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COVID-19 is fuel on the fire of Brazil’s deep crisis

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Brasilia, 3. Mai 2020: Jair Bolsonaro vor dem Planalto-Palast
Brasilia, May 3, 2020: Jair Bolsonaro accompanies his supporters in front of the Planalto Palace in a pro-government and anti-lockdown protest in the middle of the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The demonstrators demanded military intervention against the Brazilian Federal Court and the National Congress. picture alliance / NurPhoto

Brazilian democracy is on mechanical ventilation. While COVID-19 spreads through the country’s most impoverished areas, shamelessly exposing the bleak reality of its social inequality, president Jair Bolsonaro (who is currently not affiliated with any official political party) decided to checkmate Brazil’s judicial and legislative branches. After joining a political rally in Brasília on 3 May calling to shut down the Brazilian Congress and Supreme Court, Bolsonaro threatened to put an end to democratic negotiations. Livestreaming on Facebook, the president of Brazil, standing next to the flags of Israel and the United States, claimed that he can still count on an institution very familiar in Brazil’s democratic history: “The Armed Forces by the side of the people, for law, for order, for democracy, and for freedom are also at our side.”

Jorge Pereira Filho is a Brazilian journalist and editor.

There is nothing new about Bolsonaro’s flirtation with the coup-plotting alternative—he has never tried to mislead anyone in that sense. He has made that very clear several times, whether during the seven terms he served as a federal representative; when casting his vote to impeach president Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party) by honouring one of the most infamous torturers of the military regime (1964–1985); or even this year on 19 April, Army Day in Brazil, when he delivered a speech outside the Brazilian army headquarters to a crowd calling to shut down the Congress and the Supreme Court.

This time, however, the threat came with new symbology. The day before the rally, on 2 May, Bolsonaro met with high-ranking military officers in a meeting that was not in his public schedule, to speak with the three commanders of the Army, the Air Forces, and the Navy, and also the Défense Minister, General Fernando Azevedo, and the Secretary of Government, General Luiz Eduardo Ramos.

Green and Yellow Necropolitics

The lack of empathy displayed by the president of Brazil for the grief at the more than 7,000 coronavirus deaths is dumbfounding, but not as much as his strategy to tackle the pandemic: he presents himself as the primary public voice opposing social distancing measures and shirks any responsibility over the deaths. Schizophrenia? Psychopathy?

Mental health speculations aside, there is method to his incoherence. On the one hand, Bolsonaro is cruising against common sense, while offering a positive response to the lobbying of economic groups that oppose social restrictions—retailers, cattle farmers, industrial markets, etc. On the other hand, he claims to be standing up for the interests of the record high of 48 million unemployed or vulnerable workers who have been witnessing their social situation deteriorate amid the economic crisis, as they face the ineffectiveness of the federal government itself.

Such an unreasonable handling of an unprecedented health crisis by a chief of state could not have the political outcome expected by Bolsonaro if it were not for his powerful propaganda network. To achieve that, Bolsonarism harnesses bots on social media and messaging apps (Twitter, WhatsApp), conservative members of Congress, neo-Pentecostal leaders, pro-Bolsonaro television and radio networks (such as the Record TV network), business leaders and groups, and private and public armed security sectors, as well as illegal militia groups that control territories of impoverished communities. Spreading fake news, discrediting health experts, glamorizing the law of the jungle, Bolsonaro has been building a bond with part of Brazilian society and enabling his bedrock supporters to operate.

It is not a coincidence that the commotion about the pandemic has not reduced the eagerness to destroy the Amazon and advance into indigenous and rural Afro-Brazilian quilombola lands. In the first quarter of 2020, deforestation in the rain forest region surged by 51 percent. And rural conflicts have not decreased either. Two members of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) were murdered in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in April. In the northeastern state of Alagoas, gunmen raided a 13-year-old MST camp and tried to terrorize the 22 families that live in the area.

The fact of the matter is that Bolsonaro has been managing to secure significant popular support. Nearly one-and-a-half years into his government, his approval rating is at 25–30 percent. Meanwhile, escalating pot-banging protests and pro-impeachment demonstrations across Brazil in early April show that he has been losing support, especially among urban middle-class sectors, and that the country is increasingly polarized.

Still Far from the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Crowded hospitals, bodies in black bags piling up waiting for a spot in the morgue, and emergency mass graves opened in makeshift cemeteries are already scenes featured on the country’s news. Far from reaching its peak, the pandemic has been sweeping across Brazil, marked by an unmistakable class and race divide. Social inequality has been proving to be a complicating factor for COVID-19, as serious or perhaps even more serious than age group.

