Bolsonaro's maneuvers amid a pandemic: strategy or desperation?

Days after dismissing his level-headed Minister of Health amid the pandemic, the president forces the resignation of Sergio Moro, one of the most popular members of his administration. Español Português

Manuella Libardi
24 April 2020, 11.34pm
Thousands protest in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 30, 2019 in defense of embattled Justice Minister Sergio Moro.
Cris Faga/SIPA USA/PA Images

Explaining the political scenario in Brazil today to non-Brazilians is akin to trying to lay out the plot of Tiger King in a few words to those who have not watched the Netflix hit docu-series. You try to string words together into coherent sentences, but mainly end up with a mishmash of bizarre phrases.

Maybe that is the strategy of President Jair Bolsonaro: To cause enough confusion, throw enough haze, that spectators, unable to follow along, lose interest.

Just days after dismissing his level-headed Health minister amid the new coronavirus outbreak, Bolsonaro ousted the Federal Police chief, knowing the move would cause his “super-minister” and one of the stars of his administration, Sergio Moro, to resign.

Moro stepped down from his position as Justice minister today, April 24, after Bolsonaro dismissed the chief of the Federal Police, Maurício Valeixo, yesterday. Moro alleged political interference in the federal police force and accused, rather directly, Bolsonaro of requesting access to investigation reports, which could be an infringement of the penal code. Moro didn't mention details, but persistent rumors suggest that criminal police investigations involve members of Bolsonaro's family. His three oldest children – Flávio, Carlos and Eduardo – are named in several investigations.

In his pronouncement this morning, Moro – a controversial judge who shoot to recognition for his role in the Operation Car Wash corruption probe – claimed Bolsonaro’s decision to dismiss Valeixo was nothing but a political move. Holding nothing back, Moro said the president gave no valid reason for the decision and admitted his intentions were personal. Moro also said he never signed Valeixo’s resignation, learning about the fact from the government gazette.

Bolsonaro had previously threatened to replace members of the Federal Police, including Valeixo, which caused a rift between the president and the now former Justice minister. Valeixo worked closely with Moro in the Car Wash investigations until late 2018, when he joined Moro in Bolsonaro's new administration. The investigation sent scores of politicians and businessmen to jail throughout Latin America, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the CEO of construction giant Odebrecht, which made Moro a local hero.

The Moro resignation comes exactly a week and a day after Bolsonaro dismissed his Health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta

But Moro’s growing popularity and career prospects took a sudden hit in June 2019, when The Intercept published a series of leaked messages exchanged on the instant messaging platform Telegram. The messages included communications between Moro and the Operation Car Wash lead prosecutor, Deltan Dallagnol, in which Moro allegedly advised and instructed the prosecutor in an apparent move to interfere in the investigation that ultimately led to the trial and imprisonment of popular former President Lula.

While Moro’s reputation was affected by the leaks, he remained one of the most popular political figures in Brazil. In December 2019, polls showed 53% of respondents ranked his government performance as “great or good”, putting him above the president’s approval, at 30%.

Moro’s resignation was sudden and, largely, unexpected. However, the move might benefit his political prospects. In his speech, he boasted the achievements of the Car Wash probe in fighting corruption, and suggested his leaving the administration is a defiant act in face of a corrupt move by Bolsonaro. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Moro already has his eyes on the 2022 presidential election.

Moro’s exit weakens Bolsonaro’s administration. As of Friday, business groups and government’s military members demonstrated frustration with the president. Gabriel Kanner, president of Instituto Brasil 200, a group of entrepreneurs who had been supporting Bolsonaro since he took office in January 2019, said he felt an "absolute disappointment" and “betrayed as a voter”.

The government’s military wing expressed dissatisfaction when the president fired Valeixo without consulting them. The generals allegedly reconvened on Thursday to try to come up with ways to prevent Moro’s resignation and felt “betrayed” by Bolsonaro’s modus operandi.

He will fill the Federal Police and the Justice ministry with people loyal to him and run the department as he pleases until someone, or something, stops him

The Moro resignation comes exactly a week and a day after Bolsonaro dismissed his Health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whose handling of the COVID-19 outbreak had been lauded by various sectors of the population.

Bolsonaro began to show resentment toward Mandetta as soon as the first patient was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late February, because the then Health minister favored following World Health Organization recommendations when the president was dismissive of the pandemic.

Earlier today, Mandetta took to his Instagram account to share a photo of himself next to Moro with an accompanying caption in which he praised the former Justice minister for a “technical” performance, adding that the two worked closely during the pandemic, “always thinking of the common good”.

In addition, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, also known for his initials FHC, suggested on Twitter that Bolsonaro should resign and “save us from an impeachment process”.

What all of this shows is that Bolsonaro has lost massive support among the centrist wings, in and out of the government, which opens up vacancies to be filled. From this vantage point, it looks like Bolsonaro is trying to distance himself from his own government. The logic behind the strategy might be to shield himself from blame when the economic recession that will follow this pandemic inevitably hits with full force. Bolsonaro was, in large part, voted in on promises of economic growth after seven years of stagnation.

What will happen next remains to be seen. If we know one thing about Bolsonaro is that he is unpredictable and acts against all logic.

He will likely summon his supporters and call for public demonstrations favorable to his government amid the coronavirus outbreak that continues to rise in Brazil, which is what he did last weekend after the Mandetta fiasco. He will fill the Federal Police and the Justice ministry with people loyal to him and run the department as he pleases until someone, or something, stops him.

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