they've been organizing some of them on Facebook pages and social media, these protests as you've described are celebrations. Do you mean that there are people dancing and singing?

BEVINS: Yes. Well, there's one very literal change that happened today that the group, that's got this 20 cent bus fare hike revoked, has actually recast today's protest as a celebration of their victory. But other than that, all the other protests, despite their very, you know, loud and angry slogans, they do end up having sort of a carnival atmosphere. But at the same time, you have a carnival happening in the center of the city, and 20 blocks where you might have a bus lit on fire or violence between police and protesters.

HEADLEE: And no concerns, at this point, this far away from the World Cup that any of this might interfere with that event.

BEVINS: FIFA, the International Football Organization that organizes the World Cup, its leader, Sepp Blatter, has come out saying stop blaming football, and very openly pressuring the government to do something about this to fix it. Will the World Cup happen here? Yes. And will it probably be, generally, quite a success? Yes, I think so. But FIFA's certainly not happy.

HEADLEE: What's your typical protester in Brazil? Is it a young student or are we beginning to see other protesters outside these big cities maybe who are older?

BEVINS: In the beginning this was a movement of largely politically active students and people around their age range. Geographically and age wise, this has expanded quite a bit. This is now happening all throughout Brazil, and not just in the big, rich cities, this is happening in small northeastern cities. This is happening in cities that are traditionally poor. But still, the age range tends to be lower than the general population and the education tends to be higher than the general population.

But I think that has less to do with the issue itself than the fact that students just tend to have the time to protest. You're seeing lots of people riding the bus home or on the street or working in offices or working in shops, along the sides of the streets, cheering the protesters along.

HEADLEE: Cheering the protesters along, meaning that public sentiment in general is on the side of the protesters?

BEVINS: The best information we have is that most people support the protests, yes. And that would explain why the government, and even the right-wing opposition, are all scrambling to try to put the protesters on their side and to say that they represent the same things that the protesters do.

HEADLEE: Vincent Bevins is the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He joined us from his office in Sao Paulo. Thank you so much.

BEVINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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