On Sunday, May 27, the bus I’m on—bound from Cuiabá north to Alta Floresta—slows and then stops completely at the refueling stop. Cuiabá is the capital of Mato Grosso state, in Brazil’s Planalto, its central plateau. But we aren’t here to refuel, and even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. Truckers, on the curb just on the other side of the tinted windows, stand with arms crossed and eyes leveled at us. They have been blocking the BR-163 highway in Mato Grosso state for seven days, not permitting cargo trucks or cars to pass through.
In just the month of May, the price of diesel has risen more or less steadily each day; for example, the price was R$2.0535 on May 3, and R$2.3488 on May 15. In just the past year, Petrobras—the semi-public petroleum company that in the past was state-owned—raised the price of diesel 121 times, an overall increase of 56.5 percent, from R$1.50 to R$2.35. Previously, Petrobras stabilized fuel prices. But a year ago, the company instituted a new policy of calculating the figure according to that day’s global price of a barrel of oil, converted from US dollars to Brazilian Reais according to the current exchange rate, with taxes added on. Truckers, led by the Brazilian Truckers’ Association, demand that the federal government remove taxes on diesel. They also seek a change in Petrobras’s fluctuating pricing policy.
In a broadcast on Friday night, May 25, President Michel Temer inveighed against what he characterized as “a radical minority” of truckers. He assured the nation that, for the sake of security, he had used the Guarantee of Law and Order to issue a decree that authorized the armed forces to unblock the highways. Already on May 25, a convoy of armed forces and federal highway police in Rio de Janeiro state drove to the Duque de Caxias refinery, where truckers were protesting, and entered in order to escort fuel out of the refinery. Similar reports came out of Minas Gerais state on May 25; the armed forces were on the BR-040 to begin unblocking the highway in Ribeirão das Neves, and the military police were unblocking access to the Gabriel Passos refinery, one of the major distributors of the country, and escorting fuel shipments out. As of May 25, the attorney general had obtained 28 judicial decisions that would strengthen the ability to unblock the roads in 14 states. I’d been curious to see how the government would deal with the truckers’ demands, and now I wondered what would it mean for the military to “liberate” the highways. Temer’s action, in the interest of getting Brazil moving again, seemed comparable to President Reagan in August 1981 making it illegal for air traffic controllers to strike, firing those who were striking.
In the lobby of the pousada where I was staying in Cuiabá, as the receptionist and I watched the news on Saturday, she explained to me that there were just a handful of truckers still holding out at their highway blockades—guys who just hadn’t gotten the news that the truckers’ unions had reached an accord. But as I witnessed with my own eyes on the 500-mile journey, there were thousands of truckers still holding down about a thousand blockades, still strangling the country. 1,200 blockades were in force as of May 25. Commerce had ground to a halt, with shipping containers bound for the US and other markets remaining empty. Shelves were bare. The truckers were refusing to leave until their demand for a permanently lower diesel price was met, official agreement be damned. On my 15 ½-hour bus ride, I would observe the blocked highways up close and come to understand what the truckers’ strike reveals about a larger wave of discontent sweeping Brazilian society.
I should have read the news from Brazil before I left the US early on May 23, but I was correcting piles of essays to wrap up spring semester classes and doing the kind of last-minute errands I always swear I’ll avoid before a big trip. I was traveling to Alta Floresta to explore environmental changes where the Amazon forest meets one of the central agribusiness regions of Brazil. It’s prohibitively expensive to fly directly to Alta Floresta, so my plan was to fly into Cuiabá and take a bus northward once I recovered from jet lag.
On the night of Thursday, May 24, while having dinner at the local petiscaria in Cuiabá, I saw images of blocked highways on the small flat screen on the wall. I figured it was local traffic congestion, something that Mato Grosso is known for due to the great number of truckers making long-distance deliveries through the agricultural center of the country. On Friday morning, when I came into the reception area of the pousada, the television was still running images of blocked highways. It was then that I listened to the reporters and realized that I had arrived in the middle of a national strike that had choked the country’s major roads. People were calling it a paralisação: the paralysis of Brazil.
