BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
AND MARTÍN KOPPEL
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - The government of Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso responded to a three- week-old strike of nearly 50,000 oil workers by sending army units to occupy four refineries May 24. The strike, reinforced by work stoppages by thousands of rail workers and truckers, has become the first big political crisis for Cardoso, who took office in January. The oil workers are protesting the government's privatization and layoff plans and are demanding wage improvements.
Delegates arriving here from Brazil to attend the fifth meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum, a gathering of political parties from around Latin America and the Caribbean, reported on the battle taking shape there. One refinery the troops have occupied is in the state of Parana, and the others - in Mauá, Sao José dos Campos, and Campinas - are in the state of Sao Paulo, the country's main industrial center. Television news in Montevideo showed military helicopters backing up the army deployment.
Sao Paulo Forum organizers reported that Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva, a central leader of Brazil's Workers Party, is not coming to the conference here in order to help respond to the government's escalation of the conflict. He was originally scheduled to be one of the speakers at the meeting's May 25 inauguration. The Workers Party has ties to the United Workers Federation (CUT) whose affiliates are involved in the strike.
Striking oil workers have virtually shut down Brazil's major refineries, which belong to the state-owned Petrobrás company. After three weeks, the work stoppage has begun to cause fuel shortages in urban centers. The government began to ration bottled liquid gas in most of the country. The press has reported that the lack of fuel has begun to affect industrial production. In Sao Paulo, many gas stations and several bus lines have shut down.
The capitalist rulers of Brazil, alarmed that the oil workers' struggle is setting an example for other working people devastated by the economic crisis, has mobilized all its political resources against the strikers. The Supreme Labor Tribunal ruled the strike illegal. The big-business media, flashing pictures of long gas lines, has launched a propaganda blitz to portray the unionists as causing hardships for the rest of the population.
The media has accompanied news on the strike with articles about the 50,000 troops that have been deployed in impoverished working-class neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro under the pretext of fighting drugs and violence. The implied target of the troop mobilization is unmistakable-the government's message is that social protests will be met with repression.
Making clear the political stakes in this confrontation, Petrobra's financial director Orlando Galvao declared, "The issue now is not the cost, but the principles involved."
According to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, Cardoso stated his government would make no concessions to the strikers because otherwise he would remain "hostage" to public employees and state-owned enterprises for the rest of his term. Capitalist politicians have urged Cardoso to follow the union-busting stance taken by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1984-85 coal miners strike.
The Brazilian government has launched a campaign to sell off shares to a number of major state-owned companies. In February it passed a law allowing private-including foreign-investment in the oil industry, mining, and telecommunications.
U.S. businessmen enthusiastically applauded Cardoso during his recent trip to the United States when he vowed to continue opening up Brazil's economy to international capital.
He also took pains to assure capitalist investors that Brazil is immune to the financial volatility that led to the plunge of the Mexican economy following the devaluation of that country's currency in December. Cardoso offered rosy prospects for businessmen, domestic and foreign.
Many working people in Brazil have expressed a different view. In the last several weeks, up to 300,000 workers have gone on strike to demand wage increases as well as to oppose the government's plans for mass layoffs in state-owned industries. Shipyard workers, university employees, rail workers, truckers, and social security workers have struck.
The strikes in Brazil coincide with similar struggles by
workers elsewhere in South America. On May 23, mineworkers
in Río Turbio, in southern Argentina, occupied their coal
mine to press demands for increasing wages and benefits. A
wave of strikes and labor demonstrations has hit provinces
throughout Argentina in recent months in response to
government austerity moves.
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