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Protests Dwindle In Brazil Due To Lack Of Leadership


Brazil has been a lot quieter this week. The massive protests that roiled the country have grown smaller. And to understand why, let's go to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is in Sao Paulo.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm on Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo, and the tall skyscrapers of this financial district are towering over me. This was the epicenter of the protest movement in Brazil. A few weeks ago, one million people were marching for change across this country. Now it's a regular morning on this busy artery. And that is emblematic of what's happened here, say people who were involved in the protest movement.

LIVIA VENDRAMEMINI: Well, I think it has lost the focus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's 30-year-old publicist Livia Vendramemini. She's on Avenida Paulista this day, and she says she took part in the initial demonstrations because she was angry over bus fares and police brutality. But now she says the protests have become confusing. Another day, another demo, and many only gather a few dozen people.

She continues in Portuguese.

VENDRAMEMINI: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People don't know what to ask for anymore, she says. Nothing's clear. That's why I stopped going to protests.

VENDRAMEMINI: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says: Look at what's now going on on Facebook and on Twitter. It's become a big fight between different groups trying to take control of the movement, she says.

The protests here began over a hike in bus and metro fares. The police cracked down, and it quickly metastasized after images of the clashes played out over social media.

But the very thing that allowed the protests to grow - that there were no leaders, that everyone had their say on the Internet - has now contributed to the demonstrations losing steam.

Denise Paiero is a professor at Mackenzie University in Sao Paulo. She specializes in protest movements.

DENISE PAIERO: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the local governments rescinded the fare increase, she says, everyone started trying to monopolize the movement. Everyone was saying my issue is more important than yours, and now there's no unifying voice, she says. In short, it's just become a cacophony.

PAIERO: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a war on social media, she says. And because it's anonymous, no knows who anyone is. No one knows who is on what side, who is defending what, she says.

Last month, a Facebook page calling for a general strike garnered 700,000 likes. But it was later discovered that the call for civil disobedience was the creation of a lone rapper and concert promoter with no connection to any particular group, much less Brazil's powerful unions.

Even the original group that galvanized the protests here have found the current state of affairs confusing.

Rafael Sequiera is with the Passe Livre Movement. They organized the original demonstrations against the bus fare hike. He says now things are nebulous.

RAFAEL SEQUIERA: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says all these new passe livre groups have popped up in other cities where they didn't have them before. It will take some time to get figure out who they are and organize them into a national network, he says.

But there has been a fundamental shift in Brazil.

Sequiera - a music teacher with long, unkempt hair - met with President Dilma Rousseff last week.

After initially dithering in the face of public outrage, she's met with a number of activist groups and has a string of proposals in the works to improve health care, education and transportation, the result of public pressure.

Sequeira says even if things are in a lull now, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Politicians be warned.

SEQUIERA: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The good thing is it's created a culture of going out to the streets, he says. People know now they can change things.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. 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.
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