São Paulo, 29 May 2018: A week-long strike by hundreds of thousands of lorry drivers, blockading highways and interrupting deliveries of petrol, food, medical supplies and livestock, paralysed Brazil. Without fuel, planes were grounded, buses were unable to run, and cars were stranded. Without medicines and blood, hospitals cancelled operations and turned patients away. Schools and universities closed down. Without feed, millions of chickens and pigs died of starvation. Without transport, thousands of litres of milk were poured into the ground.
Lorry drivers speaking about the strike. Later in the report, a ‘Military intervention now!’ banner is visible in the background. Video: Al Jazeera, posted 18 May 2018
Taken by surprise, although it had been warned of the lorry-drivers’ growing discontent with the rising price of diesel months in advance, the government floundered. It began holding talks with leaders of transport associations, only to discover after reaching a deal that they did not represent all the drivers, most of whom were autonomous.
The huge impact of the strike revealed the distortion in Brazil’s transport system, where, in a country of continental proportions, 85% of goods go by road instead of railways and rivers.
It also highlighted the disastrous pricing policy introduced by Petrobras after Michel Temer came to power in 2016, with the profits of shareholders taking precedence over the real economy, where officially inflation runs at less than 3%. Dictated by international oil prices and the dollar exchange rate, diesel and petrol prices have been raised continuously, sometimes daily. This also benefitted the government, which taxes fuel by up to 30%.
The drivers complained that while fuel prices rose, the price of freight did not and therefore in effect they were now paying to work.
At first the government offered tiny concessions, reducing the fuel tax by less than 1%. But the drivers stood firm. And they enjoyed widespread support among the population, in spite of the inconvenience and shortages as people struggled to get to work and food prices rocketed.
As the crisis worsened, President Temer kept popping up on TV to announce new measures to end the strike. But the lorry-drivers continued to hold out for bigger concessions.
The government announced it would call in the police and the armed forces to break the blockades. Nothing happened. Temer then accused ‘a radical minority’ of continuing the strike. The lorry drivers rejected this accusation and protests began to spread to other sectors. Van drivers and moto-boys held demos. And as Temer appeared once again on the TV screens with his latest announcement, a panelaço began, with the sound of banging saucepans echoing round the apartment buildings of Rio, SP, Brasilia, Curitiba and other capitals, interspersed with shouts of “Fora Temer”.
What began as a protest against the price of diesel had turned into a political protest against the government. Some of the drivers are also demanding the resignation of the head of Petrobras, Pedro Parente, until last week hailed as an efficient executive who was turning around the state oil company’s fortunes and making it profitable again after years of corruption, but is now blamed for insisting on the calamitous pricing policy .
Most commentators agree that the government’s slowness to act, inability to realise the seriousness of the situation or identify the real leaders of the strike, contributed to prolonging it. Temer is seen as a president who has lost all credibility. In Congress deputies are saying openly that he will not last the seven months until the end of his term.
“Bring back the military”
But instead of Temer, many people are calling, not for a more democratic government, but for the return of the military. “Military intervention now” appeared on banners among the lorries parked along the highways. Interviewed by a reporter, driver Clayton Souza said, “In my opinion, the strike will only end if the military take over until the elections. It’s the only way. The army should take over, organise things. Temer and the other politicians are fooling the people. They are all liars.”
The president of ABCAM, The Lorry-Drivers’ Association, José da Fonseca Lopes, said, as the strike entered its eighth day and began to wind down, that it had been taken over by people who want to overthrow the government. “There is a very strong pro- (military) intervention group involved in what’s going on.”
As a result, lorries which tried to leave the blockades were being stopped. Petrol station owners reported receiving phone calls threatening to burn down their premises if they accepted supplies of fuel and began working again.
Videos and messages calling for military intervention have proliferated on social media, along with fake news designed to spread panic.
Get your money out of the bank quick, the government is going to confiscate all current accounts!
There will be a massive power cut on Monday unless the government resigns!
Temer has to go, the military are going to take power!
The military, like everyone else in a position of power, have been holding daily crisis meetings, monitoring events. But they are being cautious. “It is a delicate situation”, said an army officer who wanted anonymity: “the government is trying to dump another crisis in our laps – first the Rio intervention, now the lorry-drivers’ strike.” This followed Temer’s threat to bring in the armed forces unless the strike was called off and roads unblocked.
By Tuesday it seemed that most drivers had accepted the government’s offers of a two month freeze on diesel prices and a price reduction, caused by lowering the fuel tax. But Petrobras oilworkers have announced a 72 hour strike beginning on Wednesday 30 May. They too are protesting the company’s pricing policy and demanding Parente’s exit. Other categories could follow suit.
What do we want? And how do we get it?
The lorry-drivers’ strike took the lid off a simmering situation of widespread discontent with the government. For some the answer is to call the military. For others it is “Lula livre” – the release of the PT leader, now at the beginning of a 12 year jail sentence, so that he can run for president while his appeals to higher courts are heard.
TV Globo has been running a series of viewers’ videos called “The Brazil we want”. From all over the country men and women pose for selfies in front of abandoned buildings -schools, health posts and hospitals – promised but then abandoned as the money ran out or was diverted into corrupt pockets. Their messages are very similar – they want an end to corruption, honest politicians, better services. Jobs.
In the capitals, symposiums and seminars of academics, intellectuals, economists and analysts debate the same thing in more sophisticated terms. Everybody wants change, but the question is how to make it happen. Can the elections deliver it, or will they just deliver more of the same? Is Brazil entering a winter of discontent, with more strikes and unrest? Which of the presidential candidates will benefit?