A Hemisphere in Freefall
Brazil’s official Covid-19 death toll has more than doubled since I last wrote, four weeks ago, with 51,407 deaths and more than a million confirmed cases. According to the first nationwide study, the real number of cases could be seven times that, but the research teams charged with investigating were harassed and detained, and 800 tests were destroyed. President Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still pushing hydroxychloroquine and making jokes about the ‘minor flu’. The federal court in Brasilia has ordered that Bolsonaro be fined every time he appears in public without a mask.
On 18 June, the police arrested Fabricio Queiroz, allegedly the head of Rio’s narco-paramilitary ‘Crime Bureau’ gang, at Frederick Wassef’s house in rural São Paulo. Queiroz had been on the lam for a year and a half – in other words, since Bolsonaro took office. Wassef is Bolsonaro’s lawyer. At first he said the president didn’t know where Queiroz was hiding; then he said that, for practical purposes, he and the president were the same person. Bolsonaro, in turn, declared he had had it (‘de saco cheio’) with Wassef. Queiroz worked for the president’s son Flávio when he was a state senator in Rio, and large sums of money moved in and out of Queiroz’s bank account; one of the recipients was Michelle Bolsonaro, Flávio’s stepmother.
Flávio and Queiroz were also involved in real estate deals with Adriano da Nóbrega, a paramilitary ex-cop murdered by police in February. Like Queiroz, Nóbrega was wanted for questioning about his role in the murder of Marielle Franco, a Rio city councilwoman, in March 2018. Queiroz is also accused of funnelling large sums of public money through Nóbrega to the Crime Bureau. (Nóbrega’s mother worked for Flávio.) There is a famous photo of Bolsonaro, Flávio and Queiroz eating together while Queiroz points his fingers at the camera like guns, a gesture Bolsonaro would later adopt as president. The police are now searching for Queiroz’s wife, who is suspected of laundering money for the Crime Bureau. She is rumoured to be negotiating her surrender. Advisers involved in the kickback scheme in the Rio state legislature have already begun to co-operate with authorities.
No one seems ready to do hard time to protect the capos; and the capos, with the possible exception of Bolsonaro’s filhos, don’t intend to protect the boss with silence. A friend of Bolsonaro’s for thirty years, Queiroz spent his first night in jail in tears. Another of the president’s allies wanted by the police, Abraham Weintraub, resigned as education minister last week and fled to Miami using his diplomatic passport. This is illegal, and Weintraub did it with Bolsonaro’s help.
Together with the state governors, the Supreme Court has become Brazil’s last bulwark against full-blown fascism. This is deeply ironic, given the court’s complicity in the parliamentary coup against Dilma, and the role that rightwing governors in the key states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Rio played in Bolsonaro’s election.
The military have warned the courts not to go too far, but are also on record saying there is no appetite to break with the constitution. The vice-president, General Mourão, may be called to step in, though who knows when, or under what pretext, and it is unclear how this would represent an improvement; alternatively, Bolsonaro could stay on as a lame duck president.
For the first time, more than half the Brazilian population considers Bolsonaro bad news. His core support was never more than 30 per cent of voters, largely evangelical, but he has now lost support among all but the poorest. Between 2003 and 2014, under PT governments, 29 million people were lifted out of poverty, only for inequality to return to 2003 levels under the government of Michel Temer in 2016-17, after Dilma’s ouster. Enter Bolsonaro.
Regardless of Bolsonaro’s fate, it bears repeating that poverty and hunger, like unemployment, sickness and death, are set to spike dramatically as a result of the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The Americas now account for half of all confirmed cases. Mexico, Chile and Peru are poised to repeat Brazil’s experience. And, with some lag, Colombia too now looks set to join the club of countries that have followed the US, rather than the European path. As ever, with Brazil go the Americas.