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Feb 16, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

A Striking Problem for Brazil's Security

A Striking Problem for Brazil's Security
(VINICIUS MORAES/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Police officers are tasked with enforcing the law, but that doesn't always keep them from breaking or skirting it. In Brazil, for instance, a prohibition on police strikes has not stopped police officers in Espirito Santo state from vacating their duties to demand higher wages, which are some of the lowest among Brazil's police forces. The rule has forced them to get creative, though. Instead of the officers themselves, their wives and girlfriends are leading the charge, physically blocking the entrances to police stations across the state to keep their spouses and partners from working — and from breaking the law. By Feb. 11, a week after the strike began, 1,743 officers in Espirito Santo had returned to work. But their time off had a profound effect on the state's security: In just seven days, Espirito Santo experienced 147 homicides and a spate of lootings.

The situation stabilized as officers resumed their duties and members of the armed forces deployed to Espirito Santo to patrol the streets. Espirito Santo's government even fired 155 police officers to discourage others from joining the protests. Now, however, the federal government in Brasilia is concerned that the strike will spread to other states. Relatives of police officers in Rio de Janeiro state began barricading police stations on Feb. 10, days after the state government announced that it would increase wages. Though the protest has not significantly impeded police operations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian President Michel Temer decided to send 9,000 members of the armed forces to the state to help police patrol it. And given the country's economic straits, the strikes may keep coming, despite the government's best efforts to stop them.

Since 2015, Brazil has been mired in economic recession. The resulting financial strain has been particularly hard on state budgets, especially those of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. (Rio de Janeiro's economy took an additional hit when oil prices dropped in mid-2014, and again when the federal funding that the state had been receiving to prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics dried up.) Although the states combined generate nearly 30 percent of Brazil's gross domestic product, their finances are in bad shape. Last year, they were among four states whose capacity to repay their financial obligations to the federal government received a D rating — the second-lowest mark — from Brazil's National Treasury. Each state declared economic calamity that year, enabling their governments to implement extraordinary cost-cutting measures such as laying off public workers. Tax revenues in the states are so low, moreover, that the governments have resorted to paying their civil servants' salaries in installments.

In light of their unwieldy debt levels, the Brazilian government has demanded that the states trim their budgets, privatize state-owned companies (which include electricity, water and mining concerns) and freeze public wages. After all, Brasilia has financial problems of its own and can't afford to bail the states out unless their governments implement austerity measures. But austerity measures are unpopular among the voters in these states. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, a bill to allow the privatization of a local water company met with protests and still has not made it through the legislature.

By comparison, Espirito Santo is financially stable. Even though its government has not raised public wages, it has at least been able to pay civil servants on time and in full, which is more than Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais can say. Yet that still wasn't enough to stop police from striking. Under the circumstances, then, the federal government's fears of police strikes cropping up in other states are well-founded. In fact, police in Rio Grande do Sul staged a partial strike in 2015. And if Espirito Santo offers any indication, proliferating police strikes could be devastating for Brazil's security. The federal government is also concerned that the demonstrations could fuel prison riots across the country, forcing Brasilia to intervene as it did in January, when it sent federal troops to help quell prison riots in a handful of northern states that left hundreds of prisoners dead.

Brazil is expected to pull out of its recession this year. But market analysts anticipate that the country's economy will grow slowly, if at all, depending on how the probe into the Petrobras-Odebrecht scandal unfolds over the coming year. Even if the economy resumes growth at the projected rate of 0.5 to 1 percent, it will not be enough to alleviate the financial troubles plaguing the country. States will have to keep selling off state-owned enterprises and cutting public spending. And in many states, public wages will probably stay frozen. Consequently, the police strikes in Espirito Santo and Rio de Janeiro could be the start of a dangerous trend in Brazil.

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