democraciaAbierta: Analysis

Bolsonaro falters as his COVID disaster becomes impossible to ignore

Losing allies at home and abroad, could this be the beginning of the end for Brazil’s authoritarian president?

Manuella Libardi
11 April 2021, 12.00am
President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly implied that COVID-19 is a media hoax.
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REUTERS/Adriano Machado/Alamy Stock Photo

Jair Bolsonaro is running out of options.

The increasingly isolated Brazilian president faces a destablising political crisis that appears to have alienated his supporters, as well as a pandemic that has mercilessly ravaged the country. 

Facing a call for impeachment after opponents criticised what they believe was an illegal attempt to co-opt the country’s armed forces and a rising COVID death toll that shows no sign of abating, critics are beginning to round on Bolsonaro.

His decision to fire defence minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, and the resignations of the heads of all three branches of the country’s military, was considered by many opponents as an attempted coup. 

Bolsonaro’s cynicism and smirking over COVID is a complete contrast with the situation inside his administration.

Bolsonaro’s political problems coincide with Brazil registering a grim new landmark. On Tuesday 6 April it passed 4,000 daily deaths for the first time since the pandemic took hold. This makes Brazil home to one in every four deaths worldwide and takes its domestic death toll beyond 340,000.

Of Brazil’s 27 capital cities, 21 are facing an occupancy rate for ICU beds in public hospitals of higher than 90%, a record since the onset of the pandemic. If the current infection rate continues, Brazil will reach 5,000 daily deaths this month, according to estimates made by biomedical centre Fiocruz.

If left to Bolsonaro, infections will continue to tick upwards. More than a year into the pandemic, the president, who has referred to the virus as “a trick” played upon the people by the media and governors of Brazil, continues to downplay its  severity.

Addressing a crowd of supporters outside Alvorada Palace in Brasilia on Tuesday night, following the announcement of the daily death rate by the health ministry, Bolsonaro criticised measures taken by governors and mayors to contain the virus. Twice, he ignored a woman who asked him about the 4,000-plus deaths. In both instances, he interrupted the woman to list the possible consequences of staying home, referencing “depression, weight gain and hypertension”.

"When you lock a guy at home, what does he do at home? I doubt he hasn’t put on a little bit of weight. I doubt it. Even I have grown a little gut,” Bolsonaro is heard saying in the video.

The president once again implied that the virus was a media hoax, stating that he could end the crisis in “five minutes” by paying off the country’s main outlets as “governments have done in the past”.

Burning bridges

Bolsonaro’s cynicism and smirking over COVID is a complete contrast with the situation inside his administration. The first blow came on 29 March when Ernesto Araújo was forced to resign as foreign affairs minister following weeks of mounting pressure, not only from Congress and his own ministry, but also from business lobby and investors.

A key player in the Bolsonaro administration, Araújo’s mission was to maintain close relations with the former US President Donald Trump. As such, Araújo imposed unprecedented changes to Brazil’s diplomatic policies, distancing the country from traditional allies and aligning it with (few) new ones.

Araújo notoriously blamed China for the pandemic throughout 2020. On one occasion, he accused China of creating the “comunavirus” – combining the words communism and virus – “to build a world order without nations and without freedom”. 

His strained relationship with Brazil’s top trading partner and former political ally put China on the offensive earlier this year, at a time Brazil was in desperate need of vaccines. In January, the Chinese ambassador in Brasilia, Yang Wanming, warned that China would only release ingredients Brazil needed to produce the Coronavac and AstraZeneca vaccines at home if Araújo resigned.

Hours after Araújo presented his resignation, Bolsonaro sacked the defence minister, Azevedo e Silva, for reportedly refusing to politicise the Armed Forces, setting off a political-military crisis unseen since the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) that was interpreted by many in the opposition as an attempted coup.

In response to the firing of Azevedo e Silva, the commanders of the three military branches, Edson Pujol (Army), Ilques Barbosa (Navy) and Antônio Carlos Moretti Bermudez (Air Force), agreed to jointly resign, though Bolsonaro fired them before they could present their resignation. The event marked the first time the commanders of the three military branches had left office at the same time since military rule ended in 1985.

When Bolsonaro called on “my Armed Forces” to help prevent state officials from imposing lockdowns in March, the generals stood their ground. In a farewell statement, Azevedo e Silva stressed that during his time in office, he “preserved the armed forces as institutions of the state”, a clear jab at the president’s attempts to use the military for his own ends.

Bitter remedies

Following the dismissal of Azevedo e Silva, Bolsonaro also reshuffled five other cabinet positions, giving into pressure from a centre-right party bloc known as “centrão”, on which he depends heavily for Congress support. The changes came less than a week after Arthur Lira, the leader of the “centrão” and president of the Chamber of Deputies — a position Bolsonaro helped him win earlier this year — warned him of “bitter remedies” if he didn’t ramp measures to contain the pandemic, a possible reference to impeachment. (Congress currently has 107 impeachment requests against Bolsonaro.)

Bolsonaro has named military replacements that he hopes are more flexible, but the latest developments show he has lost the support of his closest allies – at least for now. The subtle threats from Lira, who previously said an impeachment wasn’t the right course of action when he was elected president of the Chamber in February, also reinforce the notion that the political scenario in Brazil has drastically changed in March amid the worsening  health crisis. 

While his impeachment remains unlikely, given that Congress is heavily right wing, Bolsonaro’s chances at winning re-election in 2022 are looking rather dim, especially with the re-emergence of his political nemesis, Lula.

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