- As Covid cases mount and the vaccination programme struggles, Brazilians are carefully watching the proceedings of the CPI investigation in the senate.
- An underworld of profitable deals is appearing, where businessmen, politicians, evangelical preachers and army colonels seek to profit from vaccine trading.
- The evidence of whistle-blowers and former allies implicates Bolsonaro and his sons in the murky deals.
- Bolsonaro is worried as his credibility and popularity wane and the re-ascendant star of Lula haunts him.
The existence of a parallel market run by a complex web of intermediaries, middle men and lobbyists, all seeking to make money out of the hottest commodity in town – vaccines – has been revealed by witnesses giving evidence to the CPI, the senate inquiry now taking place in Brasilia.
It seems that behind the Ministry of Health’s official negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies lies a dark underworld of profitable deals negotiated in expensive Brasilia restaurants and luxurious mansions by businessmen, politicians, evangelical preachers and army colonels. Their aim is not to save lives, but to profit from the demand for life saving vaccines, even as the death toll passes half a million and people queue for hours outside health posts in the hope of a jab.
The first witnesses to be heard by the CPI were experts, doctors, scientists and ex-Ministers of Health. But then the hearings became a catwalk for an assortment of characters who inhabit the vaccine underworld.
There was the Bolsonaristo corporal from the military police force in Minas, Luiz Paulo Domenguetti, who became the unlikely representative of a US-based medical company, and as such was wined and dined at a Brasilia steakhouse. His fellow diners were a Lt Colonel Marcelo Blanco, who had just opened his own firm to import vaccines after a stint at the Ministry of Health, and Roberto Dias, a senior official at the same Ministry, who allegedly asked for a bribe of one dollar per dose, on a proposed transaction involving 400 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine. (Astra Zeneca says it only sells to governments).
Next up was Carlos Wizard, a Mormon millionaire, clutching a bible, who bragged about his humanitarian efforts but refused 70 times to answer questions about his involvement in Bolsonaro’s so called ‘parallel cabinet’ which promoted alternative, and scientifically disproven Covid treatments, like hydroxy-chloroquine, instead of vaccines. Religion reared its head again in the form of a mysterious organisation called Senah, the Nacional Secretariat for Humanitarian Affairs, run by preacher Amilton Gomes, a Bolsonaro supporter who has easy access to many politicians, and has been offering vaccine deals to local governments.
But there were also whistle blowers like the Miranda brothers who brought the vaccine scandal into the presidential palace and laid it at the feet of Bolsonaro himself.
Luis Ricardo Miranda, a career civil servant in the Ministry of Health, had refused to authorise a dodgy deal involving the import of millions of Covaxin vaccines from India, not only costing much more than other ones, but without authorisation from Anvisa, the regulatory board. When he came under intense pressure from his superiors to sign off on the imports, he told his brother, federal deputy Luis Claudio Miranda, a personal friend of the president. Confident that Bolsonaro would be shocked by the revelation and take immediate steps to investigate it, the brothers sought a meeting with him to tell him what was going on.
To their surprise, Bolsonaro wasn’t surprised at all, but casually remarked that it must be something to do with Ricardo Barros, his leader in the Chamber of Deputies. Barros was Minister of Health in the previous government, and not by coincidence, has tabled a law authorising the import of vaccines without Anvisa’s approval.
This meeting happened in March, but no investigation followed and disillusioned with the man he had regarded as correct and not corrupt, deputy Miranda then went to the public prosecutors’ office, and also agreed to appear before the CPI. Only then did the government act – to accuse the brothers of fraud and threaten them with prosecution.
During the CPI hearings the government’s so called shock troops – loyal Bolsonaro senators – aggressively interrupted the proceedings whenever they felt that the revelations were getting too dangerous for the president, provoking confusion and bate bocas, shouting matches. But it was the women senators who outshone the men, both pro- and anti-Bolsonaristas, with their pointed questions and informed analysis. Senator Eliziane Gama from Maranhão, of the Cidadania party, punctured Wizard’s self-satisfied complacency by quoting chapter and verse of the Bible back to the Mormon to show him the error of his ways.
When Roberto Dias, the senior Ministry official accused of demanding a dollar bribe on each vaccine, gave evidence, denying everything, he was accused of blatantly lying and left the hearing under arrest, on the orders of the inquiry president, Senator Omar Aziz.
The CPI’s revelations of corruption at the Ministry of Health involving senior officials, both civilian and military, fell like a bombshell in Brazil. The Minister of Defence and the High Command of the Armed Forces hastily issued a note, not to say they would investigate the accusations, but to accuse Senator Omar Aziz of disrespecting the Armed Forces.
The image is tarnished
The note seems to have been ordered by Bolsonaro himself, as he watches the claim, which helped him win the 2018 election, of being an outsider with clean hands, not part of the system, crumble as the CPI advances.
It seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being an outsider, he is a politician who has lived off the state for 37 years, earning a handsome salary to do little more than attack democracy and spout misogynous and homophobic insults. What’s more it seems he has always been a clever operator of the system, enabling the election of his three sons to cushy mandates as senator, federal deputy and local councillor. Denunciations by former family members have revealed that he was a leading exponent of a scam known as the ‘rachadinha’, whereby members and protegeés of the Bolsonaro family were given jobs as staffers in the cabinets of the family politicians. They didn’t have to show up to work, just hand over most of their pay checks to their bosses.
In his years as a congressman Bolsonaro frequently changed parties, but always belonged to the Centrão, the centre right coalition including the rural lobby which for decades has called the shots in congress, and is now in partnership with the president, blocking attempts at impeachment and attempting to pass legislation highly damaging to indigenous people, to the environment and to the Amazon.
There is also an attempt to change the electoral system in Bolsonaro’s favour. He is waging a campaign against Brazil’s 20 year old system of electronic voting, cause for envy in other countries, which has never once been found to be fraudulent. He is demanding the return of the old fashioned system of ballot papers, which was frequently liable to fraud. He has even said that without a change in the system, there will be no election.
The spectre of Lula
Bolsonaro is running scared because all the latest polls give Lula a substantial lead in 2022, some even forecasting a win in the first round. He knows that the accusations that he deliberately delayed the import of vaccines in order to favour schemes of corruption involving not just civilians but military officers, could be the last straw for many who were prepared to tolerate his authoritarian, anti-democratic behaviour. His rejection rates are climbing.
Under his government, the Ministry of Health has been turned into a chaotic battlefield where, the CPI has also discovered, two rival groups, one controlled by the Centrão and the other made up of military officers, fight each other for control of the lucrative vaccine business. It is only the existence of a dedicated group of career civil servants, and the long established infrastructure of SUS, plus the professionals at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, and the Fiocruz Institute in Rio, which has enabled the rollout of any vaccine programme. So far almost 40 per cent of the population has had their first jab, 13 per cent the second.
This is despite Bolsonaro’s continuing efforts to discredit vaccines and the lack of any national campaigns. Without his sabotage, it is probable that a majority of Brazilians would by now have been doubly vaccinated, and thousands of lives would have been saved.
Will the vaccine scandal bury his chance of re-election? Is the coffee in the Presidential Palace already being served cold?
Main image: graphic from Outraspalavras.net