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Just as in Donald Trump’s United States, the mayhem of mixed messages is crippling Brazil at this moment, as the novel coronavirus has expanded from the first outbreaks among frequent fliers in Rio’s plush South Zone and its now empty beaches to the densely populated favelas in the mountains beyond.
Like the US president, Jair Bolsonaro has raged against the quarantine implemented by his own government and has just dismissed his level-headed health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. A few days after the first shutdown measures were announced in São Paulo, the president blatantly defied them by encouraging his supporters to attend a mass rally on March 15, filling part of the megalopolis’s wide Avenida Paulista in support of Bolsonaro and against Congress. Covid-19 is just a gripezinha (sniffle), he insists, while heading a campaign on social media to reopen the economy under the slogan “Brazil cannot close.” On Sunday, he headed a second small rally in the capital of Brasília, where social distancing was replaced by manic jostling to get close to the president, along with chants demanding that the army intervene to get people back to work.
Bolsonaro has dismissed as “hysteria” the lockdown measures, implemented swiftly in Brazil despite the president’s rhetoric. “Let’s face the virus like men, not kids,” he urged, as he visited a Brasília street market last month. Perhaps the only head of state able to out-Trump Trump in sheer recklessness and social-networked delirium, Bolsonaro has mobilized his three loyal sons, two of them members of Congress, to help peddle conspiracy theories concerning China and snake-oil remedies such as chloroquine. Ironically, Bolsonaro, 66, was lucky to escape infection on March 7, when he attended a neoconservative get-together hosted by Trump at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, after which several members of the Brazilian delegation came down with severe symptoms.
The terrifying implications of such a cavalier approach to the pandemic in a country with a stretched health care system and vast slum cities where social isolation, and even the routine precaution of washing hands, is an impossible challenge, soon forced the Brazilian establishment into action. When Bolsonaro—following the Trumpian script—announced that he would reverse the lockdowns in São Paulo, Rio, and other cities, the Supreme Court reiterated that under Brazil’s federal system, it is state and city authorities who decide such matters. Leaders of both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies supported Mandetta, while governors like João Doria in São Paulo and Wilson Witzel in Rio—allies of Bolsonaro in the presidential elections of 2018—maintained the city lockdowns. Justice minister and super judge Sérgio Moro, who led the “car wash” anti-corruption probe and sentenced former president Lula da Silva to nine years in prison, dared to defy the president whom he had helped into power.
The other super minister in the Bolsonaro government, billionaire financier Paulo Guedes, whose global investment funds are now staring into the abyss, also seemed skeptical of Bolsonaro’s antics, despite his concern that the lockdowns and a pandemic-driven 5 percent drop in GDP this year (an IMF forecast) might scupper his plans to privatize the Brazilian economy. Pots and pans were banged from the balconies of locked-down apartment blocks in middle-class districts of Rio and São Paulo in protest against Bolsonaro, just as they had been five or six years before against the soon-to-be-impeached President Dilma Rousseff. Like Trump’s health adviser Anthony Fauci, also a doctor, Mandetta had emerged as a voice of reason, with better ratings in the polls than Bolsonaro’s, and appeared to have cleverly outmaneuvered the president. At least, until his dismissal last week.
Even the armed forces—well represented in the Bolsonaro cabinet—seemed prepared to intervene against the madness of President Jair, despite the Bolsonaristas’ calls for military action in favor of the president. A report in DefesaNet, an online media outlet used by the military to get its message out, said that effective control of the government’s strategy on Covid-19 had devolved to the chief of staff, Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto. “The president will thus be able to behave democratically as if he did not belong to his own government,” explained DefesaNet, a contorted phrase that perfectly captures the Brazilian establishment and military’s paternal approach to Bolsonaro’s childish outbursts.
When Mandetta was confirmed in his post after Bolsonaro’s initial threats to oust him, many concluded that the lunatic had been removed from control of the asylum, or at least the intensive care ward. “The general feeling here is that Bolsonaro is a puppet,” remarked an employee early last week at the country’s state development bank, BNDES, whose role in successfully fending off the global economic crisis in 2009 will be sorely missed this time, after Guedes’s decision to downsize it. But the removal of Mandetta, and Bolsonaro’s paranoid appeal to his base Friday to help him fight off an alleged coup attempt orchestrated by Doria in São Paulo and Rodrigo Maia, the head of the Chamber of Deputies, suggest an alternate reading. Could the president glimpse opportunity in the chaos?
“There is method in the madness,” explained the anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares in an interview. Soares is co-author of Elite da Tropa, a gripping 2006 account of police brutality and extreme-right-wing death squads in Rio’s favelas that was turned into two blockbuster films, Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2. Soares, whose latest book, O Brasil e Seu Duplo (Brazil and Its Duplicate), explores the origins of Bolsonaro and Brazilian neofascism, says Covid-19 will either stop the Bolsonaro project in its tracks or accelerate its progress. “Bolsonaro has been advised to deny the threat of the pandemic,” said Soares. “He feels sure of himself, in part because he’s mimicking Trump. But his authority has diminished, and he’s in danger of becoming a lame-duck president only a year into his term.”
