A trucker strike has brought Latin America's biggest economy to its knees - and some now want the military to take over
- A protracted trucker strike has brought Latin America's second-largest economy to a grinding halt.
- The protests have also become a venue for broader discontent.
- Some of those in the streets are now calling for a return to Brazil's dark past of military dictatorship.
A nearly two-week trucker strike has brought commerce in Brazil to a grinding halt, and calls by some strikers for the military to take power in the region's largest economy have prompted an official response, dismissing any possibility that could happen.
The work stoppage started on May 21, with more than 200,000 of Brazil's 1 million truckers joining in to protest rising fuel prices caused by the depreciation of the country's currency as well as an increase in global fuel prices that drove up the cost in Brazil, where reforms at state oil company Petrobras allowed fuel prices to track the market.
Workers from other sectors affected by rising costs, like couriers, joined, and the stoppage paralyzed Brazil. Gas stations ran out of fuel, public transportation was reduced, supermarket shelves were bare, agricultural goods and other exports languished outside ports, and factories cut operations. Some major cities declared emergencies due to fuel shortages.
Despite agreements to end the protests last week, the strike continued, prompting the government to dispatch the military to clear roads and escort fuel and other supplies. (That reportedly caused concern within the military about its own fuel supplies.)
Concessions by President Michel Temer on May 27, including cutting diesel taxes for two months and reducing tolls for trucks, appeared to mollify some strikers, with Abcam, a union claiming to represent more than a half-million drivers, saying its members should return to work.
Some have gone back to work, and goods have started flowing again. But the protests have been slow to unwind, and some strikers appear to be ignoring the agreement, believing it is not sufficient. (One of the main unions said some truckers were being "forced and threatened" to continue.) Others now seem to be following the example.
Petrobras workers started a 72-hour strike Wednesday, defying a court order declaring it illegal and imposing daily fines on the unions involved. Workers said they wanted lower fuel prices and Petrobras' president's resignation.
The oil-workers' strike is "expected to have a limited impact" because of its short duration and the stated goal not to cause further disruption, said Caio Torres, an analyst at risk-advisory firm Control Risks. But it could have longer-term effects.
"The movement is supposed to act as a warning shot to the government and will add pressure on the current fuel-price policy employed by Petrobras," Torres said. "The strike also suggests that other unions might take advantage of the government's current vulnerability - and the relative success obtained by the truckers - to advance their causes."
Strikes that started over economic concerns have also become an expression of broader discontent over a number of issues, including public services, security, and political corruption. Some protesters are now calling for the return of a military dictatorship like the one that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, killing and torturing thousands.
Jose Lopes, head of the Brazilian Truck Drivers' Association, said Monday that there was "a very strong group of interventionalists" in the movement "who want to bring down the government."
"Our intention is to put an end to the national congress," truck driver Francisco Antônio Rodrigues told the Financial Times in São Paulo. "We want the military to intervene to take out that band of thieves who are in there."
"We need help from the military to resolve our problems in Brasilia, to remove the bandits from there and to put the house in order," another driver, Gabriel Berestov, told The Guardian on a highway near São Paulo.
The call for military intervention is still "an isolated plea," Torres told Business Insider.
"All the evidence available suggests that a minority of protesters (and outsiders) exploited the publicity generated by the strike to promote their claims," he said.
"This is more an expression of the general dissatisfaction with the country's political leadership than a well-thought-through plan of action."
But such calls are not new.
An severe economic downturn and a protracted corruption scandal that has brought down two presidents and implicated hundreds of other politicians have tested Brazilians, among whom support for democracy fell from 54% in 2015 to 32% in 2016, according to a Latinobarometro poll.
Some in the military have expressed dismay at their increased domestic role, but there are military officials who have become more active politically, cheering candidacies of ex-military personnel and ultra-conservatives like Jair Bolsonaro - a former Army captain who has denied the 1964-1985 government was a dictatorship and been compared to US President Donald Trump - in October's elections.
Temer, who has called in the military to quell protests and address public-security issues, has dismissed the latest appeals for a return to dictatorship, as have senior legislators and military officials.
"It's an idea from the last century. It's a question which I personally think makes no sense," said Gen. Sergio Etchegoyen, the minister for institutional security and the highest-ranking military officer in the cabinet. "But there are still some people who think this alternative is possible."
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