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From Canada to Brazil, rich right-wing elites are astroturfing ‘trucker’ protests

Supported by wealthy right-wing elites, so-called “trucker” protests (led by non-truckers) have paralyzed the capitals of Brazil and Canada in less than six months. The campaigns have many similarities – including some of the same well-funded conservative networks.

Canada Brazil trucker convoy right wing funding

(Se puede leer este artículo en español aquí.)


Wealthy international right-wing networks have fueled a protest in Canada that paralyzed the capital Ottawa this January and February.

Many of the organizers of the demonstration, which they call a “freedom convoy,” are not truckers, and some have links to far-right groups and Canadian military intelligence and police agencies. But they have exploited the image of truck drivers to confuse observers into thinking it is a working-class movement.

With large sums of money and support from powerful right-wing leaders in Canada and abroad – especially from Donald Trump and his political network in the United States – the “freedom convoy” has used opposition to Covid-19 vaccine mandates as cover to launch an occupation of the capital.

This is despite the fact that nearly 90% of truckers in Canada are vaccinated, and the convoy has been condemned by major unions and organizations representing truck drivers, including the Canadian Labour Congress, Teamsters, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

Yet this is not the first time this “trucker convoy” tactic has been employed. It is the latest example of a strategy being developed by well-funded right-wing networks across the Americas, from as far north as Canada and as far south as Brazil.

The convoy in Ottawa is in fact eerily similar to an astroturfed campaign organized just a few months before in Brasilia by rich supporters of the South American nation’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

A trucker protest in Brazil in 2018 paralyzed distribution networks for weeks. Initially rooted in legitimate complaints of unreasonable hikes to the cost of diesel caused by neoliberal economic policies imposed after a 2016 political coup against a democratically elected left-wing government, the trucker protest was soon hijacked by wealthy conservative elites.

2018 was a crucial election year, and Brazil’s media oligarchies turned the trucker protest into a giant campaign commercial for the most subservient politician to US interests in the country’s history: Bolsonaro – its first head of state to ever visit CIA headquarters.

International right-wing networks again resorted to the trucker tactic in 2021. In the first week of September, Brazil held a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), starring Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo. (Donald Trump Jr. was supposed to attend in person, but he ended up speaking via video stream.)

CPAC Brazil also featured Jason Miller, a former Trump senior advisor and close ally of far-right political operative Steve Bannon.

Jason Miller Trump Bolsonaro Brazil

Former senior advisor to Donald Trump, Jason Miller, with Jair Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo in Brazil

Just a few days after CPAC Brazil, on September 7, a group of truckers occupied the national esplanade, briefly paralyzing the capital Brasilia, leading thousands of Bolsonaro supporters in what initially appeared to be a planned storming of the Supreme Court building.

The Brazilian “trucker” protest was organized by a man who called himself Zé Trovão. It was later revealed that he was not really a trucker, and he didn’t even have a driver’s license – but he did receive thousands of dollars from Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo.

Furthemore, most of the truckers who showed up at the September 7 rally in Brasilia had actually been hired by a company, Pro Tork, whose wealthy owner, Marlon Bonilha, was one of Bolsonaro’s biggest campaign contributors.

Hours after the attempted insurgency fizzled out, Miller was detained at the Brasilia airport by federal police, who questioned him over his role in the destabilization of the country.

The clear parallels between these campaigns illustrate how powerful right-wing networks are developing a novel strategy to destabilize governments, under the cynical guise of “working-class” trucker protests.

Brazil truck Pro Tork Bolsonaro

Row of trucks at the September 7, 2021 protest in Brazil, all owned by Pro Tork, the company run by Bolsonaro campaign financer Marlon Bonilha

Wealthy right-wing elites in Canada and abroad support ‘freedom convoy’

In January 2022, the Canadian government began requiring truckers crossing the border with the United States to be vaccinated against Covid-19. For the vast majority of truck drivers, almost 90% of whom are vaccinated, this was not a problem.

But right-wing networks both inside Canada and outside of the country seized on the new policy to protest and shut down the capital.

Numerous members of far-right groups, including white nationalists and Islamophobes, helped to organize what they called a “freedom convoy.” Many of the people involved were in fact not truckers, but they portrayed the demonstrations as a trucker protest.

Some of the leaders of the convoy have backgrounds in Canadian military intelligence and police departments, and appear to have close relationships with state security forces.

Right-wing and xenophobic messaging was ubiquitous at the convoy, and a few protesters even showed up with Nazi and Confederate flags.

