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Bolsonaro clowns while poverty soars

As Brazil’s economy stagnates, the president surrounds himself with military advisors



In what has become a daily ritual in Brasilia, the sleek black car stops by the band of fervent Bolsonaristas waiting outside the Alvorada Palace exit, the President steps out and glad-hands his supporters. But although he wears the presidential sash, this ‘president’ is not Jair Bolsonaro, but a comedian impersonating him, distributing real bananas* to the press corps, who are penned into an enclosure next to the fans, instead of the figurative ‘bananas’ the real president likes to give them.

Comedian Márvio Lúcio with Bolsonaro. Image from YouTube

A couple of minutes later, Bolsonaro appears and does a double act with the comedian, posing for selfies, but ridiculing journalists’ questions about the disastrously small increase in Brazil’s GDP, revealed that day as 1.1 %. It’s a surreal scene that typifies a presidency which resorts to clowns and buffoonery to ignore the real world of economic failure, climate disasters, and the advance of the coronavirus epidemic. Mudslides caused by exceptionally heavy rains killed over 70 people along the Sao Paulo coast last week, but while favela dwellers dug with their bare hands in search of survivors, not a word of sympathy or solidarity came from the president.

The word impeachment now features prominently in the media, as evidence mounts of Bolsonaro’s sheer unpreparedness for the highest office in the land. His inability to negotiate with Congress, his insults to respected figures, his sexist attacks on women journalists and his open encouragement to the public to join an anti-democratic rally have convinced many former supporters that they backed the wrong horse.

This rally is planned for 15 March, the notorious Ides of March of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in Rome regarded as a day of doom. Here it was called specifically toattack two of Brazil’s democratic institutions – the national Congress and the Supreme Court – that Bolsonaro regards as enemies.

News report on RTenespanol 26 February 2020 claims Bolsonaro issued calls to join the rallies. Bolsonaro has denied this.

Posters in support of the rally carried pictures of various army generals, although several of those pictured denied they supported it. One who offered no denial was General Augusto Heleno, one of Bolsonaro’s closest aides. Bolsonaro circulated a video advertising the protest. Last Saturday he again expressed his support, although now describing it as an act ‘in defence of Brazil’.

In other words, he has no idea, or deliberately ignores, the behaviour expected of an elected president. He does not see himself as the president of all Brazilians, but only of the minority who voted for him.

Among those who now find themselves in opposition to Bolsonaro are the majority of the state governors, 20 out of 27, including those of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, both of them would-be presidential candidates for 2022, both former allies of the president.

The governors, elected for many different parties, have come together not only to condemn Bolsonaro’s reckless demand that they reduce local taxes on fuel, which would leave them without an important source of income, but also to reject his remarks on the killing of a notorious Rio militia leader by the police of Bahia. The militia boss, who was on the run, was discovered hiding in a  remote rural area. When police surrounded the house he refused to surrender and was shot dead.

Not only did Adriano Nobrega have close links to the Bolsonaro family, with his mother and wife in the pay of then state deputy Flavio Bolsonaro, but the landowner who helped him hide has been pictured with Jair Bolsonaro. Adriano Nobrega is suspected of links to the murder of Marielle Franco, assassinated, two years ago this week, with those behind the crime yet to be identified.

Video: O Antagonista, 11 February 2020

Instead of applauding the killing of Nobrega as that of a convicted murderer and bandit, as they usually do, the Bolsonaros blamed the PT governor of Bahia, Ruy Costa. They accused him of carrying out a ‘queima de arquivo’ or eliminating a witness to stop him talking, while his sentence was  yet to be  confirmedall the way up to the Supreme Court. This is in marked contrast to their treatment of Lula, whose sentences have also not yet been confirmed by the highest court, but who they like to describe as a ‘presidiario’, a convict and a criminal.

The governors were also alarmed by Bolsonaro and Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s benevolent attitude to the military police in Ceará, who declared an illegal strike for higher pay, although a generous settlement had been offered to them by the PT governor. Hidden by balaclavas, the mutinous police acted like bandits, attacking police cars and ordering local shopkeepers to close up. While the strike lasted and police stayed in their barracks, over 400 murders were committed.

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Some analysts saw a more sinister motive behind the government’s refusal to openly condemn the mutineers. Military police make up an important part of Bolsonaro’s support base, along with lower ranks in the army. He was elected seven times to congress with their votes, and repaid them by legislating exclusively in their favour. The Ceará governor, Camilo Santana, refused to grant police strikers an amnesty for their illegal acts, one of their demands, because he knew it would set a terrible example for other states. Yet in congress a bill to grant the police an amnesty has been presented by Bolsonaro supporters.

Brazil’s Police: Brazil has three separate police forces: The Polícia Militar in Brazil are organized by state and carry out uniformed policing and public order duties. They are classed as reserve troops of the Brazilian army. The Polícia Civil carry out forensics and investigation. The Força Nacional de Segurança Pública, made up of Policia Miltar personnel from all states, is called in to deal with significant national security crises, but can deploy in any state only with the agreement of the state governor.

For these analysts, Bolsonaro is relying on the support of military police forces and militia gangs should he attempt to take full power for himself, closing down democratic institutions like congress and the Supreme Court, censuring the press and introducing authoritarian measures. The word ‘coup’ has also begun to appear in articles and editorials.

Such a move is unlikely to have the support of the entire leadership of the armed forces, but the president would be able to call on lower ranks, the military police and the militias.

Although such a development should be unthinkable in Brazil today, he has talked about a second term of office, and begun to suggest, without supplying any evidence, that the 2018 elections were fraudulent, because he should have won in the first round.

With the economy stagnating, and nearly 12 million unemployed, in spite of the labour and pensions reforms which were supposed to revive it, and Finance Minister Paulo Guedes’ penchant for putting his foot in it with unpopular remarks, investors have begun to withdraw from Brazil.

Plunging oil prices and the coronavirus epidemic, which has begun to take hold in Brazil, will not help.

Bolsonaro’s policies have already led to a steep rise in the numbers of Brazilians living in extreme poverty. The budget for the Bolsa Familia programme has been cut, so fewer families are enrolled at a time when more need it. Those needing to claim sickness and disability benefits have to wait months, because there is a ban on hiring new civil servants and there are not enough staff to process the claims. Programmes for education and technical assistance for small farmers and land reform settlements have been cut, and funds for the social housing programme, Minha Casa, Minha Vida, were reduced.

 ‘The economy is at a standstill,’ wrote economist Ladislao Dowbor, ‘there are 50 million unemployed and informal workers. Hunger has returned and the homeless fill the pavements… In 2019 206 billionaires have fortunes that adds up to 17.7% of Brazil’s GDP… Not to see the relationship between the enrichment of the wealthiest and the paralysis of the economy suggests economic illiteracy.”

But Guedes has no plans for wealth distribution, for tackling tax evasion, for progressive income tax, or for stimulating the economy.

Without any economic success to boast of, Bolsonaro would find it difficult to get re-elected, which is why many commentators think he is preparing the situation for a coup. He has surrounded himself with generals in the Planalto Palace, more so than any of the military presidents during the dictatorship. The demonstrations of Brazil’s Ides of March, Sunday 15, will be a barometer  of his support.

  • A ‘banana’ in Brazil is an obscene arm-gesture, which several videos display Bolsonaro making towards the assembled journalists. Comedian Márvio Lûcio completed the joke by bringing a large bunch of real bananas to hand out.

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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