Issue 22: Brazil's steady march toward pandemic authoritarianism

The economic disruption and public health crisis in Brazil is bad enough, but it is being exacerbated by Bolsonaro's embrace of Trumpist populism

Today’s briefing is by João Rocha (JR),  who is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. Before coming to Canada, he worked as a lawyer in a Law office specializing in Brazilian Administrative Law. 

AS I WRITE THIS PIECE there are 38,654 confirmed cases and 2,642 deaths of COVID-19 in Brazil. However, specialists believe that the real number of infected people might be fifteen times higher than the official records, due to the lack of testing and the absence of notification in many cities. 

The disease is spreading to the outskirts of Brazil’s most populous cities – the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – and is rising in poor states like Amazonas and Ceará, which have problematic public health systems. Even members of indigenous populations isolated in reserves far from urban centres have died of COVID-19.  The absence of a basic sanitation infrastructure – only 48% of the Brazilian inhabitants have sewage collection in their homes, and more than 35 million people have no access to clean water – and the high population density in deprived communities are factors that make the fight against the novel coronavirus even more difficult.

In addition to the severe health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic – impacts that happen in almost every country affected by the disease – Brazil has been dealing with a major political unrest that is getting worse by the day as it is wittingly stirred by the President of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro. 

After 28 years as a member of the Parliament, Bolsonaro’s electoral race to the Presidency was based on the idea of moralizing politics by waging war on corruption and crime. He has repeatedly said that his goal was to “change everything,” lashing out at his opponents harshly, using a divisive political strategy. During his whole political career, he has never been committed to democratic practices and the defence of human rights. Much to the contrary, in his public appearances, not only did he praise the military dictatorship era and well-known torturers but also openly attacked minorities, especially Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ community. 

Since the beginning of his tenure, Bolsonaro has often confronted republican institutions, especially the Parliament and the Supreme Court. Moreover, at the beginning of 2020, there was a feeling that Bolsonaro would ratchet up his erratic behaviour against any form of democratic checks and balance. Last month, as strange as it might sound, he released videos urging his supporters to protest in his favour, marching against the Legislative and the Judiciary. The manifestations, however, had little support because they coincided with the first cases of COVID-19 in Brazil and the beginning of the quarantine.

A few days later, the President appeared on national radio and television networks with a speech downplaying the epidemic, calling it a “little flu” and encouraging the population to disregard social distancing and return to their normal lives. That attitude contradicted the efforts of the Health Minister, Henrique Mandetta, who at that time was working with State governors to coordinate a joint action against the spread of the disease.

The paradox was evident. While Mandetta recognized the dangers of COVID-19 and put forward a social isolation/distancing plan as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), Bolsonaro continued to refer to the disease as a hoax, questioning death statistics and propagating fallacies to condemn the quarantine and medical treatments.

Wittingly or not, Bolsonaro and his supporters – including his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, a Federal Deputy – mimic the practices and arguments of Trumpism, including xenophobic attacks against China. This is helping create a narrative according to which the disease is a plan of the “globalist elite” against Bolsonaro, Trump and other Western leaders.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s stratagem was not well received by most Brazilians. Not only did he break up with political allies that had been supporting him so far but also his approval rating plummeted to meagre 30%. One of the reasons for the decrease in his approval is the blatant disrespect for health protection measures and the slow response to economic problems. These problems are especially acute for the 40 million Brazilian workers in the informal sector, who are not protected by labour legislation and social security systems.

On the other hand, the approval ratings of the Minister of Health increased to almost 80 per cent. As expected, he refused to accept Bolsonaro’s idea that only the most vulnerable individuals should be isolated, and he started to criticize publicly the behaviour and speeches of the President. In an interview for Brazil’s largest TV broadcaster, Mandetta admitted that the Federal Government was being rather confusing, since the Ministry of Health recommended total self-isolation whilst the President was constantly appearing in public spaces, showing public support to those who are against any quarantine policy. Eventually, this interview triggered his dismissal, which happened on April 16th.

UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, most political analysts agree that Bolsonaro is betting on social anomie. Not only did he deliberately delay any kind of financial assistance to local state governments – which are highly dependent on the federal budget – but, on the top of that, Bolsonaro blames local governors for the economic crisis and unemployment rates, arguing that he is the one defending that idea that the country should go back to normality.

The same pattern can be seen in his relationship with the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro tried – without success – to overrule local decisions regarding quarantine imposed by state governors. In a hearing regarding this dispute, the Supreme Court understood that it is constitutional for States and Municipalities to temporarily restrict mobility rights in case of a public health danger.

Days after that decision, on April 17th, Bolsonaro declared to CNN Brazil that he had evidence of a plot to oust him from the Presidency – and the alleged conspiracy leaders involved Justices of the Supreme Court, State Governors and the Speaker of the Parliament, Rodrigo Maia. Last Sunday, April 19th, his supporters gathered in front of the Army Headquarters in the capital, crying out for a military intervention and the dissolution of both Parliament and the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro endorsed the demonstration and addressed his supporters, saying that “we are not going to negotiate anything. We have a new Brazil ahead. Everyone, without exceptions, needs to be a patriot. This is the end of villainy. Now we have the people in power.”

 Many institutions, including the Supreme Court and the Parliament, were quick to  issue press releases condemning the president for his populist rhetoric in the midst of a pandemic. Nevertheless, such official statements might have little to no effect on Bolsonaro, who steadily walks towards authoritarianism in his attempt to erode the democratic establishment.  In an ominous turn on Monday, Bolsonaro declared, “I am the Constitution.

As of now, Brazil’s challenge is not only to defeat the novel coronavirus but to prevent the undermining of its democracy. (JR)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim (bios here) If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca