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A bad week for Bolsonaro

Fake news allies under attack - a resurgent Supreme Court- the family fixer under arrest



21 June 2020. It would be an understatement to say this has been a bad week for Bolsonaro. In fact it has been disastrous. The tide has turned against the President, in the courts, in the streets, in the press.

The week began with the dismantling of a camp, set up in front of congress by his extremist supporters, calling themselves the ‘300 of Brasil’ after the Spartans of ancient history, although in fact they never numbered more than 30.

We are the 300 of Brazil. Join us.’ Video, 23 April 2020.

From their tents they sallied forth to cheer Bolsonaro and demand military intervention, the closing of the STF (the Supreme Court), and the return of the military dictatorship’s repressive law, the AI-5.

One night they staged a Ku Klux Klan style midnight protest in front of the Supreme building, dressed in black with monster masks, carrying flaming torches and chanting fascist slogans (see main image, above, from Jornal da Brasilia). Another night they sent a hail of fireworks against the STF building and shouted threats at the judges. Now their leader, a woman who calls herself Sara Winter, after an English Nazi supporter, is in prison accused of personally threatening Judge Alexandre Moraes, the judge in charge of a fake news investigation. She and other extremists posted videos threatening not only their lives, but the rape and murder of their daughters.

Bolsonaro supporters stage neo-nazi demonstrations. Video: Panteão da Resistêncioa, 31 May 2020

Targeting the fake-news-mongers

The case against the ‘Cabinet of Hatred’. Podcast: Jornal o Glob, 28 May 2020

Next, the homes and offices of over a dozen people, among them bloggers, congressmen and women and businessmen were raided and evidence taken away. These are the people accused of funding a campaign to spread fake news on social media which aimed to discredit not only the STF but anyone who opposed or criticised the government, or questioned the truth of the official coronavirus statistics.

The STF was a particular target for them, because of its decision to order the investigation of the scheme behind the fake news industry, which reaches right into the presidential palace where Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, an elected councillor in Rio, is said to command what has become known as the ‘cabinet of hatred’.

The STF also accepted a case against Abraham Weintraub, the incompetent, inept Education Minister, who was nevertheless one of the Bolsonaro family favourites because of his extremist views. He is accused of racist attacks on China as well as illegal threats to ‘close down’ the STF.

The backlash against Weintraub made his position unsustainable, even for the Bolsonaros, and the President reluctantly let him go with a very golden handshake in the form of a posting to the World Bank in Washington, with a salary of over US$100,000 a year. There he will represent not only Brazil, but several other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Whether the other countries will want to be represented by such an odious, divisive figure remains to be seen.

Just before he left the ministry, Weintraub could not resist a last racist gesture, revoking the affirmative action policy that established quotas for black, indigenous and disabled students on postgraduate courses. Then he scuttled to the airport to take the first flight to Miami, while his diplomatic passport, still valid, enabled him to enter the US, which has barred the entry of ordinary Brazilians because of the coronavirus.

Weintraub leaves for the US, but still needs approval for his new posting to the World Bank. Video: Band Jornalismo, 21 June 2020.

Queiroz is found, at last

But the final straw in Bolsonaro’s bad week was the discovery and arrest of the elusive Fabricio Queiroz, an ex-military policeman who was the president’s close friend and family factotum in Rio for many years when Bolsonaro was a federal deputy. Discovered hiding at a house belonging to the Bolsonaro family lawyer, Frederico Wassef, he is accused of being the financial operator of a criminal organisation led by Flavio Bolsonaro, when he was a state deputy in Rio, which involved the embezzlement of public funds.

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Fabrício Queiroz, former advisor to Flavio Bolsonaro, is arrested in São Paulo. Video: Jornalismo TV Cultura, 18 June 2020.

For months the question, ‘Where’s Queiroz?’ has been asked, but all the Bolsonaros and their lawyer always denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. The lawyer is a regular visitor at both the Planalto and the Alvorado Palaces, where the president lives with his family. It is impossible to believe that he didn’t tell them he was hiding Queiroz, in fact it is more probable that he was doing it at their request. Now the president’s fear is that Queiroz, who knows everything there is to know about the shady Rio transactions of Flavio Bolsonaro, and the family’s alleged connections with the criminal militia suspected of involvement in the murder of Marielle Franco, will decide to collaborate with the prosecutors, maybe even do a plea bargain. ‘He is the key to the dark past of the Bolsonaro family,’ said El Pais’ Carla Jimenez.

