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Bolsonaro the grave-digger

... as he turns a blind eye to the Covid-19 catastrophe and attacks democracy



April 23 2020. I’m not a gravedigger’ said President Jair Bolsonaro scornfully, when a reporter tried to question him about the number of coronavirus deaths in Brazil.

Bolsonaro on the number of deaths from coronavirus: ‘I’m not a grave-digger’. Video: Poder360 21 April 2020

But that is exactly what he is, because by insisting on making impromptu visits to street traders and padarias (bakeries), drawing crowds, shaking hands, touching people, he is helping to spread the virus.  

His latest outing on Sunday, not only drew a large crowd in front of Army HQ in Brasilia, but openly threatened Brazil’s democratic institutions, as demonstrators called for military intervention, the return of AI-5 (the most important decree of the military dictatorship in 1968) and the closing down of Congress and the STF (Federal Supreme Court) – and Bolsonaro did not correct them. He could also become the gravedigger of democracy.

Bolsonaro harangues demonstrators who are breaking the quarantine and calling for military intervention. Video: AFP 21 April 2020

The next day, as usual, after widespread protests, he denied what had been clearly seen on videos and heard on audios, claiming the demonstrators holding up placards calling for military intervention were infiltrators,  saying ‘After all, I AM the constitution’, a weird echo of Louis XIV ‘s famous ‘L’etat c’est moi’.

Faced with the mixed messages coming from the presidency and the state governors, more and more people are taking to the streets, with and without masks and social distancing.

Bolsonaro’s responsibility for the chaotic response to the corona virus pandemic, which is leading to soaring death rates, is clear. He has consistently downplayed the seriousness of it, and last week sacked the popular Health Minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, who time and again stressed the importance of social isolation in reducing the strain on hospitals. He replaced him with a little known health consultant and oncologist from Rio, Nelson Teich, who has never worked in the public health service, but is proving to be a loyal yes-man,  defending Bolsonaro’s policies. In his first interview, he claimed that Brazil has one of the best performances in terms of deaths per head of population. At the moment the death toll from Covid-19 stands at 3,000, but very few tests have been carried out, and the minister omitted the fact that under-notification is widespread.  

Denying the death-rate

Video: The Telegraph. 4 April 2020

The reality is apparent in the TV images which show rows and rows of shallow graves being dug in cemeteries all over Brazil, and refrigerated lorries being used as makeshift morgues. In Manaus, they are burying bodies in collective graves, while funeral cars queue outside the cemetery to unload their grim cargo. Intensive care units are full up, people with Covid-19 symptoms are dying in A & E, on hospital doorsteps, at home. Health professionals, doctors, nurses and technicians, are becoming ill and many have died. The virus is spreading in prisons, where chronic overcrowding makes a joke of isolation, and the Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro, has refused to allow early release for at risk categories of non-violent inmates. It has also begun to spread among indigenous communities, encouraged by the inertia of FUNAI, now staffed by preachers and policemen, and the growing number of invasions by landgrabbers, loggers and garimpeiros.

For Bolsonaro the gravedigger, the aim of Sunday’s performance outside Army HQ was to divert attention from the statistics of death and his sacking of the popular Health Minister.  ‘Unlike the rest of the world, which is discussing how to best respond to the pandemic, we are discussing whether there will be a military coup or not’, said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the conservative thinktank Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV).

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Sérgio Moro ‘a hand-picked man’. Photo: Daniel Giovanez, Brasil de Fato

Political leaders and newspaper editorials condemned Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic behaviour. The Attorney General,  Augusto Aras, invoked the National Security Law to open an investigation – but as befits a man handpicked by Bolsonaro himself, he did not name the president as the object of the inquiry but unnamed and unidentified federal congressmen who are alleged to have organised and financed the demonstrations in Brasilia and other capitals. So, an investigation “para inglês ver”, as the Brazilian saying goes, for appearances only. Justice Minister Sergio Moro, another handpicked man, remained silent, while the military eventually produced a bland note of platitudes.

Calls for Bolsonaro’s removal grow louder all the time .  But he still has over 30% of popular support, whereas Dilma’s was in single figures, so most discount impeachment, also because of the complications and length of such a process, bitterly divisive at a time when union is needed to fight the virus. Lawyers are wracking their brains for a legal way to move him aside.

Aware of these moves, it was no coincidence that at his Sunday rally Bolsonaro said “We don’t want to negotiate anything. What we want is action for Brazil. Enough of the old politics. The time of skulduggery is over. Now it is the people in power. Fight alongside your president.”  

The people in power, means a populist president who ignores or closes down Congress and the Supreme Court, the other two pillars of democracy. ‘The people’ – those who voted for him and still blindly support him, even as he coughs and sneezes over them, probably contaminating them, ignoring the 70% who do not support him.

From the president’s frying-pan to the army’s fire?

Meanwhile vice president Hamilton Mourão, who the Bolsonaro family accuse on social media of conspiring against the president, smiles like the Cheshire cat, and talks about misunderstandings. He is busy with his own plans to rule the Amazon region as chairman of the newly convened Amazon Council, which perhaps should be renamed the Military Amazon Council, because its members will be 15 colonels, a general, 2 majors, a brigadier and 4 federal police agents. Nobody from FUNAI, IBAMA, no representative of the quilombos, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, or indeed any NGO of the many experienced ones that works in the Amazon. Or of the regional governors or mayors. In other words, he wants to turn the clock back to the days of the dictatorship when the military ran the region, and anybody who protested at their plans was a subversive.

Hamilton Murão says ex-health minister Mandetta ‘crossed a line’. Video: Band Jornalismo. 15 April 2020

So getting rid of Bolsonaro risks leaping from the frying pan into the fire. And the big problem for those who believe that Brazil must rid itself of a president who often seems unbalanced, paranoic and fanatical, is how to do it.  As one commentator said, ‘It is no use  shouting  “Fora Bolsonaro” or “Impeachment”. This won’t overthrow him, on the contrary, it will strengthen his mystique.  For those who want to remove him from power, and weaken him politically, the way is to de-mystify him.

‘How? Insist on the investigations into his sons’ corruption: prove that he is acting illegally, that he committed electoral crimes and sponsors fake news.’ And show that by his irresponsible acts and examples, he is causing the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands of Brazilians. Bolsonaro the gravedigger.

Main image: mass graves being dug. from Video on media. 23 April 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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