A few days later, I talked with Naine Terena, a professor at the Catholic University of Mato Grosso and an indigenous activist. “Brazil has no rail system, so if you want to stop Brazil, all you have to do is to block all its highways,” she told me. That’s exactly what the truckers had done. “You see, though, that the leftist organizations aren’t rushing to vocalize their support for the strike, right? Do you wonder why? It’s because they’re very cautious about creating chaos.” She said they fear the ways that that Temer’s unpopular center-right government could manipulate that chaos. For example, officials could use the strike as a pretext to declare a security threat and then cancel the October 2018 presidential elections, a common leftist worst-case scenario I’d heard before. In the coming days, I would witness this caution creating a vacuum, which was then filled by rightists clamoring for a military takeover of the government. (Handily for them, they have a ready-made presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, who in the 90s called for a new military regime and suggested killing “30,000” people as a strategy for getting the country back on track. Should he be elected, he promises to give power to the generals.)
After viewing the reportage claiming that Temer and the truckers had reached an accord on Friday night, I woke up at 6 a.m. on Sunday and caught an Uber to the Cuiabá bus station. There were still plenty of spaces left on the 8 a.m. bus—score! I got some passionfruit juice and was relieved everything was moving smoothly. It wasn’t until I was on the bus and started talking with Alice Farina, an Alta Floresta events planner in the seat in front of me, that I was told the truckers were still on strike. I was, frankly, astonished, and wondered if we would arrive at our destinations. She told me that the truckers were refusing to accept the temporary dip in the price of diesel that Petrobras had proposed, and were holding out for more permanent concessions. It made perfect sense. By this time, our voices were at animated levels. “Sorry, I’m shouting,” I said to the people behind us, the kind of apology I’d offer in English back home, but I learned wasn’t needed here. Our behind-and-to-the-left neighbors—José Gonçalves and his daughter Milena—joined in, and we four became fast friends for the duration of the 15½-hour bus ride.
As we’re rolling along, Farina props one knee on her seat as she faces toward the back of the bus. She pronounces, “You see that Brazilians are loving and peaceful. If not, they would have killed them already!” referring to the truck drivers blocking the roads.
By way of explaining the roots of this crisis, Farina begins a free-wheeling diatribe on the history of corruption in Brazil, going all the way back to the explorer Cabral, who was credited with “discovering” Brazil for the Portuguese crown.
“Brazil has the biggest forest, the biggest freshwater reservoir,” she commences. (She is likely referring to the Guarani aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, spanning Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay). “Brazil has the biggest exports of beef, of soy,” she continues proudly. “We are rich in natural resources, and the Brazilian economy should be rich.” For Farina, Brazil’s economic recession and the Temer administration’s slashing of health care and education show not poor governance, but a purposeful tactic by Brazilian politicians to benefit from these natural and economic resources. Like a lot of Brazilians, Farina believes that the poor state of Brazil’s economy is a direct result of Brazil’s politicians siphoning off kickbacks and companies’ bribes for themselves and their own personal enterprises. She claims that the government is rotten to the core, from the highest official to the lowliest functionary. “They teach their sons how to do this, and their sons teach their sons. It’s passed on from generation to generation.”
“This didn’t begin with Temer,” Farina continues, gesturing rhythmically as her discourse gathers steam. “It didn’t begin with Lula. It goes way back to Cabral, who came here to take gold and pau-brasil,” she says, naming the native Brazilwood, extracted to such an extent since the arrival of the Portuguese that the tree quickly neared extinction in its original range. “And if a military intervention came, then it would be corrupt, too,” she adds, referring to news we’ve heard that some truckers are calling for military intervention.
