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Why Brazil’s latest truckers’ strike flopped

. Feb 02, 2021
truckers strike flop brazil Truckers protesting high fuel prices and low freight fares. Photo: Tomaz Silva/ABr

In 2018, Brazil was engulfed by chaos as disgruntled truck drivers called a nationwide strike. For 11 days, protesters blocked major roadways and goods did not leave storage depots, leading to food and fuel shortages in several parts of the country. Agricultural producers incurred billion-dollar losses to their production as livestock starved to death, dairy products spoiled, and major shipments were delayed. So, when truckers’ unions called for an even larger protest on Monday, many braced for the worst.

Over 60 percent of all cargo in Brazil is transported by trucks. If we exclude crude oil and iron ore — which are largely moved around the country by trains — that rate spikes to 90 percent.

</p> <p>Furthermore, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, a new truckers&#8217; strike could disrupt vaccine distribution, interrupt trade routes, and hurt the revenue of millions of families who were left worse off by the end of the government&#8217;s coronavirus emergency aid program.</p> <p>But, after the country rolled out of bed on Monday morning fearing the worst, the promised truckers&#8217; strike was nothing short of a massive flop.</p> <p>Only a few blockades were reported in four states, but they were <a href="https://aovivo.folha.uol.com.br/mercado/2021/02/01/5953-acompanhe-todas-as-informacoes-sobre-a-greve-dos-caminhoneiros-pelo-brasil.shtml#post406574">quickly cleared up</a>. Traffic to and from the Port of Santos (Brazil&#8217;s busiest) remained unaltered, and the few protests that did take place in the state of São Paulo targeted Governor João Doria, as opposed to the federal government.</p> <h2>Divisions within truckers&#8217; unions</h2> <p>The failure of Monday&#8217;s strike is largely down to the fact that the plethora of unions representing truck drivers are not on the same page. While many are disappointed with the current administration, numerous others continue to support President Jair Bolsonaro as <a href="https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/06/09/how-a-strike-by-lorry-drivers-will-shape-brazils-elections">they did in 2018</a>, when he lent his effusive support to the protesters the last time they downed tools.</p> <p>Their support was not undone even by the circulation of a <a href="https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/chico-alves/2021/01/31/audio-do-ministro-tarcisio-agita-caminhoneiros-na-vespera-da-greve.htm?utm_source=meio&amp;utm_medium=email">leaked audio file</a> of Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio de Freitas saying it would be impossible for the government to meet truckers&#8217; demands, as well as monitoring whether promises made in 2018 are being met.</p> <p>&#8220;We have seen many using the protest to go after those perceived as enemies of the president,&#8221; says Wallace Landim, one of Brazil&#8217;s most influential truck drivers&#8217; union leaders, speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. &#8220;We have to fight for our rights and our breadwinning work, not go <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/19/bolsonaro-crossed-rubicon-endorsing-anti-democratic-rally/">against the Supreme Court</a> or [former] House Speaker Rodrigo Maia.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Landim said his union will not join the protest until an &#8220;apolitical&#8221; agenda is at the core of its agenda.</p> <p>As talk of a potential strike began gaining steam, President Jair Bolsonaro <a href="https://valor.globo.com/brasil/noticia/2021/01/28/bolsonaro-acena-com-reducao-de-imposto-para-baixar-diesel.ghtml">promised</a> to lower diesel prices by a potential cut in import taxes. But he explained that each cent removed from social security taxes on fuels would cost BRL 800 million (USD 149 million) for an already cash-strapped government.&nbsp;</p> <p>The government also pandered to truckers&#8217; by including them in the <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2021/01/22/truckers-included-in-brazils-covid-19-vaccine-priority-group/">priority group for coronavirus vaccination</a>.</p> <h2>Pandemic makes the strike a tough sell</h2> <p>Despite making life hell for many Brazilians, the 2018 truckers&#8217; strike enjoyed the support of <a href="https://g1.globo.com/economia/noticia/87-dos-brasileiros-apoiam-greve-dos-caminhoneiros-e-rejeitam-alta-de-imposto-e-corte-de-gasto-diz-datafolha.ghtml">87 percent of the country</a>, according to pollster Datafolha.&nbsp;</p> <p>With labor demands intertwined with anti-corruption protests, the 2018 strike epitomized the growing disgust for establishment politics felt by people of all social segments. Indeed, it marked a watershed moment for the presidential elections of that year, with Jair Bolsonaro standing as the only credible anti-politics candidate.</p> <p>In 2021, however, life is already miserable enough for millions of Brazilians. The <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/20/what-happens-when-brazils-coronavirus-emergency-aid-ends/">coronavirus emergency salary</a> is over, unemployment remains at <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/10/23/brazil-unemployment-hits-new-records-but-worse-is-yet-to-come/">high levels</a>, and food inflation has eroded people&#8217;s confidence in the economy. Bringing the country to a complete halt under those circumstances would be a very tough sell.</p> <p>Still, many unions claim the movement is set to grow in the coming days.</p> <p>Disgruntlement among truckers&#8217; has been the rule for years now. As it was in 2018, they are angered by high fuel prices and low rates for cargo transport. Since the first strike, the government — both under Michel Temer and now Jair Bolsonaro — resorted to quick fixes to appease truck drivers instead of long-term solutions.</p> <p>The question is: when will they hit their boiling point?

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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