In São Paulo, the megalopolis that became the epicentre of the pandemic in the country, confirmed cases have exceeded 30,000 with 2,000 deaths. Moneyed residents who travelled abroad brought the virus back to the city with them, but the people who are poor, black, and living on the outskirts are the most affected by the outbreak. A survey by the city government showed that black São Paulo residents are 62 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than white residents. And while the most affluent neighbourhoods still have the highest numbers of cases in absolute terms, the areas on the outskirts record the fastest rate of transmission and the largest number of deaths in absolute terms. With one caveat: on average, residents from these communities are younger than those from upper- and upper-middle-class areas.

More and more younger people are likely to die from COVID-19 in the country. Most of the over 7,000 deaths so far were under the age of 60. The numbers confirm a warning repeated by local epidemiologists: the pandemic has only just begun writing its history in Brazil—and considering local conditions, it will have vastly different hues from Europe or Asia.

But the crisis has not yet led to the collapse of the entire country, and that is precisely because of the legacy of struggle against the military dictatorship in the country. The 1988 Constitution, enacted during the democratic transition, established the Unified Health System (SUS) to promote free, universal health care in Brazil. While it is the law, the system has been implemented with many shortfalls regarding the intentions of the public health care movement that fought to have the Constituent Assembly pass the bill. Not only that, but, one government after another, the budget allocated to social security in the country has been consistently frozen by neoliberal policies, making the entire health care system more vulnerable—and this is also true during the Workers’ Party (PT) governments, which ran the country between 2003 and 2016. But the ultimate blow to Brazil’s public health care system was dealt right after the ousting of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, when her successor, Michel Temer (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) signed a bill into law to prevent the federal government from increasing social investments for the next two decades. That year, the country’s public health care budget represented 4.36 percent of all public spending. In 2020, that share dropped to 2.97 percent.

Even though it has been consistently dismantled, the SUS has been preventing a nationwide collapse in health care. The limitations of the public system, however, are already seen on the horizon. Researchers with the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) estimate that, by the end of May, all hospital beds in the country will be occupied. Catering to 75 percent of Brazilians, the SUS has, on average, 1.5 beds for every 10,000 people. Meanwhile, the private system lives in a parallel universe, with 4.9 beds for every 10,000 insured clients and nearly 50 percent of beds empty. That scenario will ultimately raise a pressing question: save empty private beds for future privileged patients, or create one single waiting list for the entire health system, thus putting an end to the difference between private and public hospital beds—a critical move for the future of millions of Brazilians who do not have access to private health care!

Opposition to Bolsonaro

While Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are not dropping so sharply, his rejection rate has only gone up since he took office. Most Brazilians are now in favour of impeaching him, according to a poll conducted by Datafolha in April. Ultraconservative governors who got elected in the latest election, harnessing the momentum they have gained by supporting Bolsonaro in 2018, are now openly confronting the president, including João Doria (Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB) and Wilson Witzel (Social Christian Party, PSC), who run the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro state governments, respectively.

As these governors were working in tune with the then-Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta (Democrats), the situation bothered the president, who was eventually compared to the “queen of England”: exercising no actual power, as the military allegedly took over and started to ratify the minister’s actions. Nevertheless, that was not the case, and Bolsonaro’s unreasonable reaction made it clear. He fired his Health Minister, who advocated for social distancing and isolation measures, dismantled the entire federal effort to fight the coronavirus, and launched a counteroffensive to grab back the political reins. If that was not enough for him, he moved against another of his popular cabinet officials: the controversial Justice minister, Sergio Moro, the main character of the Operation Car Wash trials.

The Federal Police, which is connected to the Justice Ministry, has been conducting investigations that could potentially harm the Bolsonaro clan. Investigators are looking into the murder case of the left-wing councilwoman Marielle Franco (Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL), the fake news factory involving one of the president’s son Carlos, the evidence of embezzlement in the office of another Bolsonaro son Flávio and its connections with Rio de Janeiro illegal paramilitary groups, and the funding of anti-democracy protests, which distressed members of Congress who support the president.

Sergio Moro was not on board with Bolsonaro’s decision to fire the head of the Federal Police, so he decided to resign. The former judge used to endorse the narrative that the federal government was committed to fighting corruption and clean the public administration of the misapplication of funds. Also, next to the Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, Moro is immensely popular among the Brazilian elite and represented the legacy of the movement that ousted Dilma Rousseff. In his last interview as cabinet minister, Moro said he was leaving the government because he could not accept the president’s meddling in the investigations. Afterwards, the former judge was called to present evidence of his allegations to the Federal Police, in another area that is likely to deepen the political crisis within the Bolsonaro administration.