Our bus travels along the eerie, utterly empty interstate road. A vacant grey-whitish space surrounds the vehicle as it wends its way through corn and soy fields. Farina reminds me that this corridor through Brazil’s agribusiness heartland on the BR-163 would normally be not just full but clogged with trucks. No cars are being permitted to pass through the truckers’ blockades. Trucks that are not emergency vehicles or aren’t carrying emergency supplies to hospitals also can’t go through. Imagine the disappearance of cars and trucks on California’s I-5 through the Central Valley, which delivers fruits, vegetables, and nuts to the nation and beyond. Though in Cuiabá and other cities the number of buses circulating has been reduced due to the lack of gas, the truckers seem to be permitting buses like ours to pass through. At a 5-minute rest stop to pick up more passengers, I see long trucks pulled to the side of the parking area, their slatted metal sides packed with hundreds of grey canisters of gas, none of which are being delivered.
The bus slows and anticipation builds as we drive into a truckers’ blockade. At this point, the truckers have narrowed the road to just one lane, improvising lane obstacles by balancing upright tires on bricks. To either side, sidelined farm vehicles are parked, festooned with Brazilian flags.
Farina, still half-standing and facing backward, says loudly, as if to counter any opposition, “We have to take off our hats to them, really. They are sacrificing for us.”
A general assent stirs through the bus, mixed with a quiet wonder as we stare out at the striking truckers. All of us are in the same position—we’ve heard about this, and we’ve seen images on national television, but now we’re actually seeing the frontlines of the strike.
Tall, teddy bear-shaped, in a pink polo shirt and blue jeans, a young man climbs onto the bus and sits down in his assigned seat on the aisle next to me. He has the presence of someone who softly carries a big story. He fumbles with his hands, as if surprised to be in a moving vehicle after seven days of being stopped on the BR-163 highway—as if surprised to be a passenger, considering that he owns his own eighteen-wheel truck that moves cargo throughout the country. But Wesley Viana do Santos has left his truck behind him and carries nothing.
Viana do Santos, 24, is from the town of Vera, 270 kilometers north of here. He drove south to Rondonópolis last week to drop off his cargo of soy and corn. Then he loaded up a shipment of lime to deliver up north for the fazenda, to be applied as fertilizer on crops. But after seven days, the load of lime is still on the side of the road at the Aguia Branca stop on the BR-163.
As a private trucker who supported the union truckers’ stoppage of all commerce and movement of cars on the highways of Brazil, he indeed helped to drive the movement to bring Brazil to a stop. Above his week of facial scruff, his soft brown eyes widen to recall his role in the strike. He is glad to be asked about it. “At first I thought it was going to be complicated,” he says, to be stuck on the road without food or a way to bathe. “But it was inspiring. The people came and brought us food…At 6 a.m. they brought us breakfast, at 12 p.m. they brought us lunch, and at 7 p.m. they brought us dinner. The owner of the gas station opened up an area on the side yard” where they could park their trucks and have a modicum of privacy.
Viana do Santos mentions an article he’d read, recounting how townspeople were coming to feed the truckers, which called such support “Communist.” He wrinkles his nose with discomfort and goes on: “The media say that it’s only a minority of drivers that are striking.”
“A minority!” scoffs José across the aisle to the young driver.
José’s daughter Milena and the bus driver chime in at the same time: “É todo mundo.” It’s everyone.
Viana do Santos speaks of the high price of fuel that compelled the strike, which turns to the high prices of food. Behind all these high prices, he says, are the artificially high taxes the federal government imposes on goods. His talk of the truckers’ struggle blends easily with his own. There is no sense of loss in his voice, only a pride in having been accidentally admitted into a movement that, as it turns out, he wholeheartedly believes in.
Since he had to leave his truck behind, what would become of it? He seems surprised by the question. “I hope that it will be fine there,” says. Then, he adds, “I have confidence that they will take care of it for me. No one will mess with my truck.” José comments on how far the driver has to go to get home, but Viana do Santos says, “270 kilometers is good,” noting that drivers from São Paulo couldn’t go home so easily. He never mentions his own financial sacrifice of losing income for the week. We all know about it nonetheless, which is why we’re brimming with tenderness—carinho—and respect for him.
I ask him what should happen now. “The government should negotiate with the truckers to lower the tax on diesel,” he says.
