Protesters In Brazil Claim Victory, Fare Hikes Rescinded

Two cities in Brazil have canceled bus and subway fare hikes after massive demonstrations. Anger over poor public services and government spending on sports arenas brought thousands of protesters into the streets.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Turkey, nationwide protests started with a park.

INSKEEP: In Brazil, protests started with the price of a bus ride. As the demonstration spread, a long list of other grievances was added.

MONTAGNE: Which is why protests are not likely to end even though last night, the mayors of Brazil's most important cities - Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo - reversed a hike in bus and metro fares. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo on how the demonstrations have been organized, and what happens next.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: They've come out in the tens of thousands. Protesters in Sao Paulo here are chanting, "The people have awakened." It's become a slogan of the demonstrations. Brazil is the largest economy in the Americas and up until recently, the most celebrated.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America.] In the past decade, millions have been lifted out of abject poverty, and the economy blossomed.

But the good news during the boom years, now over, papered over many of the real problems here - crime, corruption, inequality and poor services. It's no coincidence that the spark that set Brazil alight was anger over a hike in bus fares. For people earning the minimum wage, up to 25 percent of their salary can be spent on transportation in Sao Paulo; slow buses inching through snarled streets that are rife with criminality.

LUIZA MANDETTA: Every day, I take the bus, for instance. And I know how much it sucks, and how it's horrible to be in there, and how mistreated we are; how the conditions are very below what would be acceptable, how expensive it is. And I think that everyone lives that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's 19-year-old Luiza Mandetta. She's part of the Passe Livre - or Free Pass - Movement. This was the group that mounted the initial protest that ignited the current conflagration. Passe Livre was founded in 2005 at the World Social Forum, and they only number about 50 to 100 people normally. She says they've been working for this moment for eight years. Their ultimate goal is free public transport.

But the price hike galvanized them. Their Facebook page in Sao Paulo has become the go-to place to find out where and when protests are happening. Like organizers in other protests movements around the world, social media has been key.

MANDETTA: It's very important to spread information because everyone uses it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, because it's a small group, they've been coordinating with other activists with their own bases - leftists, housing advocates; you name it. There is no one leader.

MANDETTA: We don't believe in organizing ourselves in leadership, and someone just following orders. And I think that leadership is not something that's - that would help us. On the opposite, I think that we should all be organizing as equals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's in meetings, many of them, where these bands of equals decide what should happen next. But the gatherings are closed, and the members are secretive. NPR was unceremoniously evicted from one. Mandetta says there's a reason: The police would like to shut them down. She claims plainsclothes policemen have been behind the violence at demonstrations, in an attempt to discredit them.

MANDETTA: We need to be careful because it can be dangerous for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, for now, the group is celebrating a huge victory. The politicians, they say, caved in the face of all the pressure. A poll of protesters attending this week's rallies in Sao Paulo shows that 56 percent of them came out to protest the transport hike. But now that it's been rescinded, what next?

RAFAEL ALCADIPANI FUNDACION GETULIO VARGAS: I think they played a very, very, very important role.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's political analyst Rafael Alcadipani from the Fundacion Getulio Vargas. He says the role of social movements may be over.

VARGAS: I think now is a moment to see what's going on, rather than giving answers to what's going on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In cities across the county, the demands have expanded from how much people pay for transport, to a whole host of grievances. But Luiza Mandetta thinks that's just fine. When I ask her if this is the end, she says it's just the beginning.

MANDETTA: I hope so. (Laughing) I don't know, but I hope so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paolo.

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Correction June 21, 2013

We incorrectly say that Brazil is the largest economy in the Americas. It's actually the largest economy in Latin America.

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