The captain and his country

The captain and his country

15:11 - Brazil is backsliding. Politicians, businesses and voters must act before it is too late, says Sarah Maslin

One day in April, as Brazilian hospitals ran out of oxygen and 3,000 people a day were dying from covid-19, Jair Bolsonaro’s 64-year-old chief of staff, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, got jabbed. It was his turn but he went in secret. His boss is anti-vaccine. When asked why Brazil was blocking approval for the Pfizer vaccine, the president joked that jabs turn people into crocodiles.

That Mr Ramos, a four-star general who once commanded peacekeeping troops in Haiti, had to sneak off reveals the depths to which Brazil has fallen under Mr Bolsonaro, whose career as an army captain stood out only when he was jailed for insubordination. Mr Ramos confessed his jab in a meeting he didn’t know was being broadcast. “Like every human being, I want to live,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Brazil was suffering from a decade of political and economic ailments. With Mr Bolsonaro as its doctor, it is now in a coma. More than 87,000 Brazilians died from covid-19 in April, the worst monthly death toll in the world at the time. Vaccines are so scarce that people under 60 will not get them until September. And a record 14.4% of workers are unemployed.

Yet on May 1st bolsonaristas draped in Brazilian flags took to the streets. Unfazed by a parliamentary commission of inquiry (cpi) into the president’s handling of covid-19, they applauded his refusal to wear a mask, his support for hydroxychloroquine and his wish to send the army to obstruct stay-at-home orders. Fans in São Paulo begged for “military intervention”. One woman told a visitor that Brazil had never had a civil war. “It’s about time,” she said.

Swap Portuguese for English and green and yellow for red, white and blue, and the rally could have been in the United States last year. Mr Bolsonaro borrowed heavily from Donald Trump’s tactics to win election in 2018: populism, nationalism, chauvinism and fake news. Brazil was traumatised from corruption, recession, worsening public services and violent crime. Brazilians were fed up with politicians who had failed to solve these problems. Mr Bolsonaro channelled their frustration.

He portrayed himself as an outsider even though he had spent 27 years as a backbench congressman, making news only when he said something offensive about women, indigenous people or gays. A fan of the military dictatorship of 1964-85, he often posed with his thumbs and forefingers cocked as if he were shooting a machinegun. Once in office, he aimed it straight at Brazil’s democratic institutions.

Good times, bad times
Ten years ago, Mr Bolsonaro’s election would have been unthinkable. After the dictatorship Brazil reformed itself. A constitution signed in 1988 created independent institutions. A new currency in 1994 tamed inflation. A commodity boom in the 2000s brought jobs. With cash in their wallets, Brazilians saw their lives improve. Under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil joined Russia, India and China in the bric bloc of fast-growing emerging economies. It led climate talks and was awarded both the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games.

Then the commodity boom ended. Protests in 2013 over a rise in bus fares turned into protests aimed at bringing down the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) government. An anti-corruption probe launched in 2014, known as Lava Jato (Car Wash), found that dozens of companies had paid bribes to politicians in exchange for contracts with Petrobras, the state oil firm. The economy crashed after irresponsible spending by Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Bigger, angrier demonstrations led to Ms Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. Her replacement, Michel Temer, was accused of graft and barely escaped impeachment in 2017.

Mr Bolsonaro’s election followed these traumas. He had little funding or airtime, but was boosted when he was stabbed while campaigning. Casting himself as Brazil’s saviour, he won 55% of the vote. His support was highest in the south and south-east, the richest and whitest regions, and among conservatives like farmers and evangelicals. Millions backed him out of anger at the pt. Mr Bolsonaro seemed to many voters to be the lesser of two evils.

Many pundits said that Brazil’s institutions would withstand his authoritarian instincts. So far they have proved right. Although Mr Bolsonaro says it would be easy to carry out a coup, he has not done it. But in a broader sense, the pundits were wrong. His first 29 months in office have shown that Brazil’s institutions are not as strong as was thought, and they have weakened under his battering. Cláudio Couto, a political scientist at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university in São Paulo, likens them to brakes on a car hurtling down a hill. “If pushed too hard they can fail,” he says.

Take the judiciary. Lava Jato seemed the triumph of the decade. Brazilians hoped anti-corruption reforms would usher in cleaner lawmakers who would act for the people not themselves. But some Lava Jato prosecutors and judges had a political agenda. This paved the way for Mr Bolsonaro, in the face of allegations against his sons, to shut down the investigation. Its closure helped not only corrupt politicians, but also organised-crime groups.

The economy badly needs reforms to curb the growth of public spending, boost competitiveness and tackle inequality. As a candidate, Mr Bolsonaro briefly professed belief in liberal economics. He hired Paulo Guedes, a free-marketeer educated at the University of Chicago, as economy minister. Then he abandoned both, refusing to back changes that might cost votes. After a pensions revamp in 2019, Mr Guedes’s reform agenda stalled. Six of the ten members of his economic “dream team” have quit or been fired.

The pandemic has wiped out all net jobs created since the recession of 2014-16, sending millions of people back into poverty. None of Mr Bolsonaro’s four education ministers created a workable distance-learning system. One lasted just five days before he was found to have padded his résumé with fake degrees from Argentina and Germany. Some 35m children have been out of school for 15 months, a drag on social mobility for years to come.

In politics “the promise of renewal was a big lie,” says Mr Couto. In 2018 voters kicked out much of the traditional political class. For the first time Congress has more novices than incumbents. A tiny group committed to fiscal responsibility and other reforms offers hope for the future. But most politicians remain gluttons of pork and patronage. After denouncing the system, Mr Bolsonaro joined it to save himself from over 100 impeachment petitions.

He has done most damage to the Amazon rainforest, which in Brazil now emits more carbon than it stores because of climate change and deforestation. The president does not believe in the first and sympathises with those doing the second: loggers, miners and ranchers. He took a chainsaw to the environment ministry, cutting its budget and forcing out competent staff. Reducing deforestation requires firmer policing and investment in economic alternatives. Neither looks likely.

At first covid-19 helped Mr Bolsonaro. Big spending on businesses and the poor distracted from his failure to pass fiscal reforms. His approval ratings briefly hit their highest since he took office. Last July he contracted covid-19 and recovered quickly, as he had promised he would. It seemed that the economy might do the same, paving the way for his re-election in 2022.

Then, in early 2021, Brazil was hit by a second wave with a more infectious variant from the Amazon city of Manaus. As social media filled with images of people in nearby Chile lining up for jabs, gravediggers in Brazil were busy. Mr Bolsonaro continued to rail against lockdowns and vaccines. In a cabinet shake-up he fired the defence minister, who had reportedly refused to pledge his loyalty. The heads of the three armed forces resigned in protest, briefly fuelling rumours of a coup.

It did not happen. Yet this special report argues that Brazil is facing its biggest crisis since the return to democracy in 1985. Its challenges are daunting: economic stagnation, political polarisation, environmental ruin, social regress and a covid-19 nightmare. And it has had to endure a president who is undermining government itself. His cronies have replaced career officials. His decrees have strained checks and balances everywhere. Consider Diário Oficial da União, where every legal change is published, says Lilia Schwarcz, a historian. “There is a coup every day.”

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