Countless photos and videos of the convoy show anti-communist signs, some bizarrely accusing Canada’s neoliberal centrist Prime Minister Trudeau of being a secret communist.

Many more attacked China, and blamed the Communist Party of China for the Covid-19 pandemic. Other protesters were seen with anti-Semitic signs blaming Jews for the crisis.

A website created by supporters of the convoy listed right-wing conspiracy theorist David Icke and anti-vax groups as “allies,” and encouraged readers to follow far-right outlets InfoWars and Rebel News.

As the convoy grew, two right-wing activists who are not truckers, named Tamara Lich, and B.J. Dichter, organized a crowd-funding campaign on the website GoFundMe.

Support poured in from national and international right-wing elites, and the GoFundMe campaign raised $10 million in just over two weeks, with individual donations as high as $215,000.

The fundraiser was supplemented by conservative investment bankers, real estate moguls, and wealthy businesspeople, until it was shut down on February 4.

Fundraising for the convoy had been boosted on social media by a suspicious coordinated campaign involving a hacked account.

Ottawa’s police chief said there was “a significant element from the U.S. that have been involved in the funding, the organizing and the demonstrating.”

Former US president Donald Trump openly promoted the convoy, at rallies and online, referring to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a neoliberal centrist who has actively campaigned against the left, as a supposed “far-left lunatic.”

Canadian truckers’ unions, Indigenous communities, and leftist organizations condemn convoy

While right-wing groups threw their weight behind the convoy, left-wing groups in Canada came out firmly against the protest, including major labor unions, indigenous leaders, and socialist parties that are staunchly opposed to the Trudeau government.

The largest trucker union in Canada, Teamsters, openly condemned the convoy as a “despicable display of hate lead by the political Right,” lamenting that it “has served to delegitimize the real concerns of most truck drivers today.”

Teamsters Canada noted that 90% of its truckers are vaccinated.

When the convoy created a blockade at the Canada-US border, the union published another statement denouncing the protest “that continues to hurt workers and negatively impact our economy.”

“The livelihood of working Americans and Canadians in the automotive, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors is threatened by this blockade,” Teamsters said.

The Canadian Labour Congress, the largest labor organization in the country, which represents dozens of unions and millions of workers, also came out firmly against the convoy.

“This is not a protest, it is an occupation by an angry mob trying to disguise itself as a peaceful protest,” the Labour Congress said.

“This occupation of Ottawa streets, on top of the latest wave of the pandemic, is having a devastating effect on the livelihood of already struggling workers and businesses,” it wrote. “Frontline workers, from retail to health workers, have been bullied and harassed.”

In addition to the biggest labor organization and the largest union of actual truck drivers condemning the convoy, the Canadian Trucking Alliance released a statement clearly stating that it “does not support and strongly disapproves of” the protests.

“The vast majority of the Canadian trucking industry is vaccinated,” and alliance said, adding that “most of our nation’s hard-working truck drivers are continuing to move cross-border and domestic freight to ensure our economy continues to function.”

In follow-up statements, the federation emphasized that “a great number of these protestors have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements.”

The trucking alliance criticized the convoy for “impairing the hard work of truck drivers who continue to keep our essential goods moving throughout the supply chain during this critical time.”

“Drivers who are simply trying to make a living and get home to their families have been stuck at blocked border crossings for four to eight hours, many of whom have gone without access to washrooms or food,” the federation wrote.

Indigenous communities in Canada similarly denounced the convoy as a right-wing front.

The First Nations Leadership Council strongly condemned the protest for “its spread of misinformation, racism, and violence.”

“In addition to dangerous public health and safety misinformation, the convoy is also amplifying hate speech and dangerous racist sentiments,” the indigenous community organization wrote, noting the presence of racist signs and flags at the protest.

The First Nations leaders pointed out the hypocrisy of the Canadian authorities, noting “the police response to the protest-turned-occupation in Ottawa has, up until recently, been almost non-existent and appalling in their unwillingness to intercede.”

“The racist double-standard in policing in this country is on full display — had these protesters been Indigenous, the police would have cleared them out in a heartbeat,” the council added.

Emphasizing this transparent double standard, Canadian journalist David Pugliese reported, “Police in Ottawa stood by and did nothing as protesters installed a hot tub in the middle of a downtown street. We have images of police fist bumping protesters.”

Leftist parties that are very much opposed to Trudeau also came out firmly against the convoy.

