In Light Of Protests, Brazil Offers Changes

Brazil's president has proposed a $25 billion transportation upgrade, in a bid to take the wind out of the sails of the nation's protest movement. After the police aggressively broke up the first demonstrations, the protests spread and grew into the hundreds of thousands.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The president of Brazil is offering some big and costly changes in response to a stunning series of protests that began with a simple grievance: bus fares went up. After the police aggressively broke up the first demonstrations, the protests spread and grew into the hundreds of thousands, a massive show of discontent, the likes of which hasn't been seen in Brazil in decades. While many of the protestors are middle class, they're angry about not benefiting fully from Brazil's recent prosperity. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Sao Paolo, Brazil. Good morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, tell us about what President Dilma Rousseff is proposing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's a series of measures, the most ambitious of which is a proposal to plow some $22 billion into upgrading the public transportation system here. She also promised a referendum on political reform and stiffer penalties for corruption as she again reiterated her call for 100 percent of oil revenue to go into education. So, it's a pretty ambitious package.

MONTAGNE: And how have people reacted so far?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mixed, as you can imagine. She met yesterday, before announcing her plan, with members of the Free Fair Movement. These are young college kids, many of them, who have had the unlikely role thrust on them of being, sort of, spokespeople for what's turned into this broad movement here. If you recall, they advocate for free public transport, and they were the initial group to call a protest against a hike in bus and metro fares. And they came out of what was a pretty unprecedented meeting here, saying that they would continue their struggle and that the moves didn't go far enough. And that was expected. This is a group that's been around for about eight years. They want free public transport and that's not something the president is offering. But the proof of how effective she is will be on how it affects the protestors. You know, these protests have gotten smaller in recent days. Is this a lull? Are they losing steam? We'll have to wait and see.

MONTAGNE: Well, also Brazil's leadership is trying to respond before things get out of control, but have the protests already affected the country's economy?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the economy was in a difficult place before this happened, which is one of the reasons, possibly, why this did happen - slow growth, rising inflation. Over the past week, though, we've seen the Brazilian currency tank against the dollar. And this is one of the big challenges for the president. There is already a lot of social spending here. It's what made Brazil so touted, because it dragged people out of abject poverty during the boom years. The boom years, though, are now over, and the government here doesn't have a lot of wiggle room to spend even more, which is what the protestors are demanding in effect. So, while she made all these statements yesterday, she also had to call for fiscal discipline.

MONTAGNE: What's interesting, though, about this response on the part of the president there in Brazil, is that the government seems to be reaching out to the protestors in ways that we haven't seen in other big story of protest - Turkey - where the prime minister has more or less come out, angrily, speaking about protestors and not really very responsive. Why is Brazil handling it this way?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think they're both sort of personal and political reasons why she's reacted differently. Personally, this is a woman who was jailed under the dictatorship. She comes from the left, so there's a natural affinity between her and these kinds of demonstrations, at least in her mind. Politically, some would argue, the protesters' demands align with her own political agenda. When she came into office, she was seen as a sort of corruption buster. So, calls to end corruption mirror her own platform. So, she's using the momentum on the streets to enact a change she wants to see, essentially.

MONTAGNE: Lourdes, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro talking to us from Sao Paolo, Brazil.

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