Jair Bolsonaro's presidency is a tragedy for Brazil

As Covid-19 deaths surpass 34,000, the country is sliding towards political meltdown. 

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On 4 June, Brazil’s tally of Covid-19 deaths grew by a record 1,473. That took the total above 34,000 and made it the third highest figure in the world, behind only those of the UK and the US. The rise is part of a broader trend: Latin America is becoming the new focus of the pandemic. Mexico is now recording over 1,000 deaths daily, while Peru and even relatively well-prepared Argentina and Chile are seeing soaring numbers. The region is highly vulnerable, with many large and densely populated cities, a weak social safety net, over half of all jobs in the informal sector and often precarious government finances. (A more imminent, additional concern in Central America is the arrival of what is expected to be a particularly violent tropical storm season.)

Criticisms are levelled at governments throughout the region – that Mexico’s leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador acted too slowly, for example – but Brazil stands out for the chaos and divisiveness of its leadership. Jair Bolsonaro, its hard-right president, has acted in some ways like Donald Trump in the US – but in almost every respect to a more extreme degree.

Bolsonaro has spent much of the crisis playing down the severity of Covid-19, calling it a “little flu” and insisting that Brazilians, tougher than other peoples, “never catch anything”. He has clashed with state governors over their imposition of lockdowns, fired officials, promoted an unproven drug as a cure (“right-wingers take chloroquine”) and repeatedly undermined social distancing advice by conspicuously mixing with crowds, shaking hands and refusing to wear a mask. With hospital systems across Brazil collapsing, he is currently on his third health minister of the crisis. Yet in a television address on 4 June he continued to insist that the lockdowns had to stop as they were causing too much economic damage: “We can’t go on like this.”

The health crisis is thus tipping into a political and constitutional crisis as Bolsonaro’s theatrics rupture old norms. In April the popular justice minister Sérgio Moro resigned, accusing the president of firing a police chief in order to protect his son (claims that the country’s Supreme Court is now investigating). Two weeks ago a video emerged of a seemingly paranoid Bolsonaro ranting swearily about his political enemies in a cabinet meeting. On 31 May he arrived by military helicopter to support a protest against the Supreme Court and Congress in Brasilia, before riding through the crowd on a horse.

The storm season has indeed come. As Brazil’s death rate rises, photos are circulating of mass graves in the Amazon, and of bodies abandoned on streets in the tightly packed favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Opposition voices are calling for Bolsonaro to be impeached, some government loyalists want the armed forces to be deployed against the Supreme Court and Congress. And then there is the prospect of an economic crisis – the Brazilian real has plunged, the economy is shrinking and government debt is unsustainable – and the soaring unemployment and social tensions that will bring. Whether and in what form Bolsonaro will serve out the rest of his term until the next presidential election, scheduled for 2022, is far from clear.

It is a tragic state of affairs. About a decade ago Brazil was widely hailed as the big success story of the developing world: “Brazil takes off” ran a 2009 Economist cover showing the statue of Christ the Redeemer blasting off above Rio. This pluralistic, multi-ethnic democracy had a popular, progressive president in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a booming economy and had just secured the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But then Lula’s presidency, and that of his successor Dilma Rousseff, fell short of expectations and ended up mired in corruption scandals as the economy slowed. The result after a technocratic interim was Bolsonaro, under whom Brazil – Stefan Zweig’s perpetual “land of the future” – may yet have a way to fall.

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Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

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