The Communist Party of Canada denounced the demonstration as “a public expression of the increasingly organized and assertive far right,” noting “the strong support (ideologically and financially) from the US far right and circles close to Donald Trump” and the presence of “Nazi and Confederated flags, election signs for Bernier and all sorts of far-right symbols.”

Canadians frustrated at the weeks-long blockade of their capital even organized counter-protests against the convoy.

Not all truckers are from the same class

To the extent that actual truckers have participated in the Canada convoy, they represent a small percentage of workers in the industry, and most are in fact petit-bourgeois owner-operators and even company owners who exploit working-class drivers.

It is important to clarify the social position of truckers, because they aren’t all the same. The labor category of truck driver is made up of multiple social classes.

Hired hourly drivers are working class. The brother of the co-author of this article, Brian Mier, is in fact a working-class Teamsters union steward who has been a truck driver in Chicago for 30 years.

But not all truckers are working class. Drivers who have their own rigs are small business owners, or petit-bourgeois.

Then there are those who own multiple rigs, and run companies that hire drivers by the hour to drive them. They are bourgeois capitalists.

All three categories are often referred to simply as “truckers,” but they are from different classes and have antagonistic economic interests.

It is naïve or dishonest to present a protest in which all categories are present as a strictly working-class movement.

In Canada, the trucker protest has been heavily dominated by owner-operators and capitalists who have their own trucking companies, and who therefore exploit working-class truckers.

Ironically many of those participating in the convoy received money from the Canadian government they are now protesting, through its Covid-19 emergency funding program for employers, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

It is lonely driving a truck. Like mail carriers, truck drivers don’t enjoy the same kind of constant interaction with other employees that people in the service sector do, for example.

This isolation makes it harder to organize unions and strikes, and it causes some truckers, who spend hours every day listening to radio talk shows and satellite podcasts as they drive, to gravitate towards conservative political viewpoints.

Nevertheless, as labor laws have been weakened in North America, and as domestic manufacturing has declined and robotization has decimated traditional labor sectors, transport logistics remains one of the only areas still capable of paralyzing the contemporary capitalist system.

The new just-in-time distribution model, which minimizes use of warehouses by relying on milimetrically precise transport logistics, is especially vulnerable to trucker strikes.

This explains why union-busting right-wing elites have put a special emphasis on trying to hijack trucker protests – and illustrates the importance of political work and labor organizing within this sector.

Inside Brazil’s ‘trucker’ protests: How the right wing exploited them

Journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that, in the year leading up to the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende in Chile, the CIA spent millions of dollars financing a 26-day truckers strike.

This strike marked the beginning of a period of economic destabilization that weakened the democratically elected socialist government, and set the stage for far-right General Augusto Pinochet to seize power, with US support.

Canada’s centrist Justin Trudeau government has virtually nothing in common with Allende’s Chile, but Brazil’s left-wing Workers’ Party does. And a similar campaign used in Brazil shows how wealthy elites have a history of exploiting the name of truckers to push their reactionary interests.

Brazil’s democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, was overthrown in 2016 in a political coup that, like the 1973 Chile coup, was led by right-wing networks with support from the US government.

Rousseff was replaced by her vice president, neoliberal technocrat Michel Temer. In 2017, his administration liberalized fuel pricing policy, linking prices in one of the countries with the world’s largest oil reserves to dollarized international rates. This caused daily price hikes, which were further exacerbated by plummeting exchange rates.

By mid-2018, diesel prices had risen by 56.5%. That May, the National Confederation of Autonomous Transport Workers, which represents tens of thousands of owner-operators, issued an ultimatum to the government: freeze all diesel prices until negotiations take place, or we will paralyze Brazil’s distribution networks. The Temer administration refused to respond.

On May 21, owner-operators all over the country began blocking off roads and ports. With the support of some of the biggest company owners, they were then joined by thousands of hired drivers.

Most of Brazil’s labor unions did not endorse the protest. Due to the participation of trucking company owners, they viewed it as more of a lock-down than a strike, and believed it did not clearly represent the demands of the working class.

However, the truckers quickly gained the support of much of the Brazilian middle class, who were nearly as fed up with rising gas prices as the truckers were with skyrocketing diesel costs.

A history professor named Larissa Jacheta Riberti, who worked her way through graduate school as the editor of the popular trucking industry trade journal Chico do Boleia, reported on the early days of the protest:

There is no unified set of demands. The movement is not hegemonic from a social or ideological point of view. There is a group of truckers who support Jair Bolsonaro, another group that is demanding a return to military dictatorship, and others who are asking for free elections now and freedom for Lula. In other words, it is a movement that is mainly centered around the issue of diesel prices.

