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Cablegate: Brazil: Air Traffic Controllers Strike, May Be Prosecuted

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PP RUEHRG
DE RUEHBR #0600/01 0951907
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 051907Z APR 07
FM AMEMBASSY BRASILIA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8589
INFO RULSDMK/DEPT OF TRANSPORTATION WASHDC
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RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RUEANHA/FAA NATIONAL HQ WASHINGTON DC
RUEAYVF/FAA MIAMI ARTCC MIAMI FL
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RUWDQAB/NTSB WASHINGTON DC
RUEHRI/AMCONSUL RIO DE JANEIRO 4168
RUEHSO/AMCONSUL SAO PAULO 9570
RUEHRG/AMCONSUL RECIFE 6483
RUEHBU/AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES 4702
RUEHSG/AMEMBASSY SANTIAGO 6179
RUEHMN/AMEMBASSY MONTEVIDEO 6838
RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION 6041
RUEHPE/AMEMBASSY LIMA 3430
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA 4187
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS 3668
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ 5279
RUEHQT/AMEMBASSY QUITO 2199
RUEHPO/AMEMBASSY PARAMARIBO 1295
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 BRASILIA 000600

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EB/TRA: JHORWITZ, JREIFMAN, KGUSTAFSON
STATE FOR CA/OCS
TSA FOR VREEDER, SHASMAN

SIPDIS
FAA FOR CTFRANCESCHI, CCAPESTANY, MASHBY
DEPT OF TRANSPORTATION FOR BHEDBERG
BUENOS AIRES PASS TSA/JOCHOA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAIR PGOV OTRA ECON BR
SUBJECT: BRAZIL: AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS STRIKE, MAY BE PROSECUTED

REF: A. 07 BRASILIA 485

B. 06 BRASILIA 2680
C. 06 BRASILIA 2521
D. 06 BRASILIA 2315

Sensitive but Unclassified, please protect accordingly.

1. (SBU) Summary: On March 30, between 120 and 200 air traffic
controllers (ATCers) initiated the strike that they had been
obliquely threatening for months, marking another tense chapter in
Brazil's civil aviation history. Due to the military's control of
the ATC system, this action was considered to be mutiny: Air Force
sergeants defied their commanding officers and effectively halted
travel in much of the country on Friday, March 30, causing
widespread flight cancellations and delays of more than 28 hours in
some cases. The action reportedly was the largest military
rebellion in Brazil since 1963/64. The controllers' demands include
the transfer of the ATC function to civilian authorities, which
would allow for better pay and working conditions. The Commander of
the Air Force, General Juniti Saito, threatened to arrest the
striking controllers. He was initially reined in by President Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva, who learned about the strike while traveling
to the U.S. for his Camp David meeting with President Bush. Lula
instructed the Minister of Planning, Paulo Bernardo, to negotiate
with the controllers. The resulting deal called for giving the
controllers the option of leaving the military and working for a new
ATC agency under the Ministry of Defense, which eventually would be
moved under civilian control.

2. (SBU) Upon his return to Brazil, Lula met with Saito, Minister of
Defense Waldir Pires, and others on the crisis. Saito and Pires
apparently convinced Lula that not punishing the strikers for
clear-cut insubordination would be a threat to military discipline.
The legality and practicality of the deal with the controllers was
also questioned, as President Lula did not have the constitutional
authority to countermand the administration of military justice.
Lula ultimately backtracked and repudiated the deal; the strike
leaders are now being threatened with arrest and exemplary
punishment in military courts. Meanwhile, in airports over the
March 31-April 1 weekend, chaos was in full bloom. News cameras
captured distraught would-be passengers engaging in sporadic acts of
violence, including occasional fistfights and hurling objects at
frightened airline workers cowering behind counters. Events
continue to unfold quickly, but with the crisis quickly becoming a
political football for Lula, discussion of the fundamental problems
in the ATC system is becoming overshadowed by the political drama.
So far, embattled Defense Minister Pires, the man responsible for
resolving the ATC mess, is maintaining his tenuous grip on his
position and appears to have Lula's support. End Summary.

