At one point, more than 300 roads were partly or totally blocked, leading the country’s top election authority to demand that the Federal Highway Police use “all necessary measures” to unblock the highways. That authority, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, threatened the head of the police with imprisonment and fines of nearly $20,000 if he did not comply by midnight Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, Moraes said the Federal Highway Police was not responding and authorized state police to step in, beyond their jurisdiction, and authorized fines for truckers.
The highway police, who have strong ties to Bolsonaro, set up checkpoints on election day in areas heavily populated by supporters of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, delaying voters in some cases by hours. However, the union representing the road police issued a statement Tuesday squarely blaming the incumbent’s refusal to recognize the results for the protests.
“The posture of the current president of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro, in maintaining silence and not recognizing the results of the polls has made it difficult to pacify the country, encouraging some of his followers to adopt blockade actions on Brazilian roads,” the union said.
Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court declared Lula the winner of the Sunday vote; he’s due to take office in January. The country is now on edge as it waits to see whether the Trumpian Bolsonaro accepts the result. The president and his supporters spent months sowing unfounded doubts about the integrity of the election system, laying the groundwork to claim fraud in the event of a loss.
Lula is the latest in a string of leftists across Latin America to claim the presidential sash. He was quickly congratulated Sunday by world leaders including President Biden. He spoke with Biden and met with Argentine President Alberto Fernández on Monday.
Bolsonaro’s intentions now have been the subject of conflicting reports. On Tuesday, he sought a meeting with the members of Brazil’s Supreme Court, but the judges refused to meet with him until he recognizes the results, the UOL outlet reported.
The highway police announced Tuesday that 421 blockades had gone up by Monday night, though security forces had managed to clear 200 locations. By Tuesday afternoon, there were still at least 267 active blockades. The actions affected highways, bus stations and airports; at least 25 flights were canceled. Brazilian media reported that a United Airlines flight from Chicago to São Paulo returned to the United States because access to the international airport was blocked.
The protests have also caused shortages of fuel in some parts of the country. In the northern state of Santa Catarina, authorities said 95 percent of the gas stations in Joinville, the capital, were out of fuel Tuesday after three days of trucker protests. Long lines at gas stations were seen in various cities across the country, and local media reported citizens’ complaints over a sharp rise in fuel prices in the state of Florianopolis.
Observers described the situation as increasingly worrying, but not yet as critical as the truckers’ strike that paralyzed the country in 2018. It had the potential to explode, however, as far-left groups announced that they would potentially move to confront Bolsonaro supporters blocking roads if the police forces wouldn’t.
“We hope the police welcome us in the same way they have the bolsonaristas,” the Homeless Workers Movement, a left-wing group, said in a statement.
On the main highway from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, traffic was blocked in nine stretches and remained partially blocked in two others at 11 a.m. However, officials in São Paulo state said they expected to unblock all major roads in the state by this afternoon. Road access to Guarulhos International Airport, the main airlink in South America’s largest city, had already been cleared.
Observers said the police response appeared to vary from state to state, with forces — including federal and local police — being more aggressive in some and more passive in others.
The protests had echoes of this year’s Freedom Convoy, which paralyzed the Canadian capital for weeks. Robert Muggah, co-founder of Rio-based Igarapé Institute, a think tank monitoring the protests, described them as “headless” and without “a centralized leadership.”
“We don’t see a coherent strategy that unifies them,” Muggah said. “What we do see are small groupings of militant Bolsonaro supporters intent on disrupting and destabilizing the election results, who are highly motivated and, I think, are waiting to hear from their leader on what they believe: which is that the election was stolen from them.”
He added, “It’s not a large-scale movement yet. I think that the risk right now is that it grows.”
Images on social media showed hundreds of large trucks and cars parked and crammed together across a highway in Maraba, a city in Sao Paulo state, as smoke billowed from what seemed like burning tires.
Despite legal actions and state police moving in to clear the protests, Bolsonaro supporters were using the Telegram app to call for further national protests in the country’s largest cities Wednesday, and urging people to block highways and streets
“There is no doubt there was fraud,” one missive on social media read. “Brazil will not cave to the system’s frauds and in the next days you will be part of history!”
Some supporters, however, were waiting for their leader, who remains silent more than 36 hours after the election, to give them marching orders.
“I really hope Bolsonaro makes a statement, the truckers and the people who are out on the streets need munition, and an incentive,” one woman wrote.
Others urged people to join in and bring food and water to the truck drivers.
Sao Paulo governor Rodrigo Garcia urged people not to join the roadblocks Tuesday and to “respect the election results” or face large fines. He authorized police to use force to remove demonstrators from roadways.
Several other governors followed his lead, including Claudio Castro in Rio de Janeiro state, who asked Brazilians to “respect the law.”
There was evidence of a more forceful police response unfolding in some areas. In Rio de Janeiro, images on social media showed police officers in riot gear and municipal guards pepper-spraying several protesters standing in the middle of the highway trying to block cars from passing through. The protesters, some wrapped in the Brazilian flag, fell back. One officer in a black mask pepper-sprayed a woman who was holding a sign standing in front of a car. She fell to the ground covering her face, while other protesters recorded and shouted at him.
Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes retweeted the video, praising the officer’s actions.
“We respect the law here, we won’t tolerate riots!” he wrote.
According to local media reports, a shipment with more than 500,000 eggs used for production of H3N2 influenza vaccines has been stopped in Sao Paulo state due to the roadblocks. According to the Butantan Institute, a major research center which produces vaccines for the Ministry of Health, the delays could cause the loss of 1.5 million vaccines, O Globo reported.
The demonstrations have been organized in part via Telegram groups. Bolsonaro supporters in these groups were asking Tuesday for donations of money, water and food and encouraging people to join roadblocks. Some of the Telegram groups have more than 35,000 members.
Lawmakers close to Bolsonaro urged the truckers to maintain the protests. They included Carla Zambelli, who pointed a gun at an unarmed Black man after a political argument in São Paulo on Saturday. She recorded a video that spread quickly in the groups asking people to be calm while standing by the president.
On Monday, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, the president’s eldest son, was the first in his inner circle to speak publicly after the result was announced. He told his supporters to raise their heads and not to give up on Brazil. Then he tweeted: “Dad, I’m with you come what may!
Another son, Jair Renan Bolsonaro, posted a story on Instagram defending his father: “The devil saw me with my head down and smiled, but only until I said amen. You will see that your son does not run from the fight! I carry Bolsonaro in my name!”