25 February. It’s less than two months since Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as president, but so much has happened that it seems like six months. In January Brazil was hit by a series of tragedies, all of them avoidable if safety precautions had been taken seriously. Instead we watched in sadness and horror as helicopters flew back and forwards to the small town of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais with, swinging below them, the body bags of those recovered from the avalanche of mud that swept all before it when an iron ore tailings dam collapsed.
No warning sirens sounded, no escape was possible for those trapped in the path of the wall of mud. Company documents seized from the offices of the Vale mining company show that the possibility of such a disaster had been calculated, but no steps taken to remove the inhabited buildings in its path.
The death toll rose day by day and stands at over 300. The tireless, exhausting work of hundreds of Brazilian firemen, many drafted in from other states, as they crawled over the carpet of treacherous mud, up to 40 feet deep, in search of bodies, contrasted with a PR stunt involving 120 Israeli soldiers, flown in for 2 days of photo-ops in the mud. This was the result of Bolsonaro’s new alliance with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu who wants Brazil to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in Donald Trump’s footsteps.
Days later, ten promising teenage footballers, recruited from all over Brazil by the Flamengo club in Rio, died in a fire in the death trap container where they were lodged. No sprinklers, no fire extinguishers, no escape routes.
Then a very popular TV journalist, Ricardo Boechat, died when the helicopter in which he was an unlicensed passenger, crashed onto a highway hitting a lorry.
So Brazil began the year mourning the victims of lax laws and irresponsible administrators.
Corruption as usual
In Brasilia meanwhile the new government, elected by Brazilians wanting a change after years of corruption scandals, began to show its true colours. No less than seven of the 22 members of the new ministry, including the Health, Environment, Tourism Ministers and Onyx Lorenzetti, virtual prime minister, face charges of corruption, fraud, or trafficking influence.
Among them was Gustavo Bebbiano, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, his former personal lawyer and chairman of Bolsonaro’s own party, the PSL (Social Liberal party), accused of overseeing a fraudulent election scheme. Bebbiano was sacked, not because of the fraud, but because he ran foul of one of the three Bolsonaro sons, Carlos. Elected city councillor in Rio, Carlos has spent little time in the council chamber, instead keeping his father company in hospital while his colostomy bag was removed, and, although holding no official post, taking part in ministerial meetings and firing off Whatsapp messages in his father’s name.
Police to investigatge ‘orange’ candidates of PSL party. Video: Band Jornalismo. 14 February 2019
The PSL’s fraudulent scheme is the result of a new quota system introduced to increase female representation in congress. A third of all party candidates in the 2018 election had to be women. To fill the quota, some parties chose women with little political experience, but with the right to receive money from the federal election support fund (taxpayers’ money), ostensibly to spend on their campaigns, just days before the election.
Instead they were told to transfer it back into the accounts of party bosses. None of the women, nicknamed laranjas, was elected, most received only a handful votes. The scheme became known as the PSL laranjal or orange orchard.
When even the generals look moderate
Carlos Bolsonaro’s interference did not go down well with the generals who now run eight of the government’s 22 ministries. Scores of posts in government agencies and departments have also been filled by military personnel, both serving and retired.
So, discreetly, thirty three years after the military left the presidential palace, discredited and demoralised by their 21-year dictatorship, they are back. And in stark contrast with much of the rest of the government, they appear as moderate and reasonable, toning down the more absurd or aggressive statements of some of the other ministers.
Vice president Hamilton Mourão, a retired general whose affability with the press could not be more different than President Bolsonaro’s open hostility (he avoids press conferences and makes all his announcements via social media), has the smile of the Cheshire cat, who knows what is happening, and what’s more important, what will happen. It is sometimes hard to remember that Mourão is a hardliner who only a couple of years ago, was defending torture and coups.
The lunatic fringe
Apart from the generals, and the ministers accused of corruption, the government has a lunatic fringe, who hold some key posts. Foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, who believes that globalization and climate change are Marxist conspiracies, and that Donald Trump will save the world, has already thrown a spanner into Brazil’s previously good relations with the Arab countries, China and Latin America.
