Brazil’s conservative president Michel Temer has ordered the army and federal police to clear highways blockaded by striking truck drivers after a protest over soaring fuel prices entered its fifth day.
The blockades have paralysed much of the country’s economy and prompted São Paulo, the biggest city in South America, to declare a state of emergency over fuel shortages.
“I have actioned the federal security forces to unblock highways and I am asking governors to do the same,” Temer said in a televised address on Friday. “We will not let the population do without its primary needs.”
The protests began over fuel prices but have been further stoked by widespread anger over repeated graft scandals involving prominent politicians – including Temer himself.
In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, supermarkets and restaurants are running low on supplies. Some factories have shut down, bus services been reduced and even the Refugees World Cup, scheduled to take place in São Paulo on Saturday, has been cancelled.
The Folha de S Paulo newspaper site reported that ten airport and the capital city Brasília have run out of fuel, and long queues have built up at gas stations around the country.
Behind the scenes, the army – already embroiled in a controversial operation against gang violence in Rio de Janeiro state – is concerned it might not have enough fuel to break the strike, the G1 news site reported.
“It is a difficult, delicate mission,” said reserve Gen Augusto Heleno Pereira, who commanded Brazil’s UN military force in Haiti. “The truck driver is a sympathetic figure … we hope there will be negotiation and there will be a deal and that they won’t offer resistance.”
The announcement came two days after state-run oil company Petrobras cut diesel costs by 10% for two weeks and a day after several unions agreed to suspend the strike for 15 days in return for the government temporarily subsidising diesel prices and zeroing a taxi on diesel.
The government appeared to believe it had resolved the crisis, but many drivers were unsatisfied with the deal. One of the main unions, known in Portuguese as Abcam and representing 600,000 truck drivers, walked out of the negotiations. Speaking to Folha de S Paulo, José Lopes, the Abcam, said “blood will run”.
“We will not go back to work until our demands are met,” said truck driver José Cicero Rodrigues, speaking by telephone from a protest at Santos, Brazil’s biggest port near São Paulo.
Brazil’s federal highway police said that highways continued to be blocked on Friday but would not confirm how many. Local media reported that security forces will be able to enter trucks and remove them from the highways and the decree is due to come into effect on Friday.
Following Temer’s decree the Abcam union said it was telling its members to stop blocking highways, but continue demonstrating peacefully.
“We have already shown our strength to the government,” the union said in a statement on its website.
Ahead of yesterday’s agreement, Brazilian media reported that some congressmen were fleeing Brasilia to return to their home states before the fuel ran out. Eunício Oliveira, the Senate president who flew back to his home state of Ceará in the North East, was forced to fly straight back to Brasília after a wave of criticism.
Videos circulating on WhatsApp showed truck drivers enjoying barbeques on blocked highways and pictures of trucks covered in Brazil flags and banners reading “stop with the thieving or we’ll stop the country”.
On Friday striking school bus drivers paraded down São Paulo’s landmark Paulista Avenue in a cacophony of blaring horns. Drivers drew a direct link between their own increased fuel costs and the vast sums of money that politicians of all parties have been accused of stealing.
“Nobody can stand any more. This is absurd, so much stealing, so much thieving and we have to pay the bill,” said Anderson Barbosa, 41. “Brazil is indignant.”