Brazil Gripped by General Strike Over Austerity Measures

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RIO DE JANEIRO — A general strike disrupted cities around Brazil on Friday as unions marshaled resistance to austerity measures proposed by the scandal-ridden government of President Michel Temer, reflecting his struggle to persuade voters that his proposals to overhaul pension systems and labor laws are necessary.

Tensions flared in Rio de Janeiro, with schools warning parents to keep students at home, security forces using tear gas to disperse protesters at ferry terminals near Guanabara Bay and clashes erupting inside Santos Dumont Airport. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, protesters blocked highways, halted much of the public transit network and shut down access to an array of public buildings.

The strike also hit cities elsewhere in Brazil, including Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and the capital, Brasília, though many businesses in the country were still able to open on Friday, at least partly, or operating at a slower pace than usual.

“The strike is completely justified, but I’d be fired if I didn’t go to work,” said Marco Basaglia, 48, a bank employee in São Paulo who walked to work Friday morning instead of taking public transportation. “Temer hates working people. This is the worst government Brazil has ever had.”

The strike revealed deep fissures in Brazilian society over Mr. Temer’s government and its policies. The president remains deeply unpopular after rising to power last year after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. But Mr. Temer argues that his overhauls are needed to restore confidence in Brazil’s weak economy.

Indeed, some problems are glaring. The pension system allows many Brazilians to retire in their 50s, causing deficits to balloon and depleting resources for basic services like education and health care. And some economists contend that byzantine labor laws stymie competitiveness and prevent companies from hiring more workers.

“The majority of people in this strike are union members defending personal interests,” said Joel Matos, 49, an engineer in Rio who hurried to work on Friday in the rain, grasping an umbrella. Mr. Matos, explaining that he was “neutral” on Mr. Temer’s overhauls, said, “Some changes will not change our lives. Others have already happened, like outsourcing.”

Still, even at a time when the leftist Workers’ Party of Ms. Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is also marred by its own graft scandals, the ability of unions to organize the strike reflected broad dissatisfaction with Mr. Temer and his allies in Brazil’s political establishment.

A poll in April showed that 92 percent of Brazilians thought the country was on the wrong path, with Mr. Temer’s own approval rating standing at just 4 percent. The survey by Ipsos, a global market research company, was conducted from April 1 to 12 in face-to-face interviews with 1,200 people with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

While pushing for the austerity policies, Mr. Temer’s allies in the Senate also seem to have another priority: curbing graft inquiries. With nearly a third of its members under investigation for corruption, the Senate voted this week to punish prosecutors for so-called abuses of power, a move viewed as an effort to weaken graft investigations.

Mr. Temer himself is facing a claim that he negotiated a $40 million bribe in 2010 for his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, an accusation he denies. The president’s supporters say he enjoys temporary immunity from being investigated for matters outside his time in office, which lasts through 2018.

Top aides of Mr. Temer denounced the strike, with Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio dismissing it as “nonsense” and “generalized disorder” in a radio interview. But with members of Congress seeking to preserve their own generous pension benefits, much of the political establishment seems ignorant of the mood on the streets.

On the eve of the strike, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that elite public servants could collect salaries of more than about $140,000 a year, a limit established in the Constitution. A justice on the court, Ricardo Lewandowski, said it would be unjust for a civil servant carrying out multiple duties to receive “paltry remuneration.”

The ruling, in a country where roughly half the population scrapes by on a minimum wage of about $4,000 a year, may reinforce perceptions that Brazil’s most privileged public employees are finding ways to enhance their wealth at a time when the authorities are pressing for austerity measures.

Amid such developments, some supporters of Mr. Temer’s overhauls say the president also needs to elicit sacrifices from members of the political and economic elite, or at least do a better job of explaining how the austerity measures could eventually help most Brazilians.

“If the reforms are supposed to improve things, why is there so much resistance to them?” asked Celso Ming, a financial columnist for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. “Above all, the feeling of the common citizen is that life isn’t just worse than it was a few years ago, but that it’s getting even grimmer.”

Much depends on perspective. Investors betting on Mr. Temer’s ability to deliver helped push Brazil’s main stock index up more than 20 percent over the past year. But Brazil’s unemployment rate climbed to 13.7 percent in the first quarter as a harrowing economic downturn grinds on.

“Temer is sinking the country,” said Camila Oliveira, 24, a saleswoman at a jewelry store in São Paulo, emphasizing that she also viewed the strike as “garbage.”

“The situation is very ugly,” Ms. Oliveira said. “If I had the money, I’d leave Brazil.”