He turns his gentle eyes toward me and says sweetly, “And if the government won’t do that, then the military should intervene, which would be good.”
What seems to me to be an about-face—an incongruous combination of an apparently leftist strike with a rightist call for military control—for him is entirely consistent.
“Oh really?” I say, taken aback.
It’s not just Viana do Santos who believes this. When we arrive at the next truck blockade, we roll to a slow crawl. We pass by trucks and bulldozers and mechanized plows brought to the edge of the road, with their windshields turned toward us so we can all read the messages painted in white block letters. Intervenção Militar Já, shield after shield reads—Military Intervention Now. Though papers labeled this a minority view, it clearly is not, at least not in the heartland of the country. My excitement at seeing the strikers up close turns to a chill. Clearly, this is more complicated than I’d thought.
I think back to what Farina said five hours earlier: “And if the military intervenes, they’ll be corrupt too.” This is evidently not what Viana do Santos thinks, and I want to understand why.
Meeting this soft-spoken young trucker makes me realize that those calling for military intervention aren’t necessarily aggressive folks. They simply believe that the government itself is incapable of purifying itself of corruption, and hold out the hope that the military would be a trustworthy, less-corrupt organization to take charge of the country.
Lira Neto, author of a best-selling, 3-volume biography of President Getúlio Vargas, would later tell me, “They’re asking for something completely absurd, which shows a lack of historical memory,” referring to Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). “They’re asking for something that’s against their own interests. Under a military intervention, there are no protests.”
From across the aisle, José Gonçalves says to me, “You’ve come to us in times of war.” Then, more gloomily, he draws a parallel between an untrustworthy government, fraying social order, and lack of goods on Brazilian shelves, and their northern neighbor’s social collapse and despair: “We’ve become Venezuelans.”
270 kilometers later, Viana do Santos gets off in the town of Vera. I’m struck as I see him walk, with nothing in his hands, down the red dirt road toward his home. His truck is likely the only vehicle that his young family, including his wife and five-month-old daughter, owns.
Into his empty seat pops Eliana Ribeiro, originally from the state of São Paulo, now a resident of Sinop for 20 years. She complains that the heat on the other side of the bus is too much for her. I soon find out a lot about her almost without asking a question. A cook by profession, she wears blue jean shorts and a short-sleeve burgundy shirt with petal cutouts. She’s just come back from visiting the children of her daughter, who lives in Lucas do Rio Verde. Single for three years since her husband left her, she’s “sem cachorro nem gato”—living alone, beholden to no one, not even a dog or cat, as the expression goes.
Eliana’s talk twists from the personal to the national in the space of one short sentence. “I was abandoned, I couldn’t believe the cowardice and lies of the human being,” she says, implying that these qualities are equally true of her ex and of the sitting government that she also distrusts. Not a fan of the unintended consequences of the strike, she rattles off food prices—10 reais for one watermelon only!—and says that in Sinop, there are five-hour lines for fuel. People are selling gas for 7 reais a liter, above the 4-5 reais price that is the source of the truckers’ complaints. She’s worried about the effects of the strike on young families like her daughter’s, who are facing higher food prices as a result of the stoppage in food deliveries. “I’m afraid of this strike,” she says. “How will they feed their children?”
On May 26, I watched a US commentator in Rio explain for an American audience that the price of diesel had risen for two reasons: an overall global rise in gas prices, and national petroleum enterprise Petrobras’s 2017 decision to stop adjusting the price of gas and instead let it fluctuate according to the global price.
Not mentioned is that the truckers agree to long-haul contracts based on a certain price of diesel. But because Petrobras lets the value fluctuate, by the time the truckers arrive at their destination point—sometimes a day or more later—the diesel price may have risen, evaporating any profit the truckers had hoped to turn.
