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Truckers' Strike In Brazil Cripples The Country


Many Americans are so focused on our own political dramas that it's easy to miss how much is happening in other parts of the world, and that includes a country with plenty of chaos of its own - Brazil. That's one of the world's rising economies, although just lately, it's been sinking. And Brazilians have been reminded how very important it is for a modern economy to have trucks. Brazilian truckers have gone on strike, causing shortages of everything that they carry. We're joined from Rio de Janeiro by NPR's Philip Reeves.

Hi, Philip.


INSKEEP: What caused truckers to go on strike?

REEVES: Well, it's about the cost of fuel. This has gone up a lot, thanks to rising international oil prices and also the sharp depreciation of Brazil's currency against the dollar. Truckers say that means that their operating costs are too high. About a week ago, they started this protest and blockaded hundreds of roads around the country.

INSKEEP: And so these are independent truckers, individuals who have to pay the fuel out of their own pockets, rather than employees of some big company. Is that right?

REEVES: Well, it's quite hard to figure out exactly who's participating in the action, and the answer is that it's a mixture. Some of the truckers own their own vehicles. There have been accusations that the trucking companies are behind it. And the unions are very active, too. So it's a mixture, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the effect if you're living in - I don't know - Rio de Janeiro, as you are? What's daily life like now?

REEVES: Well, it's impacting people very seriously around the country and here in Rio. I mean, in the shop nearest my home, we're seeing empty shelves due to the shortages of perishable foods - fruit, vegetables, eggs and so on. There've been around Brazil very long lines at gas stations. Some people have been sleeping in their cars all night to get fuel. Some gas stations are entirely closed because they - their supplies have run out. Today, many schools are shut because public transport's in disarray. Flights in recent days have been scaled back. And it's also worth remembering, Steve, that Brazil is a huge exporter of poultry and meat. Poultry producers have had to destroy more than 60 million birds because of a shortage of feed, and they say that as many as a billion birds are at risk of being culled.

INSKEEP: Wow. You said flights have been scaled back. So even other forms of transportation are affected because - what? - they get fuel or they get supplies or whatever by truck. That's what's happening there?

REEVES: Yes. And on Friday, the situation became so grave that the government called in the army and police to ensure deliveries to essential services and also to clear hundreds of these blockades that were set up by the truckers. So they've been escorting fuel deliveries to key places - hospitals, I believe - also, airports. And quite a few of those blockades have now been cleared.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for Brazil's government?

REEVES: Well, that's a very good question. There is a bigger picture here. Brazil's been through the largest recession in its history. A massive corruption scandal involving much of the nation's leadership is still playing out. Politicians are generally very unpopular here, and especially the president, Michel Temer. There's a presidential election in Brazil in just over four months, and no one has a clue who's going to win it. The big question underlying all this now, Steve, is that, could this dispute snowball, turn into something even bigger, and if so, does it have the potential to bring down Temer's government?

INSKEEP: Is the government trying to cut the cost of fuel, then?

REEVES: Yeah. Last night, Michel Temer went on TV. He offered a deal that includes cutting diesel prices by the equivalent of 13 cents per liter for 60 days. We don't yet know whether the truckers will accept this. Brazilians, Steve, have a practice in which they demonstrate their disapproval by banging pots and pans. And as Temer was speaking on TV last night, the sound of banging pots reportedly reverberated around Rio...


REEVES: ...And the biggest city in this country, Sao Paulo.

INSKEEP: Wow. NPR's Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.