RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil kicked off a general strike Friday that is likely to paralyze major cities across Latin America's largest country. The nationwide strike is the first since the arrival of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Jan. 1. While most participants will be protesting against a pension reform being discussed in Congress, others will be turning out to oppose budget cuts, a sluggish economy and the administration's conservative agenda. Here is a look at what's happening and why:
FIRST GENERAL STRIKE IN TWO YEARS
Workers in all 26 Brazilian states and the federal district of Brasilia are expected to take part in Friday's strike, according to several unions. Actions blocking roads and public transportation are set to start early in the morning in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Turnout should be particularly strong in the northeast, the historic bastion of the opposition Workers' Party. But general strikes are not so common in Brazil. The last one was held in 2017 against proposals in Congress to loosen labor rules and trim pension benefits. Before that, there hadn't been a general strike in 20 years.
PROTESTS AGAINST BOLSONARO
While it will be the first nationwide labor strike against Bolsonaro, he has faced protests since even before he was elected on Oct. 18, 2018. A few weeks before casting their votes, women led large demonstrations across Brazil over the far-right leader's misogynistic comments and conservative social agenda. They marched under the slogan "Not Him." In April, indigenous leaders from over 300 ethnicities attended a march in Brasilia to denounce policies they say will facilitate the expansion of mining and industrial farming businesses into their protected lands. Then last month, thousands took to the streets to oppose a decision by Bolsonaro's government to slash education funds in the largest protest so far.
Friday's strike is primarily against the pension reform the Bolsonaro administration is currently pushing for in Congress. The plan would raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women and increase workers' contributions. The government says the proposal could save about 1 trillion reals ($260 billion) and that it is essential for saving the troubled social security system and hopefully giving a boost to Latin America's largest economy. Under the current system, male and female workers can claim pension benefits after 30 to 35 years of contributions, respectively, meaning many can retire as early as 50 or 55.
The reform is one of this administration's signature promises and is currently being reviewed by a special commission in the lower house of congress. A previous pension reform bill, introduced by ex-President Michel Temer, managed to pass the commission and made it to the plenary, but was abandoned after nine months.
ANGER OVER BUDGET CUTS
Some Brazilians will use the strike as another opportunity to express their opposition to the government's across-the-board budget cuts, especially to education. Professors, students and academics have protested the decision to pare $1.85 billion from funds for the public education network, from elementary schools to universities. They were particularly distressed by the suspension of some scholarship funding and a 30% freeze on federal universities' discretionary budgets, which goes to pay utility bills, security, cleaning or maintenance work. Officials have promised to send more money toward education, thanks to an additional government funding measure approved this week by Congress. But they have conditioned even more funding on the passing of the pension reform.
A SLUGGISH ECONOMY
There is widespread discontent over Brazil's sluggish economy. Gross domestic product shrank in the first quarter of 2019, while inflation hit nearly 5% in April, the highest in more than two years. Unemployment also remains high at nearly 13%, but even greater —over 30%— among Brazilians aged 18 to 24. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes recently told Brazilian magazine Veja that he would quit his position if Congress tried to pass a watered-down version of his pension proposal. Without the reform, Guedes said the country could go broke as early as next year.