Brazil has 2.8 per cent of the world’s population and (so far) 14 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. The country’s death toll topped 100,000 on 8 August. For the first time, the military took rhetorical distance from Bolsonaro, who commented on the football results rather than the gruesome pandemic landmark.
The free public healthcare system that serves 160 million Brazilians has been gutted by budget cuts since 2015, and is now overwhelmed in many areas, in part because, much like Trump, Bolsonaro has deliberately disabled co-ordination between federal, state and municipal officials.
On one of the rare occasions he has addressed the issue, Bolsonaro, rather than take responsibility, blamed a former health minister, Henrique Mandetta, and the state governors, saying that the Supreme Court – which he plotted to close with tanks and soldiers in April – had put them in charge. He also said that the strong will survive, and people need to toughen up.
Mandetta shot back: Bolsonaro’s ‘absolute contempt for science’, he said, explains the shocking death toll. He didn’t apologise for the part he played in selling that contempt to the public until he was fired for insufficient compliance.
Reflecting the near total disarray of the Brazilian left (and its exclusion from the media), a recent poll showed that 47 per cent of Brazilians absolved Bolsonaro of all responsibility for Covid-19 deaths. His popularity has increased, especially among the poorest. Thanks to the congressional opposition led by the PT, they have received 600 reais (rather than the 200 originally proposed) a month. The subsidies have reduced inequality to historic lows in what has long been one of the world’s most unequal countries.
Since Bolsonaro’s longtime friend, associate and driver, Fabricio Queiroz, a paramilitary chieftan from Rio, was arrested on 18 June at Bolsonaro’s lawyer’s house, the president has rarely been seen or heard from, except to tout the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. Queiroz and his wife ran a money-laundering operation out of the office of Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio, when he was a Rio state senator (he’s now a federal senator). They deposited nearly two dozen cheques, amounting to some 89,000 reais, over a period of years, in President Bolsonaro’s wife’s account. Quieroz is also implicated in the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio city councillor, in March 2018.
Under house arrest, neither Queiroz nor his wife has any reason to talk (both were heading to jail, but saved by the courts). Bolsonaro hasn’t mentioned his wife’s bank accounts. When a journalist from Globo asked about it on 23 August, the president replied that he wanted to ‘fill your mouth with a load of cum’. The courts won’t pursue the threat against the journalist. The comment is grounds for impeachment, but congress said nothing. The money-laundering and murder-for-hire scandal involving Queiroz and his wife is unlikely to bring down the hemisphere’s second biggest crime family.
Throwing neoliberal dogma to the wind, Bolsonaro is gunning for re-election in 2022 (in part, like Trump, to avoid jail time for him, his wife and sons). He has promised to extend the monthly payments of 600 reais to 60 million Brazilians (it currently benefits around 24 million people). Thanks to the PT, a universal basic income is now being discussed and debated. Almost the entire team of the economy minister, Paulo Guedes (who studied at Chicago under Milton Friedman and taught in Santiago de Chile under Pinochet), has resigned, as Bolsonaro appears keen to spend money on public works as a way to win votes, using the dictatorship of the 1970s as his template: military Keynesianism. Guedes could be next to go.
As Fernando Haddad, the presidential candidate for the PT in 2018, has noted, Bolsonaro’s regime is considerably worse than the military dictatorship in many respects: public health, education, and economic growth, for example. Globo, which helped put Bolsonaro in office and Lula behind bars – based, it transpires, on false evidence obtained with bribes – has had second thoughts. The network now argues that the courts need to declare Lula innocent, which would clear the way for him to run in 2022, but Globo itself is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the ‘money launderer of money launderers’, Dario Messer. One of the judges most likely to vote for Lula’s innocence, Celso de Mello, has taken leave from the court for health reasons.
As the corpses continue to mount, with 115,000 dead and more than 750,000 active cases, Bolsonaro has claimed he did what had to be done to open the economy, because governors and ministers wanted to ‘destroy employment’. His comments last March, he said, anticipated the latest statement from the WHO about the symbiotic relation between the economy and public health. A majority of Brazilians, as well as people of goodwill throughout the world, are sceptical.