Brazil's strike chaos stirs military coup talk

by Sebastian Smith
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Soldiers take part in an operation to clear highway Regis Bittencourt, 30 km from Sao Paulo, on May 30, 2018 as a truckers' strike against rising fuel costs

Brazil's army is often called to help when things go wrong, so it was no surprise to see soldiers deploy during a crippling truckers' strike. The difference this time: loud calls for the military to take over the country altogether.

Truckers launched their action 10 days ago, gumming up the food and fuel supply system across Latin America's biggest economy.

Their protest began over rising fuel prices. However, public backing for the shutdown indicated much wider discontent at Brazil's floundering economy, unpopular government and rampant corruption.

In response, center-right President Michel Temer ordered the army to escort non-striking trucks safely past picket lines.

But far from being angry at the arrival of troops, a number of strikers greeted them with banners reading: "Intervention now!"

"Intervencao ja!" as it goes in Portuguese, is shorthand for a return to the military dictatorship that ruled here between 1964-1985, or at least a coup, followed by new elections.

The slogan appears periodically on the fringes of mainstream anti-government rallies.

Now, though, it took center stage during national media coverage, with drivers unafraid to voice support for a takeover.

"We want military intervention, if possible, to sort out this country," said Alexandre Bastos, 43, who was taking part in a truckers' blockade of a refinery outside Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.

"Intervention would have nothing to do with dictatorship. We just want the army to intervene."

There was even a fake news rumor spread on WhatsApp that the constitution required military intervention once the strike lasted seven working days and six hours, which would have meant on Tuesday.

The supposed deadline came and went. But all of a sudden this normally toxic subject had become that much more mainstream.

"It's a feeling that is growing in the population, which sees the military as the solution to the nation's problems," reserve army general Augusto Heleno told Folha de S.Paulo newspaper Wednesday.

Heleno, who commanded UN peacekeepers in Haiti, insisted that the armed forces "do not intend, do not seek" a coup.

But he then went on to praise the dictatorship's image of "a more organized country, where people had a better life."

"I'm not saying it was like that. But this is the image a lot of people have."

- Soldiers to the rescue -

Brazilians have got used to seeing the military step in where other institutions fail.

Residents of Rio de Janeiro no longer bat an eyelid at the sight of soldiers in full battle dress. During the 2016 Rio Olympics and again, starting last year, soldiers regularly deployed everywhere from Copacabana beach to the chaotic, violent favelas where drug gangs rule.

A government decree this year went a step further, putting generals in charge of Rio's police, firefighters and other emergency services, citing the regular leaders' failure to control crime.

It's not just bringing law and order, either.

When Brazil was in the midst of a Zika crisis in 2016, with the Olympics coming, it was the military that again came to the rescue, going house to house to eradicate mosquitoes in at-risk areas.

The military's sterling reputation is a big part of the presidential campaign for former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, a frontrunner in the October polls.

Although Bolsonaro often expresses nostalgia for the dictatorship, he declined to support the truckers demanding intervention, saying that the right wing should come to power through the ballot box, rather than being told "there was a coup."

Still, even if coup talk is mostly hot air, the subject was worrying enough to prompt Supreme Court Chief Justice Carmen Lucia on Wednesday to pronounce: "Democracy is the sole legitimate path."

Temer's institutional security minister, Sergio Etchegoyen, also sought to reassure Brazilians.

"Military intervention is a topic from last century," he said.

Soldiers take part in an operation to clear highway Regis Bittencourt, 30 km from Sao Paulo, on May 30, 2018 as a truckers' strike against rising fuel costs

Soldiers take part in an operation to clear highway Regis Bittencourt, 30 km from Sao Paulo, as a truckers' strike against rising fuel costs in Brazil that has left much of the country paralyzed, is now over

Demonstrators set up a barricade to protest fuel prices in Belo Horizonte, Brazil