All this means that Bolsonaro, instead of concentrating on Brazil’s unfolding public health disaster, with over a million infected and 50,000 deaths, and the economic calamity of a huge fall in GDP, has eyes and ears only for his own family’s disaster.

Nothing to say, nothing to offer

He has nothing to say about the pandemic’s terrible toll on Brazilian lives, including so many indigenous lives. He has nothing to offer the millions of unemployed and small entrepreneurs, facing hunger, or ruin. The emergency assistance scheme has collapsed into chaos, with millions who are not entitled to it being automatically approved – including, apparently Queiroz family members – while millions who are genuinely desperate are refused. Paulo Guedes has no solutions, but only the same old ideas – recession, austerity, selling off state enterprises and dollar reserves.

Bolsonaro limits himself to alternately blaming ‘destiny’ and, without presenting any evidence, questioning the statistics. ‘All he has to offer the country are tweets, lies and quarrels. Cornered, he has called in the Centrão [the rent-a-vote corrupt group of congress members] . He has consolidated himself as part of the problem. He has managed to transform the criminal nightmare of his friend Queiroz and his oldest son Flavio into a process which is corroding his presidency. Used to being always on the attack, he is now feeling the bitterness of being on the defensive, and accuses the judiciary of persecution’, said one analyst.

Lurking just round the corner is another problem for the president. The accusations of corrupt practices in the 2018 election that made him president, which are about to be adjudicated by the TSE, the Supreme Electoral court.

Not only has the temperature in Brasilia reached fever pitch, as Bolsonaro reels from all these blows, but the government’s instability has paralysed any initiatives, or even discussions, of how to face the twin tragedies of Covid-19 and the economic recession. The general who is interim Minister of Health has replaced all its experts, specialists and health professionals with military officers who have no experience of dealing with a vast public health structure, let alone a lethal epidemic. The Finance Minister has no more idea of how to deal with a collapsing economy, than he would conceive of introducing a New Deal-type stimulus package to create jobs and relieve poverty. This means that Brazil is in the position of a boat cast adrift without a captain, lifeboats or even lifebelts, heading straight for the rocks.

The possibility that Bolsonaro’s mandate could be interrupted – whether by impeachment or the electoral court – is now being factored into analyses by economists and politicians. Bolsonaro obtained temporary relief by doing a deal with the Centrão, the group of venal politicians who are prepared to trade their votes in congress for jobs and control over some of the multi-million dollar funds in government. But their support is fickle, and can change if they feel the weight of public opinion has shifted against the president who got himself elected on a platform of fighting corruption and putting an end to ‘the system’.

Doubts in the ranks

But what about the military, the other important pillar of support of Bolsonaro’s government?

The palace generals have fallen silent after the discovery of Queiroz. Probably waiting to see just how bad things are going to get for Bolsonaro if the full extent of his family’s involvement with the Rio militia emerges.  They and the 3,000 or so officers who have been given well-paid posts in ministries and agencies might still be reluctant to rock the boat, but there are indications that unrest is growing in the serving forces. Lt. Brigadier  Sérgio Xavier Ferolla, an ex-comander of the War College, and ex-president of the Superior Military Tribunal, said in a letter, ‘the one creating the crises is the president… the armed forces cannot get involved in politics’.  Or, one would hope, accept a president who has links with criminal organisations.

Readers’ columns in the newspapers are full of letters from repentant Bolsonaro voters, saying he’s Brazil’s worst president ever. Every evening at 8.30 the banging of pots and pans in protest echoes around the cities. Pro-democracy, anti-Bolsonaro movements have been publishing manifestos and taking to the streets at the weekends.

Perhaps the most telling, certainly the most moving criticism of Bolsonaro came from a group of doctors in Fortaleza who circulated a video describing their extenuating days and nights among the sick and the dying, and noted that the president had never once expressed his solidarity or support for Brazil’s exhausted health professionals.

Doctors in the state of Ceará (of which Fortaleza is the main city), members of the Rebento Collective to Defend Medical Ethics, join together to express their opposition to the president’s attacks on the health, the intelligence and the dignity of the Brazilian people. Video: Dawlton Moura, 13 June 2020.

Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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