People attend a protest in support of the truck drivers’ strike and against Brazil President Michel Temer’s government in Brasilia on May 28 2018. Picture: REUTERS
People attend a protest in support of the truck drivers’ strike and against Brazil President Michel Temer’s government in Brasilia on May 28 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Rio de Janeiro — Brazil, South America’s economic giant, remained in a near-stranglehold on Tuesday despite a pledge from the president that a nine-day transport strike would soon end.

Late on Sunday, the deeply unpopular President Michel Temer caved in to intense pressure from strikers, and cut the price of diesel fuel.

The truck strike has been crippling fuel, food and other freight across the industrial and agricultural powerhouse.

Temer said he had "absolute conviction that between today and tomorrow" the crisis would finally end. In a tweet, Temer gave a slightly longer horizon of "one to two days".

Despite the president’s confidence, significant numbers of truck drivers stood firm and some called for the government to step down.

A key Temer minister, Eliseu Padilha, spoke of unidentified groups "infiltrating the movement with different, essentially political goals".

Late on Sunday, Temer gave in to their main demand for lower diesel costs, but on Monday there was renewed disruption.

Brazil is already suffering from the aftermath of a deep recession and political instability ahead of October general elections.

More than 550 road blockages by truckers were mounted across 24 of the country’s 27 states, the federal highway police said.

Shortages of aviation fuel shuttered eight airports. Traffic to the huge Santos seaport near Sao Paulo, which usually receives 10,000 trucks a day, shrank to a trickle.

Although there has been some improvement since the army was ordered to intervene on Friday, with armed soldiers escorting fuel trucks on priority routes, enormous lines of cars were still forming at petrol stations.

Many supermarkets around the country struggled to source fresh food. Producers reported having to slaughter stocks of chickens because they had no access to the feed, while others threw out thousands of litres of spoiled milk.

The truckers’ strike has left bare shelves at markets such as this one in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: REUTERS
The truckers’ strike has left bare shelves at markets such as this one in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: REUTERS

Hospitals in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo had to cancel nonurgent surgeries and at least 13 states reported scrapping university classes.

Adding to the disruption in Rio, the key bus rapid transport (BRT) commuter system operated at only 22% capacity, while in Sao Paulo the bus system ran at 70% capacity.

The truckers are angry over the rise in diesel costs from 3.36 reais (92 US cents) a litre in January to 3.6 reais before the strike. On May 26, it hit 3.8 reais.

After urgent negotiations with representatives of the truckers, Temer agreed to cut the diesel price by 0.46 reais a litre for 60 days.

That concession hammered the value of state-controlled oil major Petrobras, one of Brazil’s most dominant companies, which is due to face a strike by its own workers on Wednesday.

Its shares dropped 14% on Monday — following a 14% fall last Thursday — while the Ibovespa index in Sao Paulo closed 4.5% lower on Monday.

There were some signs that the worst of the strike might be easing.

Rio’s city hall announced that on Tuesday there would be enough diesel for the 100% return of the municipal bus fleet and the BRT system.

But a complete resolution of the crisis appeared some way off, as unions were split over whether to stand down, with some activists taking a more militant line.

At a road block set up by truckers outside Rio de Janeiro, an AFP reporter saw numerous signs calling for a military coup, while others spoke of bringing down Temer.

"We’ve had enough of all this corruption. If more people come out into the streets, the government will fall, it’s sure," said Tango Roxa, an electrical appliances salesman who joined the truckers to express his support.

The president of the Brazilian Association of Truck Drivers, Jose da Fonseca Lopes, alluded to this hardening of opinions, saying that "it’s no longer truckers who are on strike … it’s people who want to bring down the government. I’ve got nothing to do with these people."

The crisis has exposed the surprising fragility of the giant economy and put Temer’s lame-duck administration on the defensive ahead of the October presidential and legislative elections.

A poll by Ideia BigData found that 95% of Brazilians disapproved of his handling of the situation, even if 55% opposed the strike itself.

Temer took power in controversial circumstances in 2016, following the impeachment and removal from office of his leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff for breaking budget rules.

The president’s market-friendly, centre-right government launched into sweeping austerity reforms that have been widely praised by investors as a bid to return Brazil to fiscal health, but have proved hugely unpopular with ordinary Brazilians.

AFP