Chaos in Brazil as truckers strike despite fuel price cut


Brasília (AFP)

Brazil appeared on the verge of a standstill on the fourth day of a nationwide truckers' strike Thursday as road blockades caused grave shortages of fuel and food, despite a move by the state-owned oil company to defuse the crisis.

The airport in the capital Brasilia faced possible paralysis, long lines formed at gas stations that were running dangerously low on fuel, and even exports were affected.

Truckers have attempted to put a stranglehold on movement of goods in Brazil to protest the fuel price rises, with refinery diesel before tax up 12 percent this month and petrol up 14 percent.

The increases are the result of a politically sensitive decision made in late 2016 to allow the Petrobras oil giant autonomy over its pricing.

But the determination of the truckers has caught center-right President Michel Temer's government flat-footed, five months ahead of presidential elections.

Petrobras yielded to pressure on Wednesday and temporarily reduced fuel prices.

But Thursday morning, the drivers were still blocking main arteries in about 15 of the 27 states in the vast country which has only limited rail services.

Road blockades restricted traffic by buses and coaches in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.

In the capital Brasilia, the airport was facing paralysis on Thursday. The company that manages the facility, Inframerica, said Wednesday that "only aircraft capable of taking off without needing to refuel will (be allowed to) land at Brasilia Airport."

Inframerica however told AFP Thursday that "for the moment there has been no operational impact -- cancelation or delays".

Five other airports including Recife in the northeast and Congonhas in the economic capital of Sao Paulo, fuel reserves could run out on Thursday, the G1 news site said.

Exports of meat and agricultural products were also affected. Food giant BRF on Wednesday suspended operations at four abattoirs.

- 'A one-off measure' -

Prices of fruits and vegetables have risen in Rio and Sao Paulo markets due to supply problems.

Pump prices were also higher, and long lines formed at the main gas stations in Rio and Brasilia.

A spokeswoman for Rio's fuel retailers' union Sincomb told AFP that the main service stations were last supplied on Monday.

"There is a lack of fuel in practically all the service stations that we have contacted," she said.

As a way of defusing an increasingly out-of-control situation, Petrobras Wednesday announced a 10 percent price reduction.

"It is a one-off measure. It doesn't represent a change in pricing policy," Petrobras chief Pedro Parente told journalists. "These are 15 days for the government to reach a deal with the truckers."

But "it is not what we need" the head of the Abcam truckers' association, Jose de Fonseca Lopes, told CBN radio.

The measure sent Petrobras shares tumbling more than 10 percent on the Sao Paulo stock market Thursday morning.

In another temporary measure, the lower house of congress decided late on Wednesday to suspend the introduction of two taxes on diesel until the end of the year.

If the Senate approves the measure Thursday, the truckers "are ready to suspend the movement" said Fonseca Lopes.

But the spokeswoman of the National Transport Confederation (CNT) told journalists Thursday that blockades would continue until the president signes the measure into law.

The proposed suspension of the diesel taxes has sparked tensions within the government.

"There is no agreement yet. I am not against it but I would like to know where the money is coming from," said the minister in charge of relations with parliament, Carlos Marun.