Later she added, “There is a clear attempt being made by the business class, which is exerting a greater influence on negotiations with the government, to appropriate the truckers’ demands.”

At first, it looked like Riberti’s prediction of business-class appropriation was going to be a complete success.

Brazil’s conservative media oligarchies framed the strike to damage the reputation of the Workers’ Party (PT) by only filming the most reactionary elements – men dressed in the national colors of green and yellow, waving signs clamoring for return to the dictatorship and supporting the far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro.

They associated the primary beneficiary of the US-backed 2016 coup, Temer, with the government that he helped remove from power. In the eyes of the media oligarchs, the 2017 liberalization of fuel prices was somehow caused by Rousseff, who had been illegally removed from office a year earlier.

2018 was an election year, and the media was doing everything it could to block a return to power by the PT, whose presidential candidate Lula da Silva was leading all polls, with more support than the sum of all other candidates combined – even though he was being held as a political prisoner and illegally barred from speaking with the press.

Amid the media circus, the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) swung into action. Groups of small farmers affiliated with Latin America’s largest peasant movement came out to dozens of locations across the country where truckers were camped out with their rigs and fed the hired drivers three meals a day, made from food produced on their farms.

The MST activists used political organizing tactics influenced by the revolutionary educator Paulo Freire to listen and learn from the truckers’ experiences. The MST organizers then explained why they believed diesel prices were so high, and how the solution suggested by the company owners – lowering taxes – would hurt them.

Little by little, this strategy began to accentuate the class differences between the company owners, the owner-operators, and the hired drivers, and chipped away at support for Bolsonaro.

Brazil MST meals truckers

The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) distributed hundreds of tons of free meals to truckers across Brazil in 2018

But because Lula was illegally imprisoned and barred from running as a candidate, Bolsonaro ended up winning the 2018 election.

And after taking power, Bolsonaro made it clear that he was not going to undo Temer’s pricing policy liberalization. Instead, he offered a small tax break on diesel, using money appropriated from public health spending cuts (which would come back to haunt him in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out).

By the time 2021 rolled around, most Brazilian truck drivers felt betrayed by the Bolsonaro administration’s broken promise about diesel prices, which rose a whopping 765% above the level of inflation that year alone.

Most of the big company owners, however, were laughing all the way to the bank. The decimation of labor rights that began in 2017 enabled them to treat workers like they were precarious Uber or Ifood delivery drivers.

Meanwhile, the Bolsonaro administration was engaged in a series of battles with the Supreme Court, which had opened an electoral fraud investigation against the president and his allies.

Bolsonaro’s popularity was nearing an all time low, but he still had a hyper-radicalized core group of supporters, estimated by UNIFESP professor Esther Solano to be around 11% of the electorate.

The problem was that Bolsonaro’s myth of ample support among the working class was crumbling. Polls were showing that even his most supportive electoral demographic in 2018, evangelical Christians, were now as likely to vote for Lula in the 2022 election as they were for him.

Bolsonaro had to do something big. So he decided to fabricate a new truckers’ insurrection.

Bolsonaro’s far-right network organizes astroturfed ‘trucker’ protest

In 2021, a series of YouTube videos began to spam social accounts connected to a network of right-wing allies of Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, known as the “hate cabinet.”

The videos were filmed inside a truck by a bearded man calling himself “Zé Trovão” – Joe Thunder (the name of the lead character in a popular 1990s soap opera).

Trovão was not actually a trucker, but he portrayed himself as one. And he announced that he was leading a convoy of hundreds of trucks to the presidential esplanade on Brazil’s independence day, September 7, with plans to storm the Supreme Court and make citizen’s arrests of all the ministers.

The non-trucker Trovão called on patriotic truckers in Brazil to join him – on the same day when Bolsonaro’s supporters were already planning a demonstration on Brasilia’s esplanade.

As he continued making videos, Zé Trovão made bigger and bigger claims. In addition to hundreds of truckers, there would be two helicopters providing aerial support, he insisted.

Brazil Zé Trovão truckers Bolsonaro

From behind the wheel of a big rig, Brazilian Bolsonaro supporter Zé Trovão calls on truckers to head to the capital

The Brazilian Supreme Court, which has the power to order arrests and investigations, decided Trovão had crossed the line. First it issued a restraining order barring him from entering the city of Brasilia on September 7. Then it issued an arrest warrant. Trovão fled the country.

