By Leonardo Benassatto and Lisandra Paraguassu
SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro agreed to meet on Thursday with allied truckers leading protests on highways across the country, his government said, as police cleared blockades that threatened key export routes.
Stirred up by the president’s call to action against the Supreme Court at political rallies on Tuesday, the truckers’ blockades gained steam on Wednesday as Bolsonaro was slow to push back against a key segment of supporters.
By Thursday afternoon, Brazil’s federal highway police (PRF) said it had cleared all blockades, but there was still congestion from the protests on federal highways in 13 states.
Grains traders said the blockades were concerning but had not disrupted exports. Meat processors said the truckers allowed live and perishable cargos to circulate.
Still, the protests pushed up transport costs for animal feed and raised concerns about shortages, Valdecir Martins, the head of grain sourcing at the Seara unit of meatpacker JBS SA (OTC:) said in a webinar.
Soaring diesel prices have contributed to nearly double-digit inflation in Brazil, hurting an economic recovery from the world’s second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak and raising fears of a major trucker strike like one that paralyzed roads in 2018.
Bolsonaro gained prominence in that year’s presidential campaign with his early support for the truckers and he has remained sympathetic to their complaints of high fuel prices.
However, in recent days allied truckers put the president in a tight spot, casting their hard-line tactics as an extension of his showdown with the Supreme Court, including demands that specific justices step down or revert unfavorable rulings.
“Bolsonaro opened a Pandora (OTC:)’s box,” said Creomar de Souza of the Dharma political risk consultancy in Brasilia, adding that the president now runs the risk of losing support from the fickle, decentralized trucker movement.
Bolsonaro has yet to address the blockades publicly. On Wednesday night, an audio message from the president circulated in truckers’ messaging groups.
“Speaking to the truckers out there, who are our allies, these blockades hurt our economy,” Bolsonaro said in the message reviewed by Reuters. “They cause supply shortages, inflation and hurt everyone, especially the poorest.”
In a subsequent video message, Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio Freitas said Bolsonaro’s message was genuine, saying it “showed the president’s concern about this blockade.”
Freitas said the trucker strike would pressure the economy, fan inflation and hurt the poorest. Many are concerned about the state of the country, he added, “but we can’t try to sort out one problem by creating another.”
The Infrastructure Ministry said early on Thursday that the president would meet with leaders of the truckers movement via videoconference.
Brazilian grains export group ANEC said on Thursday the protests had not affected exports, but the blockades were a matter of concern and that they were counting on authorities to come up with a solution.
Meatpacker associations Abrafrigo and ABPA said the blockades had not affected movement of live or perishable cargo around the country.
Some truck drivers who stopped on major highways said they were forced to come to a halt by pro-Bolsonaro colleagues who had vandalized their vehicles to strand them in place.
Bruno Rodrigues, 32, who was shipping auto parts, said he was stopped one hour south of Sao Paulo at 4 a.m. by men who threatened to smash his windscreen with rocks.
“They slashed my tire. It’s outrageous. If the stoppage had some benefit, OK, but they are hurting their own brothers on the road,” Rodrigues told Reuters. He said he was losing time for deliveries and would have to pay for the tire repair out of pocket.