The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Brazil, a truckers’ strike brings Latin America’s largest economy to a halt

An aerial view of Brazilian truck drivers blocking the BR-262 highway in Juatuba, Minas Gerais state, on Friday.
An aerial view of Brazilian truck drivers blocking the BR-262 highway in Juatuba, Minas Gerais state, on Friday. (Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images)
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SÃO PAULO, Brazil — A truckers’ strike that has thrown Brazil into chaos entered its sixth day on Saturday, with protesters blocking traffic on hundreds of highways, supermarkets rationing fruit and gas station pumps running dry.

São Paulo, Brazil’s financial center and home to 12 million people, declared a state of emergency on Friday. By Saturday, 11 airports around the country had run out of fuel. Uber drivers joined the strike and blocked trucks from exiting an oil refinery in northern Brazil. The government urged Brazilians to limit their water consumption, as uncertainty grew over how long the strike would last.

President Michel Temer ordered the military to break up the strike, and the government said late Friday that 45 percent of barriers on the highways had been removed. But the truckers’ union said it still wouldn’t deliver any goods. 

A 50 percent rise in fuel prices over the past year sparked the strike. Truckers are demanding lower gas prices, as well as reductions in taxes and tolls. 

For years, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company Petrobras kept fuel artificially cheap. But last July, in an attempt to keep up with rising international oil prices and a weakening local currency, Petrobras decided to follow global prices. The decision allowed the company to turn a profit for the first time in years. But almost daily price adjustments have been tough on truckers, many of whom work independently and cannot raise their rates mid-route. 

“We are fighting for everyone. If fuel prices get better, everything will be cheaper,” said Fernando Prado, 36, a self-employed trucker for nearly two decades who transports electronics. He estimates that 70 percent of his profits are eaten by fuel costs. 

Prado parked his truck on a highway outside São Paulo on Wednesday and hasn’t moved it since. He recalled the chronic inflation Brazil suffered in the early 1990s, when his parents had to run to the market multiple times a day to beat rising prices. Today, he said, truckers are the ones bearing the brunt of the crisis. “The transportation sector is absorbing the inflation. The cost of fuel goes up but the price of goods stays the same.” 

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On Wednesday, Petrobras announced that it would slash prices by 10 percent for two weeks to try to placate the strikers. But the decision, which cost the company $96 million, did little to quell the protests. 

Instead, Latin America’s largest economy ground to a halt. Several McDonald’s restaurants ran out of hamburger buns and chickens ran out of feed and started eating each other. Fuel ran out at the airport of the nation’s capital, Brasilia, while politicians scrambled to get on the limited available flights. 

International commodities markets were stunned  as Brazil, a leading exporter of sugar, coffee, meat and soybeans, could no longer guarantee shipments. 

Brazil is particularly susceptible to transportation strikes. Trucks transport an estimated 64 percent of the country’s goods. The strike is expected to cost São Paulo alone $158 million a day, according to the city’s federation of goods, services and tourism. 

The strike led to immediate price spikes, with some supermarkets charging 50 percent more for vegetables on Friday. Prices are expected to rise further as factories run out of raw materials, according to Joelson Sampaio, an economics professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “The long-term impact on the economy will depend on how long it lasts. If we resolve the situation this weekend, it will be marginal. If it goes on for a month, that’s a different story,” he said. 

An apocalyptic mood swept São Paulo. Its typically clogged arteries were clear of traffic, save for the lines coiling around the few gas stations that remained open. 

Temer called an emergency meeting with military leaders after a deal with the truckers’ union to cut taxes and suspend price increases on diesel fuel failed to satisfy drivers. 

“We will not allow the population to be without basic goods,” said Temer in a televised speech on Friday, in which he called on the military to intervene. 

But privately, generals told the local press that they worried the army would not have enough fuel to fight the blockade for long. The São Paulo police department reduced the amount of time its officers patrol the streets, and 40 percent of buses stopped running. 

The strike marks the biggest protest in Brazil since the 2013 bus riots that marked the beginning of the end for former president Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached two years ago. 

Brazilians, fed up with painful market-driven policies that have been slow to produce results, seemed to reach a collective boiling point in recent days, as the government fumbled through the crisis.

Eunício Oliveira, the president of the Senate, flew to his home state in northern Brazil on what was widely seen as a campaign stop, delaying a vote to slash taxes that could have ended the strike. After being criticized on social media, he returned to Brasilia hours before the city’s airport ran out of fuel.

The food rationing and gas runs spooked many Brazilians five months ahead of presidential elections. “It was bound to happen. Salaries are not keeping up with the price of fuel,” said Marcelo Rodrigues, a 39-year-old telecom technician who waited two hours to fill up his car at a gas station in Sao Paulo on Friday. 

Referring to the widespread shortages in Brazil’s crisis-plagued neighbor, he said, “We are living Venezuela days.”

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