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A Truckers’ Strike Drives Home The Depth of São Paulo’s Dependence on Cars, and on Fuel

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"We are out of fuel," said an all-too-familiar sign in Sao Paulo last week. Photo courtesy of Julian Dip.

In a city addicted to driving like São Paulo, a sudden shortage of fuel hits hard.  With a fleet of 6.6 million vehicles in January, and about 630 more hitting the streets each day, fuel was taken for granted in Brazil’s largest city and financial capital. Until one day last week, it was not.

Now, one week after the start of a truckers’ strike that cut the fuel supplies  for two days, there are still stations waiting for supply. According to Sincopetro, the association of gas station owners, one in 10 stations in São Paulo  was waiting for fuel on Monday morning. With the success of the move, there were reports that the truckers were weighing  plans to do the same in other Brazilian capitals.

The truckers idled their engines to protest  the decision by Mayor Gilberto Kassab to restrict the circulation of trucks inside the city’s (not-so) high-speed roads along the Pinheiros and Tietê rivers during the daytime. The measure was intended as a palliative to ease the heavy congestion that São Paulo dwellers face each day. Not coincidentally, this year São Paulo and all the other 5,500-plus cities in Brazil face mayoral elections.

But in his bid to relieve one of the city’s woes, Kassab unwittingly set in motion several new ones.

On Tuesday, March 6, cafeterias in the Pinheiros neighborhood, the trendy neighborhood known for its museums and luxury stores,  displayed placards apologizing for the lack of whipped cream, which was not being delivered in the region due to the strike.

But while those with the coffee habit coped with the dearth of whipped cream, the truckers strategically aimed their protest at a more  severe addiction; they blocked fuel tankers from delivering in the city. Soon, some gas stations ran out of fuel.  Those stations still with supply, facing long lines of motorists, applied textbook economics and  nearly doubled prices. Ethanol – currently expensive enough to be considered less advantageous by drivers – was the only option in many stations.

Teka de Melo, an executive assistant at a movie production agency, drove during two hours to find a gas station with gasoline. Every station in her 5-kilomter evening commute home was either closed or selling only ethanol, which she avoids, due to the price and inferior mileage.

“On Wednesday morning [March 7], I passed by the same stations [as the night before] and found no fuel. Waiting lines for ethanol were immense,” she said. “I got afraid of getting stranded, with no fuel.” She finally found one with prices that struck her as high, but not too far from the average R$ 2.65 a liter ($5.57 U.S. per gallon)  charged in mid-February according to official data. “At that point, after nearly two hours searching and waiting, I had to fill my tank, pay what was being charged and go to work. Tired, but with a full tank.”

Drivers were angry at the truckers, at the prices, at the lines, at the congestion and at each other. On March 7,  a man who waited to fill his car’s tank in a station was shot four times and killed by a man who walked to his car’s window. Initially, the incident was attributed to the competition for a place in the line. Now, police think it was an execution not related to the fuel shortage. Still, the incident fed the feeling of chaos in the city.

In what was like a scene out of the dystopian film, Mad Max, police and paid private security firms began that day to escort fuel tankers to the gas stations, so they could be supplied. In Higienópolis neighborhood, near downtown São Paulo, two stations separated by 200 meters had different situations on Thursday. The more expensive one R$ 2.89 per liter ($6.31 U.S. per gallon) was without fuel for just one hour in the morning, until an escorted tanker arrived. The cheaper one R$ 2.59 a liter ($5.46 U.S. per gallon) had chains blocking access to its pumps.

As a judge ruled the strike illegal and truckers ended their protest on Thursday afternoon,  tankers could deliver without being escorted. Eighteen gas stations were fined by Procon, a consumer-rights agency, for raising their prices an  even 10 cents per liter. Of  those stations, 11 will be further investigated for abusive raises;  nine were arrested for charging up to R$ 5 a liter ($10.50 U.S. per gallon).

Although a sense of normalcy was returning this week, the strike underscored the vulnerability of one of the world’s largest cities, how easily turmoil can be unleashed on a city that depends so heavily on cars, and fuel.

 Marcelo Soares is a freelance reporter who chooses to live without a car in downtown São Paulo, Brazil.