The institutions’ resistance against Bolsonaro’s outrageous abuse is clear in numerous requests filed with the country’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, to start impeachment proceedings against the president. The first one was filed on February 2019, and right now there are 31 requests pending—a record high for an elected head of the government. There is broad consensus that Congress is now a hostile environment for the president of Brazil, even though it is controlled by conservative forces. It is not a coincidence that the speaker of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia (Democrats), is one of the main targets of the Bolsonaro-backing network of lies.

Meanwhile, however, although Bolsonaro is now rejected by most members of Congress, some of issues on the federal government’s agenda have successfully garnered a consensus among representatives. Some of them include measures such as the pension reform, which passed in 2019 and reduced the country’s already meagre social security system; and the provisional measure enacted in the midst of the pandemic allowing businesses to reduce workers’ wages and authorizing individual agreements with employees—rules that go against the country’s Consolidation of Labour Laws (CLT).

The Left in Search of a Path

The left-wing opposition accomplished an important victory in late March as it successfully pushed through Congress an emergency financial aid to pay 600 reals (roughly 100 dollars) a month for three months for low-income and unemployed Brazilians. Although they do not have enough seats to secure the start of impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro, the Socialism and Freedom Party and later the Workers’ Party have openly expressed their support for the removal of the president. But there is no consensus or definition regarding the best way to push that through: whether it should be a campaign exclusively against the president or an offensive calling to remove the administration and hold new elections.

The pandemic is increasingly impinging upon the ability of leftist forces to have a political impact from outside the institutions, as it makes it impossible for them to use two of their most important methods of action: strikes and protests. In this sense, two trends have become stronger. On the one hand, there is a more intense conversation going on between leftist forces, including governors of left-wing political parties who are in office in most northeastern states, and parties that are clashing with Bolsonaro. One example of that was the online rally on May Day, which brought most Brazilian labour union organizations together and was joined by politicians that have neoliberal, conservative agendas including Wilson Witzel (PSC) and the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB), who shared the online stage with left-wing leaders, like ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT).

Another trend that has been managing to bring the Left together in Brazil are solidarity actions on the outskirts and in remote areas of the country. The two major people’s organizing groups, the People’s Brazil Front and the People Without Fear Front, have launched the campaign “We’re going to need everybody,” which handed over 1,500 tons of food and 40,000 food hampers in less than a month, as well as thousands of masks, bottles of hand sanitizing gel, and cleaning and personal hygiene products. The initiative was launched to counter the federal government’s negligence and has been advocating for life and reaching out to the people who have been the most affected by the economic crisis and the spread of the pandemic.

As they hand out food and hygiene kits, the organizers talk to people about their right to receive the emergency financial aid and discuss a seven-topic agenda to fight the pandemic and the Brazilian crisis. These topics include having the state control the entire health care system, expand the number of ICU beds, secure jobs, and allow people to stop paying utility bills and rent during the pandemic.

The Military and the Balance of Power

Despite the Brazilian Left’s efforts to regroup, it has limited abilities to make an intervention in the short term. In the current crisis within institutions, the Armed Forces play a crucial role. The two decades since the democratic transition in which the military were not close to government power have been an exception in the country’s history. But in 2018, the then-Army commander General Eduardo Villas-Bôas made a statement on 3 April, a few days before the Supreme Court was expected to review a habeas corpus petition that could free former president Lula from prison, threatening democracy.

As Bolsonaro rose to power, he brought with him the largest-ever number of military officers to hold high-ranking cabinet positions. Except for the Economy ministry, all of the most prestigious cabinets are headed by military men. As the president’s situation becomes more and more complicated, it’s the generals who are posed the question of how they will act as the crisis in the country’s institutions spirals, whether with the eventual opening of impeachment proceedings against the president or in case Bolsonaro disrespects a Supreme Court decision.

So far, amid the recurring veiled and explicit threats made by the president, who claims he will use force to stay in power, the military replies just like Janus. On the one hand, they tell journalists off the record that they are not happy with the political use of the Armed Forces and ensure they will not interfere in the democratic order. On the other hand, they are looking into the future and increasingly expanding their presence in and strengthening their bonds with the federal administration. As they try to keep their balance on this seesaw, the bodies of COVID-19 victims are the striking symptom of the lack of coordination to fight the pandemic and the open wounds in Brazilian democracy.