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Brazil’s disaster movie

How many lives must be sacrificed to Bolsonaro's fantasies?



Watching the Brazilian political scene is a bit like watching an old disaster movie, where a suicidal maniac has taken over the plane’s controls and put it into a steep dive, while members of the crew wrestle with him to avert the crash.

A typical disaster movie of the genre.

See featured video, above: Bolsonaro criticises Mandetta’s position on the coronavirus crisis. Video: Band Jornalismo 03 April 2020.

What other world leader, with a health minister who has an approval  rating of 82%  for the handling of the coronavirus crisis, instead of praising him, attacks him, contradicts him,  and threatens to sack him, only desisting under intense pressure from  cooler heads in the presidential team and in congress?

 On Monday tensions were sky high, and Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta’s dismissal seemed imminent – not because he had messed up, but because an opinion poll revealed that his ratings were much higher than President Bolsonaro’s, and, like all tinpot dictators, Bolsonaro cannot stand being upstaged by somebody else. He accused the minister of becoming too big for his boots, of lacking humility, when it is his own messianic ego that is the problem. “I have a pen and I’m not afraid to use it,” he threatened at the weekend.

Globo’s premature report of Mandetta’s sacking. Video: TV Coiote. 6 April 2020

Globo prematurely flashed the news that Mandetta had been sacked, and in the Health Ministry people began clearing their desks, but then Bolsonaro backed down. When Mandetta arrived 2 hours late for the daily press conference at the Ministry he was given a standing ovation by staff and congressmen who made a point of showing their support.

One of the bones of contention between the Minister and the President is Bolsonaro’s belief, like Trump, that there is a miracle cure -the malarial drug  hidroxicloroquina. Mandetta was apparently asked to sign a document authorising its general use, but refused, because he says that trials are needed first.

The incident confirmed the opinion of many that Bolsonaro is no longer fit to govern. For social scientist Ricardo de João Braga,

 “We have a president with serious limitations…… It seems that comprehension of the crisis, the world and the role of Brazil and of the government escapes him. He is also weak politically, his own ministers disauthorize him. If his loss of popularity persists and he continues in this incessant search for an almost patriarchal power, cultivating the image of the ‘mito’ (myth) who people should blindly follow, I see the possibility of it all ending up in impeachment. Bolsonaro hasn’t produced the results that the voters and the businessmen who bet on him expected and, with the pandemic, these results have become much more unlikely.”

Mourão confirms it. Bolsonaro’s not in charge. Who is in charge is Braga Netto. Opinion piece from Thiago dos Reis, youtube commentator who has 174,000 followers for his Plantão channel.

Many analysts now see Bolsonaro as a lame-duck president, with the country effectively being run by the quartet of generals installed in the presidential palace. General Braga Netto, theoretically in charge of the coronavirus crisis committee, but in practice, the ‘acting president’ , General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, chief of staff, General Fernando Azevedo e Silva,  Minister of Defence and General Hamilton Mourão, vice president and the man who will replace Bolsonaro, should he go.

Globo journalist tries to corner the government over the dismissal of Mandetta, but is cut short by Braga Netto. Video: 7 April 2020.

In the corridors of power in Brasilia, the congress, the supreme court, the presidential palace itself, the question being asked is basically “How do we wrest the controls from the pilot, before he crashes the plane?”

‘The Supply Department (CEASA) of Belo Horizonte is maintaining supplies, contrary to what Bolsonaro claimed in his video’. Video: UOL 1 April 2020.

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Bolsonaro still refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic, and posts fake news to support his view that the measures of social isolation recommended by the Health Minister and put in place by many state governors, are leading to disaster. A few days ago he posted a video taken in a section of a big fruit and vegetable market in Belo Horizonte, showing it empty, as proof that supplies were running out. The press discovered that the video was taken while the space was being cleaned, and that the market was functioning normally. 

He has accused the press of ‘hysteria” and compared the virus to a cold, a mild flu, and now to rainfall, saying, “This virus is like rain.  70% of you will get wet. Nobody questions that. After 70% of you are infected, and acquire antibodies, the whole nation will be free of the pandemic. Of those 70%, a small part, the elderly and those with health problems, will have serious problems ……. But society can’t stop for 2, 3 months. Everything will break down.”

One commentator even speculated that all the general anaesthetic applied to Bolsonaro during various operations for the knife wound he suffered in an assassination attempt in September 2018, could have affected his mental capacities.

In her book Tormenta, journalist Thais Oyama describes many examples of his disturbed behaviour, especially when he believed that one of his sons had been criticised. “His face seemed paralysed and his eyes were fixed on the wall at the end of the room”, ignoring the people around him.  

His paranoia makes him distrust even his closest allies, trusting only his three sons and his ‘ideological’ ministers, Abraham Weintraub (Education), Ricardo Salles (Environment), Ernesto Araujo (Foreign Affairs) and Damares Alves (Human Rights, Family & Women).

Bolsonaro is the target in panelaços in every region of the country. Video: Poder360 1 April 2020.

The latest opinion poll showed that support for Bolsonaro has fallen, but still 59% do not want him to renounce his mandate. Yet rejection is widespread – for 15 nights now panelaços and shouts of ‘Fora Bolsonaro’ (Bolsonaro Out!) have continued in the big cities.  All but 3 of the 27 governors have decided to ignore the president and go ahead with quarantines and restrictions on movement. Former allies have deserted him. The military are divided, but for some he is bringing discredit to the armed forces.

His largest pool of support lies with the evangelical churches, although as the virus spreads to the faithful (first lady Michelle’s preacher has got it) this may change.

Favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro organize to combat coronavirus. Video: TVBrasil 25 March 2020

Left to their own devices, Rio favela dwellers are spraying their narrow alleys with disinfectant, while indigenous peoples have expelled garimpeiros and set up barriers to stop people entering their areas.

Solidarity networks have sprung up everywhere collecting and distributing food, soap, disinfectant and medical supplies to communities and hospitals, to make up for official absences.  

After weeks of delay, an official scheme to make emergency money transfers to the unemployed and micro entrepreneurs has finally been introduced, although it is not clear how it will reach the many who do not have access to the internet. Existing local authority social welfare and NGO networks have been ignored in favour of a centralised register which could leave many of those most in need excluded.

Hospital staff say they expect a tsunami of coronovirus victims in the next couple of weeks.

The question is, how many lives will be sacrificed to Bolsonaro’s refusal to face reality?

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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