The co-author of this article, Brian Mier, arrived in Brasilia on September 6 to cover the protest for TeleSur.

Mier stayed in a 2-star hotel built for conventioneers, which was full of people dressed in green and yellow arriving in bus caravans. It was immediately clear that many of them had never been in a big city before.

A nervous looking elderly couple asked Mier for help using the elevator. Another man said he had never seen a vending machine before, and asked for help purchasing a soft drink.

It appeared that a significant percentage of the protesters were bussed in from poor rural areas by rich Bolsonaro supporters.

A video later surfaced showing a wealthy businessman handing out 100 real bills and t-shirts to people as they boarded a bus heading out to the other September 7 pro-Bolsonaro rally in Sao Paulo.

On the night of September 6, Mier heard honking and screaming in the distance. News hit that a group of truckers had invaded the esplanade and, followed by hundreds of jubilant Bolsonaro supporters, driven up and parked in front of the security barrier protecting Congress and the Supreme Court.

Responding to the news, Workers’ Party President Gleisi Hoffman tweeted out reassuring words: “It’s true that tomorrow is September 7th,” she said, “but the next day is September 8th… Look at this video. Congress and the Supreme Court are completely secure. No one is coming anywhere near them. The truckers got onto the Esplanade because the police opened the barricade for them.”

Like the so-called “freedom convoy” in Canada, the trucks in Brasilia displayed large banners preaching anti-communism.

Brazil trucker protest anti communism Bolsonaro

An anti-communist banner on the trucks at the pro-Bolsonaro rally in Brasilia

In the end, there was no storming of the Supreme Court. The real psyop had been to convince the media and the public that it was going to happen.

On September 7, the entire area was completely locked down. Police did their jobs and no one was allowed onto the esplanade without going through a metal detector and getting a pat down.

By the next day, most of the crowd was gone. But a line of trucks remained parked in front of the Supreme Court building. They constantly honked, and a blasted patriotic music.

Mier later confirmed that the entire line was made up of trucks owned by the same company, Pro Tork, whose owner, Marlon Bonilha, was one of Bolsonaro’s biggest campaign contributors.

In short, most of the drivers who occupied the esplanade were hired hands, working for Pro-Tork or two other companies. There was nothing working class about it.

Days later it came out that the self-proclaimed leader of the trucker protest, Zé Trovão, was not really a truck driver. In fact, he didn’t even have a driver’s license.

Brazilian federal police caught up with Trovão in Mexico City. And one of the main figures in the 2018 strike, Plinio Dias, president of the National Highway Cargo Transport Council, commented, “This guy made a video inside of a truck… but we don’t know anything else about him. I’ve been in this business for 22 years. This guy just arrived by parachute.”

Trovão, whose real name is Marcos Antônio Pereira Gomes, was extradited, brought back to Brazil, and thrown in jail, pending trial due to flight risk.

It was also soon revealed that he had also ripped off Jair Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who apparently sent him thousands of dollars for fuel for his non-existent helicopters.

As Gomes spent his first week in jail, the actress Ingra Lyberato, who played Trovão’s sidekick Ana Raio (Ana Lightning) in the 1990s soap opera that Gomes had taken his nickname from, remarked on Twitter, “This young man is being manipulated by his own vanity, in a game of marked cards in which he will probably by the only victim.”

The wealthy right-wing networks supporting the “trucker” protests in Canada may have learned from this Brazilian game of marked cards.

Mier spoke to a friend whose brother has been a long-distance trucker in Canada for 20 years, and who asked him if anyone from his yard was participating in the Ottawa protest.

Not one of his colleagues was protesting. “Real truck drivers can’t afford to stop working for three weeks,” he said, “we have bills to pay.”

The hired truckers in Brazil made very similar comments during the September 7 protest.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Subhuti37

    2022-02-15 at 01:19

    Thanks for documenting this. A lot of naive liberals, progressives and leftists, who have concerns about the failing approach to Covid are taken in by this pseudo working class trucker movement.

  2. Jeff Bowman

    2022-02-19 at 18:22

    The Brazil stuff is fascinating, but I’m really struggling to see the connection to the situation in Canada and government of Trudeau? The demands aren’t even remotely similar, nor are the governments opposed to them.

  3. lance

    2022-02-21 at 17:15

    Great articles, I should stop watching youtube host w 3rd string sidekick not do the necessary investigating on issues like this. Apparently, pot does not make you a better journalist.

  4. Regan Boychuk

    2022-02-22 at 23:42

    Spectacular journalism. Thank-you.

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