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Brazil: the parallel universe of Messias Bolsonaro

The implosion of a government as the pandemic rages



It was billed as an important presidential announcement, and his ministers stood behind him, dark suited, hands clasped in front of them like a football team defending a penalty shot. One stood out – Finance Minister Paulo Guedes – not just the only one wearing a mask, but the only one in shirtsleeves, and apparently, socks. This was interpreted as a sartorial protest against the so called ‘Marshall Plan’ or Pro-Brazil Fund for public works projects to get the economy up and running again, announced by head of cabinet (Chefe da Casa Civil) General Braga Netto, and anathema to a Chicago School liberal, even in the midst of a pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro refutes the accusaiont of ex-Justice Minister Sergio Moro. Video: RedeTV News, 24 April 2020

Coronavirus was not mentioned. Instead, President Jair Bolsonaro took 50 minutes to make a rambling rebuttal of ex-Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s accusations that he tried to intervene in the federal police, to gain privileged information about the investigations that involve two of his sons.

He mentioned all sorts of irrelevant facts – for example he had ‘implored’ Sergio Moro to investigate the ‘mandante’ (the brains) behind the attempt to assassinate him during the campaign (an exhaustive investigation by the federal police concluded the attacker, Adelio Bispo, acted alone). But the feds, he claimed, were more concerned with the (unsolved) murder of Marielle 1)Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, assassinated on 14 March 2018, by a professional hit squad widely believed to be linked to the Bolsonaros ‘than with their supreme chief’. His request to Moro for a daily report from the federal police ‘to help decide the future of the nation’ had been ignored, he said.

Bolsonaro also claimed that federal police chief Mauricio Valeixo had asked to be relieved of his post (he had not), that Moro had agreed to this in exchange for being appointed judge of the Supreme Court in November (Moro denies this).

The president next threw in all sorts of irrelevant details: Sergio Moro, then the lauded judge of Lava Jato, had ignored him when he tried to greet him at an airport, before he began his presidential campaign. He, Bolsonaro, was very economical in the use of his three corporate credit cards, and to save public money, he had even turned off the heating in the presidential swimming pool (apparently he is unaware it is heated by solar energy) and changed the menu at the Alvorado Palace.

This messiah works no miracles

There was not a word about the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil, which has now officially claimed over 5,000 lives. Because of gross sub-notification, a new USP study calculates that the number of infected is in reality over a million, or 16 times higher than the official number, and that deaths already exceed those in China.

The new Health Minister, Nelson Teich, whose priority should have been dealing with the pandemic, was instead obliged to listen for an hour to Bolsonaro’s confused ramblings. From the dazed look on his face, he was wondering why on earth he had agreed to join such a dysfunctional government.

The new Minister of Health speaks about Covid-19. Video: Jornal da Record, 30 April 2020

The new minister, whose lugubrious face is topped with a Mick Jagger haircut, has failed to inspire confidence since he took over from previous Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was sacked for disagreeing with Bolsonaro. While the affable Mandetta took pains to praise the role of the SUS public health service, to stress collaboration with the state governors, and offer advice as well as numbers, Teich’s humourless statements are confined to technical details about the numbers of respirators, PPE and IC beds, and the revelation that the situation is ‘grave’.

So what? I lament it, what do you want me to do? I know my name is Messias (his middle name) but I can’t work miracles

Like Bolsonaro, Teich does not express sorrow or solidarity with the victims or their families. Bolsonaro took his lack of empathy to a new level this week when, in answer to a reporter’s question about the numbers of dead, he said ‘So what? I lament it, what do you want me to do? I know my name is Messias (his middle name) but I can’t work miracles’, chuckling at his own joke.

A few hours later he posted a video, not retracting his insensitive comment, but showing himself grinning as he practised shooting at a target.

São Paulo Governor João Doria attacks Bolsonaro and demands that he respect the mourning of Brazilians and doctors. Video: UOL 29 April 2020

São Paulo governor João Doria, who is waging a war of words with the president, said he should be practising compassion, not shooting. Rio governor Wilson Witzel said that to ask Bolsonaro to govern the country would be asking for a miracle. Both governors were enthusiastic Bolsonaro supporters in the 2018 elections.

