Brazilian Protests Hurt President But Help Candidate Silva

Before national protests in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff looked like she was guaranteed victory in next year's elections. Her popularity has since plummeted, and polls show she would face a run-off against Marina Silva, who grew up the daughter of a poor rubber tapper in the Amazon.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go to Brazil now, where protests that began last month have transformed the political landscape. Today, there is a national strike supported by several unions. Before all these demonstrations began, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff seemed a sure bet to win reelection next year. Now her popularity has plummeted, and polls show she will probably face a runoff against another woman. Her name is Marina Silva. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, she has a compelling rags-to-political-power story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: As we walk into the hotel lobby, a man gets up to greet Marina Silva, saying hello, future president. Silva, a slight woman whose hair is coiled in a salt-and-pepper bun, nods graciously. Most politicians have been the big losers in Brazil's recent upheaval. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets here, decrying government corruption, among other complaints. But Marina Silva got a boost. She sat down with NPR for an extensive interview of Sao Paulo.

MARINA SILVA: (Through translator) I've been saying for a long time that we are seeing a new political awakening all around the world, and it's finding new ways of expressing itself. We are seeing an activism that is no longer directed by political parties. It is decentralized. It is leader-less.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leader-less it may be, but if the recent protest movement here signaled anything, it was a dissatisfaction with politics as usual. And Silva has benefited from that. She grew up poor, of Afro-Brazilian and Portuguese ancestry. Her father worked as a rubber tapper in the Amazon. She was orphaned young. She put herself through university working as a maid. She became politically active at a young age, too. She was a colleague of Chico Mendes, the union leader and environmentalist who was assassinated in the 1980s. A stint as a senator then led to a post as environment minister under former President Ignacio Lula da Silva. She quit, though, to join the Green Party, becoming their presidential candidate in 2010. She came in an impressive third place. Now she's forming her own party, with the aim of including many independents on her party's list. In Brazil, you have to be part of an acknowledged party to run for office, and that, she says, has excluded many groups from politics.

SILVA: (Through translator) We are proposing up to 30 percent of the party list to be available through independent candidates from civil society so people can have a place to defend their respective causes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her message is also one of environmental activism. That's her background, after all. She speaks of the imminent collapse of civilization as we know it, unless things radically change.

SILVA: (Through translator) Brazil is a country that can make an important contribution to this world in crisis. We have the best conditions to switch to a sustainable model of consumption. We have 11 percent of the planet's freshwater, 20 percent of the living species of the planet, and we still have more than 200 indigenous tribes speaking more than 200 languages.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this new post-protest Brazil, her proposals resonate, says political analyst Marco Aurelio Nogueira from the University of Sao Paulo.

MARCO AURELIO NOGUEIRA: (Through translator) These protests were anti-institutional, and she's always been seen as an outsider. So she is benefiting from the current political climate. But it's hard to know whether or not this popularity will last.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Silva also appeals to a very powerful voting block here. She is an evangelical Christian, but her faith is a double-edged sword, says Nogueira. On the one hand, her environmental and political platform appeals to a more liberal base, but she is a social conservative. Silva treads very carefully when discussing her positions on controversial issues, like stem cell research - she's against - teaching creationism in the school - she's for having it included in school curriculum, along with evolution - and gay marriage. She says she is for everyone having the same civil rights.

SILVA: (Through translator) I wonder whether people would ask what role religion plays in my life if I was a Catholic. I am a person of faith, and I don't hide my faith. I don't use my faith as a political tool.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When asked what her chances are to win the presidency next year, she demurs, saying she hasn't yet decided if she will run again.

SILVA: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People ask me if I am an optimistic or a pessimist, she says. I say neither. I am only persistent. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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