SAO PAULO, Brazil — President Michel Temer has announced $2.5 billion worth of concessions to truck drivers who have blocked Brazil’s highways and kept goods from reaching supermarkets, stores and gas stations for a week.
The announcement late Sunday marked Temer’s third attempt at resolving a dispute over fuel prices that has taken Latin America’s largest economy hostage. Initially, he took a tough stance on the strike and called on the military to intervene, but he then walked back his statements several times as gas pumps ran dry and produce prices soared.
In a televised speech, Temer appealed to the drivers’ sense of “responsibility, solidarity and patriotism.” He said he would force gas stations to cut the price of diesel by 12 cents a liter, freeze that price for two months and cut tolls for truckers riding with no cargo.
Whether the disparate groups of truckers organizing throughout the country will accept the concessions remains to be seen. Five unions welcomed the deal, but at least 20 other groups are taking part in the strike and thousands of drivers continued their protest. Some demanded Temer’s resignation and called for a military intervention.
Meanwhile, the costs of the strike continue to mount. On Monday, 10 airports ran out of fuel. Thirteen public universities canceled classes, and most of Brazil’s major cities slashed the number of buses operating. Over the next few days, 1 billion chickens are expected to die as farmers run out of feed, according to the Brazilian Animal Protein Association. Hospitals in southern Brazil were suspending nonessential surgeries.
“It was a week that shattered the government’s image to dust,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political consultant in Brasilia. Temer underestimated Brazilians’ empathy for the striking truckers, he said, adding that the president’s aggressive initial approach was akin to throwing kerosene at the problem. Instead of retreating, the truckers came back with growing demands as the situation on the streets became more dire.
Before taking office two years ago, Temer promised to attract foreign investment and revive Brazil’s economy after its worst recession on record. But the country’s few economic gains have been slow to trickle down, and the president’s approval rating has hovered around 7 percent.
The truckers’ concerns over high prices struck a chord with Brazilians fed up with a stagnant economy five months ahead of presidential elections. Uber drivers and school-bus and van drivers have joined the movement, echoing the truckers’ calls for lower fuel prices. Oil refinery workers announced they, too, would go on strike this week and called for the resignation of the chief executive of the state-controlled oil company Petrobras.
“The government may see this movement spin out of control,” Bandeira said. “They are trying to act quickly.”
In a country with staggering levels of inequality, the strike was surprisingly democratic. Business executives and domestic workers were stranded as buses, vans and luxury cars were all denied fuel at the pumps. As prices soared and gas lines stretched, Brazilians united in a shared hatred of the ruling political class. Ninety-five percent of the country disapproves of the way the government handled the strike, according to a poll released Monday. Only 55 percent disapprove of the strike.
“It’s not that I’m in favor of the trucks, but I’m against the politicians,” said Hector Rumaglia, a 62-year-old Uber driver who waited an hour and a half to fill his car up several days ago. “Like many people, I work during the day for my dinner that night. The country is collapsing, and the politicians are going home to take care of their own interests. They haven’t cut any expenses. Their salaries are still just as high.”
The strike was the largest in Brazil since a wave of protests in 2013 that marked the beginning of the end of then-President Dilma Rousseff’s mandate. Those protests, which began as a call for lower bus fares, morphed into a wider repudiation of the government and revealed cracks in Rousseff’s administration that led to her impeachment three years later on charges of financial irregularities.
Many Brazilians saw the trucker strike as a call for an end to the wider corruption problem that is troubling Brazil. Petrobras is at the center of a massive corruption probe that has implicated dozens of congressmen, several cabinet members and Temer himself. In August, Temer narrowly survived a vote to suspend him on corruption charges. He was accused of receiving a $12 million bribe through an aide, an allegation he denied.
The investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, revealed a corruption scheme under which Brazil’s largest construction companies bribed government officials in exchange for contracts with Petrobras.
“This has to stop, because if not the thievery will continue. This is not just our fight,” said Celso Dias, 41, a truck driver who participated in a highway blockade this past week. “They steal from Brazilians and pass the price on to us.”