As, it should be remembered, was Sergio Moro, the paladin of Lava Jato, the judge who put Lula behind bars, the stern face of the battle against corruption. Even when The Intercept revealed messages Moro had exchanged with prosecutors, incompatible with the impartiality of a judge, it barely dented his popularity.

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But in his 15 months as minister, Moro failed to get anti-corruption and anti-crime laws through congress and has remained silent over Bolsonaro’s many blatantly anti-democratic acts. He also failed to defend the constitutional rights of indigenous populations, and refused to allow elderly, ill and non-violent prisoners to be released early to avoid the COVID-19 epidemic that has begun to spread through jails.

I am the boss

Moro’s accusations that the president of the republic attempted to interfere in the independence of the federal police have now become the subject of a Supreme court investigation. But Bolsonaro has not given up on his desire to have privileged access to police investigations that affect his family. To replace Valeixo as head, he chose a federal police agent who is also a family friend, Alexandre Ramagem.

But, just hours before Ramagem was due to be sworn in to his new post, Supreme Court judge Alexandre Morais ruled that the appointment was unconstitutional, because it did not meet the necessary criteria of morality, impartiality and public good. Ramagem’s appointment was cancelled, but Bolsonaro has still not given up.

Bolsonaro attacks Supreme Court judge Alexandre de Moraes and claims he got his appointment to the court ‘through friends’. Video: UOL 30 April 2020

At another palace ceremony which defied his own health ministry’s recommendations for social isolation, with crowds of politicians shaking hands and embracing each other, he welcomed Moro’s replacement, Attorney General André Mendonça, a well qualified prosecutor who is also an evangelical preacher but, more important for Bolsonaro, a friend and supporter.

The ebullient atmosphere of congratulations, jokes, and exchange of compliments was unspoiled by any reference to the black cloud hanging over the Brazilian population in the form of the coronavirus epidemic which has filled hospitals and cemeteries up and down the country.

In his speech, the President said he had a dream: not to defeat the virus, or save lives, but to make Alexandre Ramagem head of the federal police.

The next day he confirmed his determination, saying, ‘I am the boss and I want Ramagem there’. Not only will the government appeal the Supreme Court decision, but Bolsonaro has begun to make personal attacks on the judge himself, Alexandre Morais, saying he hadn’t ‘swallowed’ or accepted the decision, and that it had almost caused a constitutional crisis. The pressure on the Supreme Court, which will have to decide in a plenary session whether it upholds or overthrows Morais’ temporary decision, will be ramped up with social media attacks, and fake news.

The price of salvation

Calls for Bolsonaro to go are multiplying. Thirty demands for his impeachment, presented by different political parties and civil organisations are now piled up on the desk of the speaker of the congress, Rodrigo Maia, who has shown no intention of submitting them to the house. He knows perfectly well that in spite of the multiple crises now being endured by Brazilians – health, economic and political – there is no guarantee that impeachment of the president would be approved by congress.

Economist Ricardo Sennes discusses the possibilities of impeachment of Bolsonaro: Video: Jornal da Cultura, 25 April 2020

This is because, as his government falls apart, Bolsonaro has turned for salvation to the politicians he once claimed to despise – the members of the so-called Centrão, masters of give and take, of the ‘old politics’ of corrupt practices. Their support will not come cheap – they are reported to be demanding entre ministries, not just jobs in government agencies. They include several deputies mired in corruption scandals, and getting rid of Sergio Moro, and winding up the Lava Jato investigations, was on their list of demands.

The question is, how will these new bedfellows go down with Bolsonaro’s fanatical base of diehard supporters? Or with the ideological wing of the government? And how long can he go on pretending that the coronavirus crisis does not exist? In other words how long can he continue in a parallel universe, while all around him in the real world, growing numbers of Brazilians are suffering and dying, ignored and unaided by a president of unprecedented callousness?

Main image: Bolsonaro at the annual ‘March for Jesus’ in São Paulo. Image: Heart Publications.


1 Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, assassinated on 14 March 2018, by a professional hit squad widely believed to be linked to the Bolsonaros

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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