Protests Spread Across Brazil And Take On New Life

The protests that have erupted in Brazil are rooted in vast economic and social inequalities in the South American nation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going back now to Brazil, where protests have erupted once again today. Demonstrators are out on the streets in more than 80 cities and towns, and the local and national governments seem uncertain of what to do about it. The protest began as a demonstration against increases in bus fares. But a number of cities, including Rio and Sao Paulo, have now rescinded those price hikes, and it's clear that demonstrators have many other complaints.

We're joined now by NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She is at the rally in Sao Paulo. And, Lourdes, I guess these protests have staying power. What are the demonstrators saying they want?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: In a word: change. Most of the people who are out protesting are middle class, even upper middle class. The litany of complaints is long: terrible crime, bad health care, high taxes. Just in front of me, there's someone holding up a sign that says they're against inflation. And unlike the protests elsewhere in the world, this isn't about a particular politician. No one is asking for the ouster of Dilma Rousseff, the president, for example.

There is an election next year, and this is a democracy, and they can punish her at the ballot box if they wish. They're angry at the whole political class that is seen as unresponsive and corrupt and elitist. And that's going to be hard for the people in power to address. It's not really clear how these protests can be defused now.

BLOCK: And as we mentioned, they have spread across the whole country. What have you been hearing about protests outside of Sao Paulo where you are now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. This is taking place in towns and cities across Brazil. In one town in the northeast, irate demonstrators sent the mayor into hiding. Last night, we saw protests in a city near Rio, Niteroi. There were clashes with police. So this isn't a movement that's confined to one single place.

To understand a bit more about the underlying causes of the unrest here, I went to the far east of Sao Paulo. It's a poor neighborhood, strewn with garbage, and there are stray dogs on the streets. It's not a slum, though. It's a lower middle-class area. And there I met with Severina de Souza, and she talked me through her struggle with health care.

SEVERINA DE SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The local clinic in Jardim Lourdes is packed. This is the first stop in the public health care system for the people in this neighborhood.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Severina takes a number and says, we'll have to wait a long time, usually several hours. But she's not waiting to see a doctor. There isn't one here. In fact, there are so few doctors in poor areas that Brazil was considering bringing physicians from Cuba. They are now trying to entice Portuguese and Spanish doctors to the country instead.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Severina is waiting to see a nurse who might refer her to an actual hospital. After her visit, we head back to her home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Severina, who's 46 and has three children, explains she has uterine tumors. She was diagnosed in 2008.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's been waiting for five years to see a hematologist after her blood work showed her platelets were down. The tumors have grown, but she's also not been able to have an operation as the public hospital says her condition isn't bad enough yet to warrant it even though she's been hemorrhaging sporadically.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tells another story of how she went to get a mammogram at another hospital. But on the day she showed up for her appointment, she was told the machine was broken. There was only one. She had to wait months before she could get her exam.

Like many people here, she's opted to pay for urgent care, but it's pricey. Severina makes about $800 a month, and it can cost up to $250 for each doctor's visit.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The health care system here is terrible, she tells me. If people need a doctor, there aren't any. What if it's a serious condition? There are no doctors to see us. Will we die, she asks?

This is one of the big issues that's resonating with the protesters. Taxes here are some of the highest in the world for a developing economy. And what you get back for that, say those taking to the streets, is minimal. Many in Brazil are now asking what are the government's priorities, why are billions being spent on stadiums for the World Cup soccer tournament when people can't get decent medical treatment?

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I support the protests, she tells me. The poor, the working class, she says with a sigh, have accepted everything up until now. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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