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Historic Protests In Brazil Amid Political Crisis, Economic 'Hurricane'


Brazil saw protests yesterday. Record-setting numbers of people came out in cities and towns across the country. Demonstrators were calling for President Dilma Rousseff to go at a time when Brazil is in crisis, both economic and political. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: There was drumming and chanting and a giant inflatable chicken and even a dance flash mob. Across South America's largest country, Brazilians were inventive in expressing their anger aimed squarely at President Dilma Rousseff.

MARCELO CARNEIRO: It's very clear for us that Dilma doesn't have the ability to run the country anymore and do the economic changes that we need to do to keep growing. So it's just a matter of time before justice gets her hands on her.

ANDRE ANTULIUS: I think that it's time for a change in our country. I think that we need to change our government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Marcelo Carneiro, a 31-year-old business manager, and Andre Antulius, a 38-year-old systems analyst, who were out protesting in Sao Paulo yesterday, calling for the impeachment or resignation of Rousseff. The respected Datafolha polling agency said nearly half a million people took to Sao Paulo's streets. It was, according to them, the biggest protest in Sao Paulo's history. And it was only one of many across the country. Even the northeast of Brazil, long a bastion of support for the leftist government of Dilma Rousseff, saw large demonstrations.

ELIANE CANTANHEDE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached Eliane Cantanhede, a political commentator in the capital, by phone. She says Brazil's political establishment is inflamed because this is a crisis without precedent.

CANTANHEDE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I think the size of these demonstrations," she says, "have surprised even the government. They are truly historic, and they will have a very strong impact on the forces in Congress trying to push Dilma out," she says.

Michael Mohallem is a legal expert with the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio. He says the economic situation is what's really hurting Rousseff. Last year, the economy contracted by 3.8 percent. It was the worst performance in generations.

MICHAEL MOHALLEM: We are in the middle of a hurricane. And we can't find a way out of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barring her resignation, he says, there are no good options for unseating a democratically elected leader who hasn't been proved to have done anything criminal. There is an impeachment process against Rousseff. But the case is weak. He says he believes it's unlikely that Dilma will survive, though.

MOHALLEM: I think if she goes through the impeachment without a very clear, strong reason, I think we're going to be creating a very bad precedent for Brazilian democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a politically polarized country right now. And Rousseff does have her supporters, like Jorge Antonio das Neves, a 29-year-old doctor sitting at a bar, having lunch in a middle-class neighborhood in Rio yesterday.

JORGE ANTONIO DAS NEVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I think this is a coup," he says. "I think the opposition on the right is taking advantage of the situation," he says.

Driving this crisis is the massive corruption scandal at the state oil company. It has left almost no one unscathed. This month, once-renovated former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was taken in for questioning and is the subject of federal and state investigations.

The head of the lower house of Congress, who is from a rival party, is also implicated among many others. So perhaps the only winner in yesterday's demonstrations was the judge, Sergio Moro, who has overseen the prosecutions in the corruption case. Protesters paraded in Moro masks and held up Moro dolls wearing superhero capes. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.