3. (U) Flights across much of Brazil ground to a halt on Friday,
March 30, after a group of striking controllers, based primarily at
the Air Force's Integrated Center for Air Defense and Air Traffic
Control-1 (CINDACTA-1) in Brasilia, halted all take-offs in the most
congested airspace in Brazil-- the Brasilia-Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo
corridor. President Lula, informed of the strike en route to Camp
David, initially overruled Saito's intent to arrest the strikers and
order the remaining controllers back to work. Lula instead
instructed Minister Bernardo to negotiate a deal with the strikers.
Initial reports indicated that a provisional measure (MP -- a
presidential decree with immediate force of law, but subject to
Congressional ratification) would be signed April 3 to immediately
transfer 1500 of 2400 military controllers to a new entity, the

BRASILIA 00000600 002 OF 004


"General Control of Aerial Circulation," which would initially be
linked to the Ministry of Defense, but not report to the Air Force.
This was seen as an interim measure on the way to civilian oversight
of the ATC function. Air Force Commander Saito stated soon after
the strike ended on March 31 that within 45 days, all remaining
ATCers would no longer be under Air Force command. "There is no
longer an environment for them to work there," Saito said.

4. (U) However, Lula reportedly backtracked and disavowed the deal
after spending nearly all day April 2 closeted with the commanders
of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Lula emerged from the meeting and
said that he viewed the striking ATCers as traitors, chastised them
for waiting until he traveled to the United States to begin their
strike, and called their paralyzing of the country's air traffic
"irresponsible." He said he does not recognize the agreement that
was concluded with the controllers in the middle of the chaos on
March 31. At that time, Lula said, Minister Paulo Bernardo was
given the mission to take control of the air traffic situation and
get it functioning again. Lula argued that the agreement with the
mutineers was not a true negotiation, since it took place under
duress; getting air traffic moving again was a question of national
security, and there was no reserve of ATCers to take the mutineers'
places.

5. (SBU) On April 4, military prosecutors opened an inquiry,
expected to take 40 days, to investigate the controllers' actions.
If ultimately convicted of military crimes in a trial, the
controllers who participated in the strike could receive prison
terms of four to eight years, with the leaders subject to up to
one-third longer terms. Several DAO contacts, while condemning the
mutiny, also questioned Lula's usurping of Saito's authority.
Lula's backtracking from the deal with the strikers probably averted
a crisis between the administration and the military. According to
the DAO, the military is now claiming that there was simply a
misunderstanding when the crisis first began on Friday; that Lula
thought Saito wanted to immediately imprison 80 controllers.
Instead, the Air Force sought to take into custody 18 ringleaders
scattered amongst the four CINDACTAs in the country (Brasilia,
Curitiba, Recife, and Manaus) who had been identified pursuant to a
year-long, internal inquiry, and punish them through the military
justice system. These ringleaders were seen as contaminating the
rest of the ATC force. It is also worth noting that the source
claims that 80--not 120 to 200--military ATCers were involved in the
strike on Friday, contrary to the figures reported by the press.

The ATCers' Demands
-------------------

6. (U) The reported 120 to 200 controllers who participated in the
strike nationwide began their efforts at 6:45 PM on March 30, when
ATCers at CINDACTA-I in Brasilia stopped all takeoffs and began a
hunger strike, and now face the threat of prosecution and
imprisonment. Their manifesto outlined the following complaints:
chiefly, that their military commanders have obliged them to handle
more flights than international norms (set by ICAO) recommend; that
their pay does not match that of the (smaller number of) civilian
air traffic controllers; and that they are working with outdated
equipment. "We have reached the limits of the human condition. . .
we do not trust our equipment, nor our commanders," said the
document. In order to address these complaints, they demanded that
the ATC function be removed from the Air Force and placed under
civilian authority.