The commentary seemed to paint the truck drivers as rubes who don’t understand the international economy and can’t hack it in the free market. In the coming days, I would understand the truckers’ complaints in a more complex way. Citizens supporting the truckers’ strike stated that the high price of diesel got passed onto them in the prices of food and products, all of which had to be delivered by trucks—and then these prices had municipal, state, and federal taxes heaped on. People were sharply critical of the high sales taxes (both on diesel and consumer goods) relative to a lack of social investment in health and education.
In Cuiabá, a business student named Junior held up a lock: “Say this costs 5 reais. Add on 7 reais for sales tax, so the total cost to the consumer is 12 reais.” I was offered many such examples of sales tax being near or equal to the amount that the business charged. São Paulo cameraman Rafael Farinhas claimed that Brazil has higher taxes even than Sweden, without the return in social investment. (At least, people like Rafael feel that it’s true.) I began to feel that the poor and middle-class Brazilians I talked with were all amateur economists, peppering conversations with prices, tax rates, and comparisons to other countries. Out of necessity, they had become careful students of economy, watching, noticing, and suffering.
The CIA puts Brazil’s overall taxes at 37th in the world—39 percent in 2017—when taxes are measured as a percentage of GDP. (This figure combines corporate, income, value-added, and other taxes.) However, economists Sérgio Wulff Gobetti and Rodrigo Octávio Orair point out that, among developing nations, Brazil has one of the highest rates of taxes.
The bus slows before a particularly large encampment at the Santa Rita gas stop. Brazilian highways are not raised up with ramps or overpasses or cloverleaf patterns; a federal highway is a road like any other. A couple feet away from the bus, truckers gather in a line with arms crossed across their chests. The physicality of their pose suggests that if it came to it, they would forcibly prevent cars from passing.
The truckers stand in the golden glow of dusk, with the self-possession of those who have been ignored and then flex their muscles. Men bring little stools to sit by the highway’s edge and watch the show. We, the ones who need permission to pass, are part of the show. Children play at the edge of the road. Around fifty large trucks are parked here. A banner painted in red and blue reads: “CONGRATULATIONS TO THE DRIVERS.” “TEMER OUT” is painted on windshields. The low sun from the west lights up the red earth. Eyes glimmer with pride. The truckers and their supporters have shut down the country.
Just as I’m admiring the social organization and size of the encampment, Eliana, the cook, pipes in, “Que bagunça. What a mess,” dismissing it, and them, with a wave of her hand.
At 11:35 p.m.,we arrive in Alta Floresta, exhausted and relieved. I give Alice Farina a hug goodbye, with promises to stay in touch.
The next day, I talk with Lucas Britto Lima, 22, who works part-time as a waiter at the Floresta Amazonica Hotel, and is an agronomy student at the Federal University of Mato Grosso. All classes are cancelled for this week because busses are no longer operating and people can’t use cars—there’s no gas in town. Originally from Tocantins, Britto Lima hopes to return home to work after he gets his degree.
When I ask him about the strike, a flash of emotion moves across his face. “It’s their right to strike because they don’t have enough for a good life,” he ventures. Then he reveals that the situation is personal. His own father is a trucker and has been in one of the highway blockades in Redenção in Pará state, to the north of here. “I’m sad he’s suffering, but it’s a necessity, because the way things are going is very bad.”
Érica Iocci, a municipal lawyer who deals with consumer complaints suits, also works part-time for her mother, owner of Alta Floresta’s Vitalliti Hotel. “Since the clientele of the hotel are mostly businesspeople, yes, the strike affects us. We have many empty rooms since now they can’t get here,” she says. Nevertheless, Iocci supports the striking truckers and their goals. A block away from the hotel, on the nearby MT-208 road, a fifteen-foot long, lime-colored hanging banner declares, THE MASONS OF ALTA FLORESTA SUPPORT THE TRUCKERS.
The strike has stranded many businesspeople at the hotel where I’m staying. On the night of Monday, May 28, I set up my computer at one of the two tables. There’s a trio of guys at the other table, drinking. It turns out that they are a band of traveling salesmen who’ve gotten stranded here due to the lack of gas. Their names are Leandro Oliveira, Gétulio Ernesto Alves, and Aparecido Antonio Floriano. (When I asked which one is the boss, Gétulio explained, “It’s always the fattest one.” Aparecido replied good-naturedly, “We call it the mountain of wisdom,” stroking his belly.)
