Anti-austerity strike snarls cities across Brazil

Rosa SULLEIRO with Sebastian SMITH in Rio de Janeiro

Major transportation networks, schools and banks were partially shut down across much of Brazil on Friday in what protesters called a general strike against austerity reforms in Latin America's biggest country.

Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous city and financial powerhouse, was worst hit.

Police used tear gas to clear highways of protesters. But bus services, the metro and trains all stopped working in the early hours, bringing the city temporarily to a standstill.

In Rio de Janeiro, protesters lit fires on a major bridge, disrupting commuter traffic, while police used tear gas to force a small crowd of protesters from outside the main bus station. Many banks were shut.

However, the city was mostly unaffected, with private businesses such as cafes and shops opening normally and most transportation running as usual.

In the capital Brasilia and in Belo Horizonte, another major city, the metro systems were completely closed down.

Curitiba, the city where Brazil's huge "Operation Car Wash" anti-corruption investigation is based, was left without bus services.

Unions and leftwing organizations called for a general strike to oppose center right President Michel Temer's push for a sharp reduction in pension benefits and other austerity reforms.

"We can't keep quiet anymore with a government that is not legitimate, which wasn't elected to dismantle the rights of workers," said Ricardo Jacques, a striking bank employee in Sao Paulo.

The strike appeared to be having greatest effect in heavily unionized parts of the economy, including transportation, schools, the post office and some hospital staff.

A spokesman for the National Civil Aviation Agency told AFP that "operations at the airports are functioning normally."

However, there were multiple reports of delayed or cancelled flights. At Congonhas, one of the airports serving busy Sao Paulo, the departures board carried numerous notices of cancellations.

At Sao Paulo's international airport, Guarulhos, only a handful of flights were delayed, the airport said in a statement.

Police deployed in large numbers to protect government buildings in Brasilia ahead of demonstrations planned later in the day.

- Pensions crisis -

Temer has said that without severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening, Latin America's biggest economy will not be able to exit a two-year recession.

The most controversial measure is to raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women, up from 60 and 55 at present.

The government is also pushing for a liberalization of labor laws and has succeeded in getting Congress to pass a 20-year spending freeze.

Marcelo Faisal, a landscape architect travelling from Sao Paulo to Rio, said "reforms need to take place" and that the general strike call was not living up to the hype.

"They didn't succeed in getting people to adhere to the strike, so they burned tires to block some points here and there, which just causes some disruption," Faisal said.

The struggle over austerity comes against a backdrop of ever worsening conditions for ordinary Brazilians, even if government officials say the economy is slowly turning the corner.

The statistics office on Friday said unemployment had hit yet another new record at 13.7 percent for the last quarter, up from 13.2 percent, with 14 million people out of work.

Brazil's economy shrank 3.8 percent in 2015 and is expected to have contracted a further 3.5 percent in 2016, the most painful recession in a century.

The miserable economic scenario is dovetailing with the country's worst corruption crisis in history. The "Car Wash" probe has uncovered a massive network of embezzlement and bribery at the heart of Brazil's economic and political elite.

Eight of Temer's ministers are under investigation and the president himself has been accused of chairing a meeting where his PMDB party negotiated a $40 million bribe from the Odebrecht engineering conglomerate. Temer and his allies deny any wrongdoing.

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