Brazil schools close as truckers’ strike enters fifth day

AFP:

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

As the government and transport unions continued to seek a solution — after over five hours of talks — airports and gas stations were running out of fuel, food prices were spiraling and agricultural exports were hit.

Truckers have attempted to put a stranglehold on movement of goods in Brazil to protest fuel price rises.

The increases are the result of a politically sensitive decision made in late 2016 to allow the Petrobras oil giant autonomy over its pricing, as well as a rise in world prices in recent weeks.

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, sending its shares plunging by around 14 percent on the Sao Paulo stock market by close on Thursday. But the truckers Thursday were blocking main arteries in 26 of the 27 states in the vast country, which has only limited rail services.

In the port of Santos near Sao Paulo — the largest in Latin America — there have been virtually no arrivals or departures of trucks for three days, the management said, even if the “loading and unloading operations of ships continues normally” for now.

In the capital Brasilia, the airport was allowing only planes to land that had enough fuel to take off again, and schools were closed.

At 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.

Various abattoirs have also halted operations, affecting a key export sector.

– ‘A one-off measure’ –

Prices of fruits and vegetables were rocketing in some places to 400 percent, due to supply problems.

Pump prices were also higher, and long lines formed at many gas stations.

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 temporary price reduction of 10 percent.

“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 the head of the Abcam truckers’ association, Jose de Fonseca Lopes, was unimpressed. “It is not what we need,” he told CBN radio.

The movement appeared to have some popular support.

“I think that this has been provoked by poor management by the federal government,” said Ana Maria Lobo, a driver waiting in line at a gas station in Sao Paulo, who also noted “all these corruption scandals.”

In another temporary measure, the lower house of congress decided late 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 signs 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.

Malaysia’s Najib quizzed for second time over graft claims

Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak arrived at the anti-graft agency Thursday to be questioned for a second time this week over a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal following his shock election loss.

Najib’s coalition suffered a defeat at the May 9 poll which ended their six-decade hold on power, beaten by a reformist alliance led by Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir, who first served as premier from 1981-2003 and came out of retirement aged 92 to take on Najib, campaigned on claims that the former leader and his cronies looted sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Billions of dollars were allegedly stolen from the fund in a sophisticated fraud, and used to buy everything from artworks to high-end real estate.

Najib pushed through a huge media scrum at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) headquarters in the administrative capital of Putrajaya as he arrived to be quizzed about 1MDB money allegedly ending up in his personal bank accounts.

Najib is being questioned by the anti-corruption body over SRC International, an energy company that was originally a subsidiary of 1MDB.

According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, 42 million ringgit ($10.6 million) originating from SRC was transferred to Najib’s personal bank accounts.

It is just one small part in the graft scandal, which is being investigated in several countries.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB allegedly ended up in Najib’s accounts but the ex-leader and the investment vehicle have denied any wrongdoing.

Mahathir has vowed to fully investigate the financial scandal.

After holding meetings with key figures from 1MDB Wednesday, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the fund was insolvent, could not pay its debts, and its chief was “utterly dishonest”.

Najib and his unpopular wife Rosmah Mansor have suffered a swift fall from grace. Police have raided properties linked to them and seized a huge stash of handbags, cash and jewels.

The ousted leader has sought to mount a fightback in recent days, insisting he has not stolen public and attacking the new government.

In a Facebook post late Wednesday, he accused the new prime minister and finance minister of causing the stock market to fall by saying that the country’s national debt was huge.

“Words spoken while in such positions of power result in actual losses to the country and the people,” he said.