“We sell clothes to distributors throughout Mato Grosso,” Gétulio says. They’d had a complex sales route planned. But these little towns throughout the state aren’t being supplied with gas, either, so they can’t risk venturing out and getting stranded even further afield.
“So…what’s your perspective on the strike, then?”
I expect them to say they’re just a tad annoyed with the inconvenience, or even a lot dismayed at the loss in revenue. But they immediately reply, “We support the strike 100 percent.”
“Sofremos sorrindo,” Gétulio says. We suffer while smiling.
If they can’t make it out of town the following day, Aparecido says, they’ll roast an animal there in the hotel’s yard, and asks me what part of the animal I like. He shows me pictures of his forested town of Tangará da Serra, near the Bolivian border, his daughter in her 20s, and a cute little pale pig he has dozens of photos of. As he continues to flip through his phone’s photos, I see him crouching over the shin-high swine, until I see the reclining pig lying in his yard like a dog, with a collar of blood on its neck, a slaughter captured in dozens of intimate photos with different drip-by-drip poses. “That’s nice,” I say. I close my eyes as his finger swipes, hoping he doesn’t notice.
That night, I try to order a dinner delivery. The young man on night duty at the hotel counter calls the restaurant for me, then says into the phone, “Oh, okay, got it, thanks.” He turns back to me: no food delivery—they’re out of gas, too.
The city is drained of fuel, just like that piglet I thought was a pet. Maybe it had been a pet, but that didn’t stop Aparecido Antonio Floriano from gutting it.
I read economists’ predictions that even when the strike stops, it will take at least six months for Brazil’s businesses to rebound. It’s hard for me to imagine that that will happen so quickly. Shipping containers at the coastal ports, standing at the ready to ship soy and beef to the world—including to the United States—remain empty. It is said that chickens throughout the country, with no feed delivered, are eating each other, an image of creature-to-creature cannibalism that becomes a meme as it’s taken up as a metaphor for Brazil.
On Wednesday, May 30, with the midday sun strong overhead, I overhear Érica Iocci and her friend discussing the local conditions with some vigor. The people are “furando a greve”—breaking the strike, she says, with some bitterness. The police gave an escort to a delivery of fuel to the posto, the gas station just a block away. “We promised we wouldn’t buy anything, that we wouldn’t use fuel, and now…If only we’d unified completely, you know, we could have achieved all the demands quickly,” she says with frustration.
I take a walk down to the Casagranda gas station in Alta Floresta. The size of a city block, this posto has enormous garages the size of warehouses that can fix eighteen-wheelers and even longer trucks, and pumps that are checked on by uniformed attendants. There is a quarter-mile-long line of cars, stationary. The drivers sit with the engines turned off. I chat up some of the drivers, who say that they’ve been waiting in line for four hours already and still have at least 30 more minutes to go. A car’s back bumper is tied with rope to the front bumper of the man behind, who apparently is being helped after his car ran out of gas. Up at the front, there is a motorcycles-only line with three abreast, looking very serious, hands at the ready to crank an inch forward.
I take out my camera to snap a photo of the line. A shirtless, wiry man scowls and immediately asks me what I’m filming. I feel others’ eyes on me; they have nothing better to do than to look. I’m suddenly aware that almost all the people in the line are men—crowded together, patience thinning, waiting to do something, anything. “I’m not filming anything, just taking a photo of this interesting situation,” I answer. “Who are you documenting for?” he persists, his scowl turning to derision, and I can tell that any answer won’t be acceptable.
I put the camera back into my pocket, thinking that I must have misjudged the tenor of the situation. This is their misery, not mine. I had thought too soon that with the abastecimento, with fuel delivered to the pumps, so too would their joy be delivered. I would discover two days later that just 7000 liters had been delivered to the whole city, to Alta Floresta’s two filling stations. Scarcity persists.
