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Violent Riots Break Out In Brazil As First General Strike In 21 Years Paralyzes Nation

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Less than a year after former president Dilma Rouseff was impeached and ousted for corruption, Brazil’s economy continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace, and on Friday Brazilian police tear-gassed demonstrators and rioters burned buses in the violent conclusion of a general strike – the first in 21 years – that shut down transport, schools and banks in protest against the government’s austerity reforms.

A demonstrator takes part in a protest against Brazils proposed reform

As Reuters reports, what started off as a peaceful protest by several thousand people in central Rio in the afternoon turned violent, with small groups smashing bank windows, erecting barricades and setting fires, including torching at least eight buses.


Buses burn during clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Brazil

The police responded with barrages of rubber bullets and tear gas, which covered Rio in a suffocating fog that reached all the way to the top floors of local office buildings.

Similar disturbances were observed in Sao Paulo, the country’s economic powerhouse, where a crowd attempted to march to the private residence of President Michel Temer and clashed with police, who also fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. Protesters hurled rocks, set fires, smashed street lamps and threw concrete blocks into the center of the avenue.

While earlier in the day, Brazil reported that labor market deteriorated further in March, with the unemployment rate surging to 13.7%, resulting in a record 14.2 million unemployed workers and up from 11.1mn a year ago…

… what prompted the ugly scenes, associated more frequently with Brazil’s imploding neighbor Venezuela, were protests at the government’s proposed reforms, especially a steep cut to the generous pension system.

The protests came at the close of a day in which unions and leftwing groups managed to paralyze much of Brazil. The metro systems in Sao Paulo, the capital Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, another major city, were shut down. Curitiba, where Brazil’s huge “Operation Car Wash” anti-corruption investigation is based, was left without bus services, as was the big northeastern city of Recife, local media reported according to AFP.

According to the Forca Sindical union, at least 40 million people had responded to the call for a 24-hour nationwide strike which started after midnight on Friday, ahead of a long weekend with Labor Day on Monday. The strike had the greatest effect in heavily unionized parts of the economy, including transportation, banks, schools, the post office and some hospital staff. The metallurgical workers’ union said 60,000 members downed their tools.

The strike had a large impact on auto production in Sao Paulo, which concentrates the bulk of the industry in Brazil. General Motors, Ford Motor, Toyota and Daimler all halted production, according to company officials, unions and market analysts. Union officials said most workers at state-run oil producer Petroleo Brasileiro, known as Petrobras, joined the strike, but the company said the stoppage had no significant impact on output. Iron ore miner Vale SA said the strike did not affect its operations.

Although a spokesman for the National Civil Aviation Agency told AFP that operations at the airports are functioning normally, there were multiple reports of delayed and canceled flights.

“We can’t keep quiet anymore with a government that isn’t legitimate, which wasn’t elected to dismantle the rights of workers,” said Ricardo Jacques, a striking bank employee in Sao Paulo.

Assuring that things will get worse before (if) they get better, Temer’s center-right government has said that reforms are needed to save Latin America’s biggest economy from further damage after more than two years of deep recession. Temer criticized the “unfortunate and serious incidents” during the protests and the curtailing of “freedom of movement for citizens.”


Members of Brazil’s Movimento dos Sem-Teto (Roofless Movement) throw
wooden tables onto a burning barricade

Deeply unpopular President Temer also said Brazil’s economy faces a meltdown without severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening, and while he may be right, he also may not be around long enough to supervise the outcome of his just as unpopular reforms. As noted previously, his most controversial measure has been to curb pension costs by raising the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women, up from the current 60 and 55. The government is also pushing for a liberalization of labor laws and has succeeded in getting Congress to pass a 20-year freeze on spending increases.

Meanwhile, as we expected when discussing the Rouseff impeachment, the popular mood is fast turning against her replacement, Temer, whose days in charge may now be numbered.

As Reuters adds, Friday’s strikes were one of the biggest protests to hit the Temer administration since he took over from impeached president Dilma Rousseff last August.

Adding fuel to the fire, Rouseff’s predecessor and mentor, the former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, praised the strike, Valor Economico website said.

 

“This is a clear demonstration that people are determined to paralyze (the country) in protest against the government’s stripping away of their rights,” the site quoted him as saying.

Still, not all Brazilians agree. Marcelo Faisal, a landscape architect travelling from Sao Paulo to Rio, said “reforms need to take place” and that the general strike did not live up to the hype.

“They didn’t succeed in getting people to adhere to the strike, so they burned tires to block some points here and there, which just causes some disruption,” he said. The economy, for years reliant on China’s insatiable commodity appetite, shrank 3.8% in 2015 and is expected to have contracted a further 3.5 percent in 2016, the most painful recession on record; many have called it a depression.

And as the economic collapse accelerates, the political situation remains in turmoil as the economic depression is dovetailing with the country’s worst corruption crisis in history. The infamous “Car Wash” probe has uncovered a massive network of embezzlement and bribery at the heart of Brazil’s economic and political elite.

Having already taken down the previous regime, it threatens to do the same to the current government.

In a stark example of how the revolution eats its own, last month the former speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who drove the successful impeachment of former President Rousseff and who was forced from his position as speaker in July and was arrested in October on accusations he received millions in bribes from the purchase of an oil field in Benin by state-controlled oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for corruption, making him the highest-profile political conviction yet in the “Operation Car Wash” scandal.


Former speaker of Brazil’s Lower House of Congress, Eduardo Cunha (C),
is escorted by federal police officers

Meanwhile, eight of Temer’s ministers – or nearly a third – are under investigation and the president himself has been accused of chairing a meeting in which his PMDB party negotiated a $40 million bribe from the Odebrecht engineering conglomerate. Temer and his allies deny any wrongdoing. Lula and a host of other leftist figures are also targets of anti-corruption prosecutors.



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