BRASILIA 00000600 003 OF 004


The Air Force's Warning Shot
----------------------------

7. (U) Saito fired back at the controllers of CINDACTA-4, in a March
31 letter. He told them they had "infringed on discipline and the
hierarchy of the military," and for that, they needed to leave the
Air Force. The ATCers subsequently received a questionnaire, which
included a question about whether they wished to remain part of the
Air Force. According to reports, dozens opted to abandon military
life. Wellington Rodrigues, president of the Brazilian Association
of Air Traffic Controllers (ABCTA), put the number as high as 90% of
the 2,200 military ATCers, while the military claims it would be
more along the lines of 80%. This was before the most recent
reports that the Supreme Court had condemned the strike and the
Military Prosecutors had determined that the Air Force would open a
Military Tribunal to investigate and prosecute the conduct of the
striking controllers.

The Tug of War over Resources
-----------------------------

8. (U) Any demilitarization of Brazil's ATC system faces significant
difficulties. The ATC radars, communications systems and computers
belong to the Air Force, which reportedly would not consider having
a new civilian ATC organization take over the equipment as the same
radars and navigation systems also are used for air defense. New
facilities would also need to be constructed, as the military
sharing space with civilian controllers is also seen as inadvisable,
particularly if the civilian corps is created from former military
controllers.

The Status Quo?
---------------

9. (U) Despite the frequent twists and turns of this crisis over the
last weekend, flights are once again limping along. By April 1, a
relatively modest 18 flights were canceled, representing only 1.6
percent of flights in the country. 20.4 percent of all flights were
more than an hour delayed, but that figure is typical of the
unfortunate pattern of the past several months. Representatives of
the controllers have stated publicly that they will not disrupt
traffic over the Easter weekend, but may strike again given Lula's
repudiation of the deal.

10. (U) Defense Minister Pires, the person responsible for fixing
the mess, is still clinging to his position by a thread. Lula was
quoted in a press conference Wednesday, in response to a question
from reporters regarding Pires' tenure: "He will continue in the
job. [The] Minister. . . I wanted to put him there, if one day I
need to take him out, I will do it. For now, this is not the
question."

11. (SBU) Comment: The GoB is in a quandary. One of the principal
problems in the ATC system is an insufficient number of controllers
to deal with the number of flights, as air traffic has grown 19
percent per year over the last three years. As the military takes
three years to train a new controller, they can ill afford to lose
any of its scarce air traffic controllers to prison terms. This may
be the reason the GoB is now mulling prosecution only of the 18
perceived ringleaders. However, given the problem of resources
(outdated ATC equipment and facilities), simply transferring
authority over the ATC function to the civilian side seems unlikely
to improve the situation in the near term. It will eventually

BRASILIA 00000600 004 OF 004


become a civilian function, agree DAO sources, but it will not
happen in one month, or probably even six months. The media has
speculated the complete transition could take as long as seven or
eight years. Regardless, the issue is becoming a hot political
topic, with Lula's congressional allies hard pressed to block the
formation of a congressional inquiry into the ATC crisis. It looks
likely that the politics will continue to overshadow discussion of
the fundamental problems of resources and management and that the
ongoing agony that Brazilian air travelers have suffered during the
past few months will continue. End Comment.

12. (SBU) Mission Brazil has worked with the FAA to schedule an
April 13 conference call with GoB military and civil aviation
authorities to discuss and exchange information on technical ATC
issues. Embassy is also working to set up follow-on sidebar
meetings between the FAA representatives and these GoB counterparts
while they attend the Latin American Civil Aviation Commission's
GEPETJA (political and economic subgroup) meeting from April 23-24
in Rio de Janeiro. It is hoped that these bilateral discussions
will lead to some form of USG assistance to help Brazil begin to
arrest the developing air traffic control crisis.

13. (SBU) A political analysis of the air traffic crisis will follow
septel.

CHICOLA

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