The strike lasts ten days in total, from May 21 to May 30.
A Datafolha poll of 1500 Brazilians during the last days of the strike concludes that 87 percent of Brazilians support it, despite not wanting to “pagar a conta”—pick up the bill for lowering the cost of diesel by R$0.46 per liter, as the government has promised. The coverage of the poll results makes it seem as if Brazilians support the strike in name only, paying lip service to it. Two things are overlooked here. First, Brazilians across the country already paid financially for the ten-day strike. Despite the personal disruption and loss of income, however, they actively supported the strike in the hopes that it would better everyone’s situation. Second, many Brazilians believe elite politicians use sales taxes and other tools to “rob” from them without returning social investment. Therefore, they reckon that the balance of the debt is held by the politicians. Everyday citizens, far from thinking they should pay any bill, think that the elite should pay back what’s owed to the Brazilian people.
This view is reinforced when I check back in again with Érica Iocci, the Cuiabá lawyer and the manager of the Hotel Vitalliti. What does she think about how the Brazilian government is paying for the temporary dip in diesel prices?
“Look,” she says. “It’s just a reduction in the price of gas until December, then it’ll go back where it was. All that sacrifice was for nothing.”
She scratches some figures on a scrap piece of paper. “Petrobras buys the gas for around 1.92 reais per liter. But they’re making us pay around 4 reais per liter. An enormous profit. The truck drivers demanded that they lower the price to around 2.5 reais per liter. At that price, Petrobras still would turn a profit.”
“They said they were ‘losing’ so they had to recuperate that loss by cutting funds in health and education, so they’ll cover fewer people. But they weren’t losing at all, as you can see,” she says, pointing to the figures.
“And now they’re proposing a new tax that they’ll apply to business owners like my mother (the owner of the hotel). They’ll charge us 10 reais per month for every employee we employ. So they’re not losing, but gaining tenfold,” she says as her hand—with fingernails painted in cinza (ash grey)—crumples the paper up and throws it away.
On May 31, we find out how the government is going to make up for the lowering of the diesel price by 46 centavos per liter—a cost of R$9.5 billion (US $2.55 billion), from a total budget of R$3.5 trillion (US $1.07 trillion). They’ll cut health by R$135 million (US $36 million) and education by R$55.1 million (US $14.8 million). In subsequent days, it comes out that numerous other departments’ funding has also been cut, even that of FUNAI, the equivalent of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (cut by R$625 thousand, or US $168.5 thousand). Such cuts can’t easily explained by accounting and have the appearance of being a kind of vengeance. Take that for striking; we’ll hit poor Brazilians where it hurts and make all those Brazilians who supported the strike think twice before supporting another one. It’s an opportunistic maneuver that takes advantage of a crisis to enforce a pre-existing agenda.
Going back to the events that occurred before I departed Cuiabá, I try to understand why the May 24 pact to end the strike had dissolved. Temer tweeted on May 24 that he’d received news that an accord had been signed. Newspapers on May 25 claimed that the truckers had signed an agreement on May 24, successfully wrapping up the strike. But the glue on the ceramic vase didn’t quite close the cracks. The same news reports announcing the accord also described truckers who refused to recognize the agreement. The pact would mean a 10% lowering in the price of diesel, but only for 30 days; before the ink had even dried, Petrobras indicated that the adjustment would only last for 15 days. Nine of eleven organizations had signed, with ABCAM and UNICAM holding out.
In a move that spoke volumes about the independence of the truckers and the organic organization of the movement, José da Fonseca Lopes, president of the Brazilian Association of Truckers (ABCAM), which represents sixty unions and five federations for a total of around 600,000 workers, stated on Friday morning that he would send messages on the various affiliated WhatsApp groups to make it clear that the decision to suspend the strike was the truckers’ decision alone. Similarly, the National Confederation of Independent Truckers (CNTA), which represents around a million truckers in 120 organizations, released a note the same morning, stating that they’d pass on the government proposals so that each group of protestors in the network could make their own decisions, via “assemblies” to take place on social media and messaging apps.