But the president has a plan. Behaving, as the generals suggested, “as if he did not belong to his own government,” Bolsonaro may be able to escape the blame for the devastating economic crisis now unfolding. A brutal recession triggered, as elsewhere, by the pandemic, comes after seven years of stagnation. Even before the pandemic, 60 million Brazilians had fallen back into poverty (defined as earning less than $5 a day) after the advances of the Lula years. “The plan is to transfer responsibility and accuse the others for allowing the tremendous crisis which we are going to encounter,” said Soares.
The worsening social conditions will undoubtedly create fertile ground for Bolsonaro’s bid to capitalize on discontent. A survey cited by piauí magazine found that 72 percent of Brazilians have enough savings to cushion lost earnings for just one week before entering serious hardship, and 32 percent already report problems buying essential goods like food. “We are staying in, but food is scarce, and without work there is no money,” said a mother of two who lives in the enormous Rio favela of Rocinha, where at least 50,000 inhabitants are packed into the hillside above Ipanema and Leblon. “Practically everybody in the favela works in the informal economy, so the lockdown doesn’t really apply here; businesses are open but close earlier. People are wearing masks; there is little information,” said Macarrao, a rapper from Cinco Bocas, a favela in the North Zone of Rio, whose daughter has Covid-19. “She got treatment fairly quickly,” he added. This may not be the case now. Epidemiologists at five important institutes in Brazil forecast recently that the health system could reach the point of collapse by late April.
The Bolsonaro government has guaranteed a basic monthly income of 600 reales ($112) to those with no income, but the electronic application has failed, and long lines of people—practicing scant social distancing—have waited outside the public savings bank Caixa Econômica, only to discover that their transfer has not arrived. In any case, $4 a day is a pittance, and Guedes seems reluctant to take any other measures to soften the blow for Brazil’s poor, even though he has passed tax cuts for business. There is a logical link to Guedes’s neoliberal stance, as millions descend into poverty and hunger, and Bolsonaro’s populist plan to blame it all on Mandetta and the governors of the two big cities: Both governors are potential rivals for the next presidential elections, and Bolsonaro will use his media to pinpoint them as responsible for the hardship.
While registered cases of the coronavirus in Brazil are 40,000, the real figure is probably over 10 times that, as indicated by the current unnaturally high mortality rate. According to official data, by the end of last week some 2,600 people had died from the virus—low compared with Europe and the United States, but Brazil is late in the curve. And Brazil’s intensive care units are fast approaching capacity, just as they have in Europe. Manaus, the Amazon metropolis where the reports of contagion in the indigenous territories make harrowing reading, is already at 100 percent capacity and is transferring patients to other sites. A survey by the University of Pelotas in Rio Grande do Sul, in the south of the country, estimates that there are at least seven times more cases than the official figures suggest.
Bolsonaro will try to build a strategy from his base of support among evangelicals and people in the orbit of the police and military. Evangelicals have been another element of the Covid-19 denial, but they are fired by conviction rather than nonchalance. Edir Macedo, the billionaire pastor whose TV networks are used by Bolsonaro in preference to the establishment Rede Globo, said the WHO’s warnings on Covid-19 were the “work of Satan.” “Our position from the first moment has been to keep the churches open, because God will defeat the virus,” said Washington Reis, the evangelical mayor of the Rio working-class district of Duque de Caxias last week. Days later, God had spoken, and Reis was hospitalized with Covid-19. The tactic may be working. Bolsonaro appears to have maintained support in the pandemic, despite the pot banging and international horror at his stance. A poll by Datafolha last week showed that 36 percent of Brazilians believe his management of the health crisis is “good or great,” slightly more support than before the pandemic. And 52 percent say he’s capable of leading the country through the crisis.
There may even be a second phase to Bolsonaro’s strategy of leveraging Covid-19 to stay in power, said Soares. “Building on the contradictions of his own government and the coming crisis in the health system and the economy, Bolsonaro may be hoping for some kind of a social explosion in the streets,” he said. “That would create the conditions for a state of emergency and the end of democratic institutions that are still blocking the path of Bolsonaro’s basic project: a dictatorship and the perpetuation in power of his family.”
The call for a coup against Congress—pitched, at Sunday’s rally, at more extremist elements in the armed forces—may be a first step in this direction. By first denouncing an alleged coup plot against his own presidency, allegedly planned by Congress and the big-city governors, and then calling for military action in his defense, “Bolsonaro is following the example of many authoritarian presidents, starting with Hitler in 1933,” writes Nabil Bonduki, former São Paulo culture secretary, in an article in Folha de S.Paulo. “The allegation of an attempted coup is thus the pretext for a coup planned by the president himself.” The idea might sound fanciful, and as paranoid as Bolsonaro’s own rhetoric. But the former army captain was a reluctant recruit to democratic politics even before the devastating arrival of Covid-19.
Bolsonaro’s close links to right-wing militias made up of former military police and firemen, which run whole swaths of the West Zone of Rio, may help. “The militias have always been close to the Bolsonaro family, and now they are becoming more ideological, part of a Bolsonarist movement. They could help in a coup if he wants that,” said Soares. The militia Escritório do Crime (the Crime Office) is known to be implicated in the assassination of left-wing Rio city councilor Marielle Franco over two years ago. To square the circle of fascism and Covid-19, reports are just out that the militias in Itanhangá and Rio das Pedras, adjacent to the kitsch beach resort of Barra da Tijuca, where the Bolsonaro family has its base, are forcing businesses to stay open during the lockdown so they can continue to charge for protection.