South America

Bolsonaro to meet striking Brazil truckers, with exports threatened

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will meet by videoconference on Thursday with truckers leading blockades of highways in multiple states across the country, the Infrastructure Ministry said on social media, raising hopes he could end protests threatening export routes.

Stirred up by the president’s call to action against the Supreme Court at Tuesday political rallies, the trucker protests had partially blocked highways in a half dozen states early on Wednesday, but gained steam as Bolsonaro was hesitant to publicly denounce them.

By Thursday morning, the Infrastructure Ministry said there was congestion on federal highways in 14 states due to the protests with blockades in five states: Bahia, Maranhão, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul and Santa Catarina.

Bolsonaro, who has overseen the world’s second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak and is down in the polls as he grapples with rising inflation and stubborn unemployment, has long sided with truckers over high fuel prices.

With diesel costs rising once again, the president is eager to avoid a major strike like the one that hammered Brazil’s economy in 2018. But it is a delicate balance for the far-right leader who will be keen not to isolate a crucial support base who have come out to back him.

Bolsonaro has in recent months repeatedly attacked the Supreme Court for preventing him from being able to govern. He has called for the replacement of some justices whom he accuses groundlessly of supporting an electoral system that is vulnerable to fraud. The trucker protest is in part to support this call.

Faced with this tough conundrum, Bolsonaro has yet to speak publicly about the strikes. On Wednesday night, an audio message from the president circulated in truckers’ messaging groups.

“Speaking to the truckers out there, who are our allies, these blockades hurt our economy,” Bolsonaro said in the message reviewed by Reuters. “They cause supply shortages, inflation and hurt everyone, especially the poorest.”

In a subsequent video message, Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio Freitas said Bolsonaro’s message was genuine, saying it “showed the president’s concern about this blockade.”

Freitas said the trucker strike would pressure the economy, fan inflation and hurt the poorest. Many are concerned about the state of the country, he added, “but we can’t try to sort out one problem by creating another.”

Major grains traders said on Wednesday the protests had not affected the flow of crops to port, but export group ANEC did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.

Meatpacker associations Abrafrigo and ABPA said on Thursday the blockades had not affected movement of live or perishable cargo around the country.

Some truck drivers who stopped on major highways said they were forced to come to a halt by pro-Bolsonaro colleagues who had vandalized their vehicles so they could not leave.

Bruno Rodrigues, 32, carrying auto parts, said he was stopped one hour south of Sao Paulo at 4 a.m. by men who threatened to smash his windscreen with rocks.

“They slashed my tire. It’s outrageous. If the stoppage had some benefit, OK, but they are hurting their own brothers of the road,” Rodrigues told Reuters. He said he was losing time for deliveries and would have to pay the tire repair out of pocket.

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