March is normally nice in Brazil, but not this year.
Transfixed to their televisions, half the nation watches on in delight. Half the nation watches on in horror. This isn’t a tale of two cities, but rather a nation about to spiral into a health catastrophe.
On their screens, their divisive President Jair Bolsonaro, is delivering a verbal assault unlike anything seen before. A fringe figure for most of his life, Bolsonaro has never concerned himself with the mainstream, instead opting to act as an ‘outlier’ — something that has never alarmed him as, in the words of his confidant Sergio Gomes, ‘that’s how he’s always lived’.
Looking straight into the eye of the nation, there was never any sign of restraint. ‘Given my athletic history, I wouldn’t feel anything other than a little flu’, he told millions watching. If the coronavirus was no match for their ageing President, what threat did it pose to them?
He followed up his nationwide address with a tense confrontation with journalists in the nation’s capital, Brasilia:
‘After being stabbed, no little flu is going to take me down. The virus is here. We’re going to have to face it — but face it like a fu*king man.
‘We’re all going to die one day’.
His health minister disagreed. He was fired.
How did we get here?
The 65-year-old former military officer and leader of the hard-right ‘Alliance for Brazil’ won a resounding majority in the country’s 2018 elections, although at the time he led the Social Liberal Party, another far-right group. His self-styled ‘hard man’ persona was exemplified through surviving a stabbing just a month before the first round of voting, despite arriving at a hospital ‘almost dead’.
A long-time controversial figure, Bolsonaro’s nationalist stance (something best portrayed through his party’s slogan, ‘Brazil above everything’) struck a chord with a disillusioned nation, as he promised to crack down on widespread corruption and crime whilst reinvigorating Brazil’s stagnating economy. He’d spent years in the curtains of Brazil’s Overton window, often being booked on TV to stir up controversy, including once claiming Brazilian Congresswoman Maria do Rosario was ‘very ugly’ and not ‘worth raping’.
He won 55 per cent of the second-round vote.
Sworn in on 1 January 2019, the new year marked the start of a new dawn for Brazil. The promised crackdowns began promisingly for Bolsonaro loyalists. Within four months of his presidency, Brazil’s famously high homicide rate dropped by 20 per cent. He appointed Sergio Moro, the highly renowned Judge who exposed the vastness of government corruption, as ‘super-minister’, giving him wide-ranging powers to fight corruption further. Most crucially, he began to reduce unemployment and reverse the tracks of six years of negative growth, as well as saving $200bn through overhauling Brazil’s extremely generous state pension scheme.
Despite making inroads on his key triad of promises, he wasn’t without setbacks. Deforestation rose 27 per cent during 2019, to its worst rate since 2009. This didn’t bother the President, a noted climate change sceptic who has branded teenage activist Greta Thunberg ‘a brat’ and claimed actor Leonardo Di Caprio was financing groups to deliberately start fires in the Amazon rainforest.
Then the virus hit
As the pandemic begins to overwhelm South America, Brazil is now a stone’s throw from dictatorship.
With 58,000 deaths already and no sign of ‘flattening the curve’, Bolsonaro’s tone has alienated those most at risk, including 62-year-old replacement health minister Nelson Teich, who resigned in mid-May but refused to reveal why — only stating (cryptically) that ‘Life is made of choices and today I chose to leave’. June 19 brought 54,000 new cases in Brazil, a record high for the nation. Bolsonaro’s reply: ‘So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?’
It turns out he can’t do anything — except attend weekly protests (on a federal police horse, no less) against the nation’s top court, which authorised an investigation into his police appointments.
Speaking about his attendance, he claimed ‘I don’t coordinate anything, I just attend’. What came next strayed beyond the point of democratic return. ‘People usually conspire to reach power’, Bolsonaro told his supporters.
‘I am already in power. I am already the president. I am, in fact, the Constitution’.
The declaration that Brazil’s core documentation lay, personified, within one man, enraged a nation already disillusioned with his governance. Sleepwalking into dictatorship, the people finally took action. A strong body of 37,000 people registered for anti-government protests in São Paulo’s City centre — although the President calls those involved ‘outcasts’ and ‘addicts’. In Brazil’s largest city, Rio de Janeiro, police were used to disperse protesters chanting ‘Democracy!’ — at one point using tear gas to prevent an altercation with rival pro-Bolsonaro protestors carrying a neo-Nazi flag. Yet in his somewhat haunting weekly broadcasts, the President has used his Facebook platform to claim protestors are ‘playing the role of a terrorist’, and that ‘they’re idiots who are useless’.
He could yet be impeached after leaked WhatsApp messages showed he was actively seeking to gain control of Rio’s federal police force. One message to ‘super-minister’ Sergio Moro (who subsequently departed Bolsonaro’s cabinet and is now set to run against him in 2022) read: ‘You have 27 police districts, I just want one: Rio’.
Besides his tough talk, it’s his actions on which he will be judged when he comes up for reelection in 2022. Despite Bolsonaro’s warning that criminals would ‘die like cockroaches’ under his premiership and claims that Police officers who shoot criminals deserve medals, Brazil still maintains one of the highest crime rates in the world. Even worse, in the face of a life-defining pandemic, the economy is stagnant again — bracing for a contraction of 4.7 per cent, the nation’s worst since 1900. At the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro told his nation ‘the side-effect of fighting coronavirus cannot be worse than the medicine itself’, and yet, with a soaring death toll, Brazil could be strangled with the worst of both worlds.
In his own words, Brazil has ‘gone almost against everything others are doing”’. It’s a stance Bolsonaro is used to, having chosen to live his life as an ‘outlier’.
If Brazil’s de facto dictator-in-waiting won’t provide leadership or even allow scrutiny or opposition, he’ll soon find it in the people themselves. It’s already July and still nice in São Paulo. But keep watching. It could turn ugly very quickly.