Pedro Fassoni, social sciences professor at São Paulo’s Pontifícia Universidade Católica, pointed out that the government had made a mistake in negotiating only with larger truckers’ groups, leaving unaffiliated, independent truckers angry that their demands had not been given attention, and making them more committed to continuing the strike.
In a starkly different view, the government accused independent truckers and large companies of collaborating, and charged that it was unlawful. On May 25, Raul Jungmann, Brazil’s head of the Department of Public Security, alleged, “We have indications that there is, shall we say, an alliance, an accord between the independent truckers and the distribution and transport companies” in order to force the government to reduce the diesel price. Jungmann didn’t divulge any of these “indications.” The Department of Public Security had a vested interest in classifying the truckers’ strike as illegal, thus giving them a tool to criminalize it. This wouldn’t be the first time the department has participated in criminalizing protest. In the truckers’ case, the Federal Police announced that they were beginning an investigation into the possible participation of companies in the strike.
In addition, the Criminal Chamber of the Attorney General claimed to have information on the infiltration of members of the military in the strike. On May 30, the Criminal Chamber began proceedings to investigate whether transport companies and union members violated two provisions of the National Security legal code: trying to change the country’s political regime with the use of violence, and inciting subversion of the political order and fomenting ill will within the armed forces.
Critics, both on the right and on the left, accused the transport companies of being puppeteers to puppet-like truckers. However, proof for this accusation is hard to come by, with denouncers trading in suspicion. Some on the right accused truckers of being communists. Others on the left argued that, because truckers in Brazil didn’t have a history of political organizing, they lacked political consciousness and couldn’t have been true leaders in the strike. Leftist analysts seemed confounded by a diversified pattern of organizing not centralized in traditional unions, and dismissed the truckers as being manipulated by big transport companies.
The head of the Casa Civil (Civil Office of the President’s Cabinet), Eliseu Padilha, in response to a question of whether it was an “greve patronal” (owners’ strike), replied in general terms, “What we can say is true is that we have trucks stopped that are from the transportation companies, and we have trucks stopped that are from independent truckers.” Marxist sociologist of labor Ricardo Antunes claimed that there was a beneficial confluence between the trucking companies’ interests and the independent truckers’ interests, an overlap that wasn’t present during truckers’ strikes in 2013 and 2015. But he noted that more investigation was needed to determine the extent of any “owners’ lockout…and to what extent it was the cry of the trucker who is no longer able to survive in his situation.” The “greve ou locaute” (strike or owners’ lockout) debate quickly became polarizing. The talk of a “lockout” tended to overlook the truckers’ autonomy and to dismiss their political consciousness.
Contradicting the accusation of company manipulation is the investigative reportage of Josette Goulart, who observed that truckers organized in an organic, leaderless, non-hierarchical manner, using WhatsApp and other social media networks. Each blockade had its own leader. Multiple unions and associations played a part, with divergent interests and demands that didn’t always match up. Some of the hundreds of small WhatsApp groups—some with just 200 members—included “Ajudando Caminhoneiros” (“Helping Truckers”) and “Caminhoneiros pelo Brasil (“Truckers For Brazil”).
Yet social networks also were bombarded with false reports of an impending military intervention. In an audio recording, someone claiming to be General Eduardo Villas Boas, commander of the military, asked “all Brazilians to go to the streets tomorrow [May 30] to demand military intervention.” On May 31, the recording promised, “we are going to destroy the president, along with the National Congress and the Judiciary. Due to the corruption in this country, we will create an interim government.”
Marcos Nobre, author of Choque de Democracia: Razões da Revolta, asserted that with the ten-day May 2018 strike, Brazil unified to suicidally suffocate itself, shutting down commerce and access to goods and pay. Uniting behind the truckers, with 87 percent of the population supporting the strike, Brazilians acted decisively against their own financial interests to show the government the depths of their displeasure and their ability to unhitch Brazil’s elite from the sources of their power. It remains to be seen when and how they will disconnect the country again.