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Protesters In Brazil Highlight Discontent With Government Corruption


Brazilian police fired water cannons and tear gas and blocked the streets in Sao Paulo today to disperse antigovernment protesters. And then a big pro-government rally began. Leading this gathering is former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He's one of many current and former officials in Brazil who are now facing corruption charges. With us now is our correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. And Lulu, tell me where you are exactly and who is taking part in this pro-government rally.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Right. I am on the streets right now, the main thoroughfare in Sao Paulo. And we are seeing thousands of people gathering. And this is a very important rally for the government. If we recall, last weekend were the biggest antigovernment demonstrations in Brazil's history. And today, what they're trying to show is that there are people that still support this government. This show of force they hope will send that message loud and clear. And the reason this is important is because what's happening on the streets is playing out in the halls of power. Right now, Dilma Rousseff, the president, is in the process of being impeached. You have the former president, as you mentioned, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who is facing corruption charges, so these protests are very important.

MCEVERS: These corruption charges that we are talking about against the former President Lula are part of a much larger scandal that's linked to the multinational energy company Petrobras. Tell us about that. How big is that scandal?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's absolutely huge, Kelly. It is the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil's history. I know I keep using superlatives here, but you have to understand that this is an incredible period in Brazil's history. What we saw was basically 50 politicians being implicated in this corruption scandal. This corruption scandal has looked into some of the biggest companies in Brazil. We saw just recently the head of the biggest company in Latin America, which is a Brazilian company, Odebrecht. The head of that was put in prison for 19 years because he was involved in corruption. And it - the scale of this is really, really big. When you look at Brazil, you might think oh, just another Latin American country in another corruption scandal. But what's happening here is truly unprecedented in the region.

MCEVERS: We see so many people out in the streets, does that mean that the people themselves are surprised by how sweeping this scandal is?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, even though people know that there is corruption in Brazil - it's very well-known, people understand that that's the way government and business works and they've been very sanguine about it - the scale of this particular scheme was shocking to them. You have to understand that this all revolves around the state oil company, which is the crown jewel in the economy of Brazil. And what was happening was that some of the biggest construction companies here were overcharging the state oil company and then were funneling those funds to the tune of billions of dollars into slush funds for public officials. And I think once that became obvious, people were truly shocked that basically something as important as the state oil company was being used as a piggy bank for personal gain.

MCEVERS: I know that this is causing obviously a lot of upheaval right now in the short term there in Brazil, but could this ultimately be a good thing for the country?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's certainly the subject of a great deal of debate. On the one hand, you're seeing a very empowered judicial system, a prosecutor - a prosecutorial system that is going after graft wherever they may find it. We've seen people on the right of the political spectrum being implicated; we've seen people on the left of the political spectrum being implicated. The judge at the center of this has been hailed as a hero by many people. And so this is really sort of changing the dynamics of the equation. But on the other hand, you know, when I look on the streets here and you talk to people, everyone tells me they're afraid about the future. They feel that the country is very politically polarized. And the question is if this government falls, what comes next? And nobody has a very good answer for that because so many people have been implicated in this corruption scandal that sort of there's no one left standing.

MCEVERS: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. 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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