Former foreign ministers from both left and right administrations have criticised his extremist views, which ignore Brazils diplomatic tradition of negotiation and peaceful resolution. His declarations on the Venezuelan crisis, insulting Maduro and inciting intervention, may please Trump, but have little to do with diplomacy. It is the military members of the government who have found it necessary to restate Brazil’s position of non-intervention.
Another dangerously ignorant minister is Ricardo Salles, the Environment minister who does not believe in climate change and has never set foot in the Amazon. He also insulted eco-hero Chico Mendes, apparently unaware that a major department of his own ministry – ICMBio, short for the Chico Mendes Biodiversity Institute – is named after the murdered rubber-tapper.
Then there is Dalmares Alves, the evangelical preacher who is Minister for Human Rights and believes girls should wear pink and boys blue, and recommended that parents with daughters should leave the country to escape sexual violence. At a UN conference she preached about human rights in Venezuela, ignoring the violations in her own country.
The Education Minister, Ricardo Vélez, who wants to militarise schools and says universities should only be for the elite, is another paid up member of the lunatic fringe, chosen, like Ernesto Araújo, by Bolsonaro’s foul mouthed guru Olavo de Carvalho, who has lived in America for years, but still feels entitled to interfere in Brazilian politics.
The government also contains two superministers, Paulo Guedes of the Economy and Sergio Moro of Justice and National Security, both running huge structures into which other ministries have been squeezed.
It’s the poor what pays the bill
After weeks of speculation, Guedes has sent his pensions reform bill to congress, claiming it will abolish privileges and provide a fair deal for all. But scrutiny of the bill has led to it being labelled cruel and unjust towards the poorest sections of the populations, who will have to work longer to get lower pensions. The bill introduces the Chilean system of capitalization into Brazil, which replaces the existing solidarity system, under which younger workers contribute to the pensions of older workers, with individual savings accounts. This ignores the fact that under last year’s labour reform, fewer and fewer workers will have regular steady jobs, becoming instead ‘intermittent’ workers.
The so called ‘new pensions scheme’, is being sold as the only way to avoid financial collapse because of the aging population and the huge budget deficit. Alternative solutions, like a more progressive tax system, a tax on large fortunes, the prosecution of tax evaders, and an end to generous tax holidays for agribusiness and other sectors, have been ignored. It is the poorest who must pay the bill.
Justice Minister Moro has also sent his crime bill to congress, increasing sentences and introducing a harsher prison system, not just for members of organised crime gangs, but for all prisoners. Even the conservative Estadão thought he had got it wrong, concentrating on punishment without a word about prevention. And the crime of ‘caixa 2’ the politicians’ slush funds, which Moro had described as the worst form of corruption when he was a judge, did not appear in the bill at all.
Death squad links
With this colourful government grabbing the headlines, another scandal involving a Bolsonaro son, this time Flavio, elected senator for Rio, has faded into the background. Yet it is potentially much more serious. Rio prosecutors are investigating his links to a death squad militia, which in turn is suspected of being involved in the assassination of councillor Marielle Franco, almost one year ago. When he was state deputy, Flavio successfully proposed awards and commendations for police officers who were leaders of this militia, even while one of them was in prison. State prosecutors are also investigating Flavio’s many ill-explained financial operations.
The third son, Eduardo, elected federal congressman for São Paulo, has appointed himself Brazil’s unofficial foreign minister, with frequent trips to the USA to meet Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon. Bannon has chosen him to head the Latin American branch of his extreme right-wing populist organisation, The Movement.
With sons like these, who needs enemies?
The Bolsonaro government’s shaky start could be compounded by its inexperience and inability in negotiating with congress, meaning that its major bills on pensions and crime will not have an easy passage.
Meanwhile it is Carnival, and hundreds of noisy ‘blocos’ have chosen Bolsonaro and his ministers as the butt of irreverent songs, marches, and masks as the revellers, men in pink, women in blue, fill the streets.