Brazil: Bolsonaro, COVID-19 and the murder of Marielle Franco

October 28, 2020
Marielle Franco in August 2016. Photo: Wikimedia commons - CC by SA 2.0

This month marked two and a half years since the assassination of Brazilian socialist councillor and LGBTI activist, Marielle Franco. Green Left’s Rachel Evans spoke to Andre Mozor, president of the LGBTI not-for-profit organisation Fruits from Brazil about the campaign for justice for Marielle and Brazil’s worsening political and health crisis.

What is the COVID-19 situation like for people in Brazil right now?

Brazil faces a great battle in its response to COVID-19. Already worn out by years of budget cuts, the public health system of Brazil has been further undermined by the president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro ignored and openly challenged the advice of the World Health Organization, repeatedly clashing with his health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, as well as with state governors and mayors who opted to impose lockdowns.

Arguing that the economy cannot stop, Bolsonaro has pushed for a return to business-as-usual, meeting his supporters, going to shops and refusing to limit his own movement.

On March 24, in an official national address, Bolsonaro dismissed the disease as no more than a “gripezinha” (little flu) for most people. He suggested that Brazilians have somehow acquired immunity to the disease by “diving into sewers”.

Bolsanaro threatened a form of martial law, didn’t he? 

Yes. On April 16, Bolsonaro sacked Mandetta. He then participated in a demonstration, during which opposition to lockdown measures was combined with calls for a military intervention ‒ all in order to shut down the Brazilian Congress and Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro spread misinformation about the virus. He touted a chloroquine-based therapy, despite the absence of corroborating scientific evidence. On April 5, he called for “a day of fast and prayer” to tackle the virus. On April 20, he knelt before an evangelical pastor, who declared that Brazil was free of the virus.

In July, Bolsonaro said he had tested positive for the disease, but already felt better, because he was taking hydroxychloroquine. Later, he shared a video of himself gulping down what he said was his third dose of hydroxychloroquine.

Together with United States President Donald Trump, he has promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. But a string of studies in Britain and the US, as well as studies conducted by the World Health Organization, have found chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine ineffective against COVID-19 ‒ moreover, sometimes deadly, because of adverse side effects on the heart.

Despite the uncertainty and attacks waged by the federal government, Brazil’s health professionals, researchers and public servants are demonstrating their dedication and expertise in carrying out their health care duties.

The state and municipal levels of the health system have shown remarkable resilience and provide hope to the Brazilian people.

What other tactics did the government use to undermine health officials?

Brazil’s government, in early June, removed comprehensive numbers on COVID-19 cases and deaths from the website of the Health Ministry. They claimed, without offering evidence, that state officials had been reporting inflated figures, to secure more federal funding.

The numbers were later brought back after a Supreme Court justice ordered the government to stop suppressing the data.

As at October 21, there have been at least 5,274,817 cases and 154,888 people have died from COVID-19, according to data from state governments.

The left in Brazil and around the world were shocked at the murder of socialist councillor Marielle Franco. What is the situation with the campaign demanding justice for Marielle?

Black, bisexual and favela [slum] militant, Marielle Franco was a Brazilian politician, feminist, socialist and human rights activist.

After taking a community course in the favela, she graduated in social sciences at PUC-Rio [a Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro] and completed a master's in public administration at the University Federal Fluminense (UFF) with a dissertation on the impact of the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the favelas.

For ten years, she served as advisor to state deputy Marcelo Freixo, who is a member of Brazil’s Freedom and Socialist Party (PSOL).

Elected as a councillor by PSOL in 2016, Mariela served for a year and three months in the City Hall representing the flags of the favela, blacks and the LGBTI community.

Her work was dominated by denouncing the violence of the state, and helping relatives of dead police officers. She helped the victims of the state, represented by the police force, also the good police who wanted to change the corruption in the police force.

Marielle was shot four times in the head, and three bullets hit and killed her driver, Anderson Gomes. Her press officer, who was sitting in the back seat of the car, was injured. Investigators say her killing was meticulously planned and carried out with unusual precision, which led them to believe her killers were highly trained.

Retired military police sergeant Ronnie Lessa and ex-military police officer Elcio Vieira de Queiroz were accused of killing Marielle. Lessa would have been responsible for the shots, from the back seat, and Queiroz would have been driving the car.

Lessa lost his leg while working, in a shootout in 2009, and was retired due to disability. In 2011, Queiroz was denounced by the federal police’s Operation Guillotine and expelled from a criminal syndicate. Operation Guillotine accused 45 police officers of being part of a gang involved in various crimes, including the sale of arms to drug dealers.

In a statement about Marielle’s murder, the Public Prosecutor's Office said the crime had “a nasty motive, linked to the abject disgust and reaction” to Marielle's political action. Public prosecutor, Simone Sibilio said Lessa had a “very reactionary position towards people who fought for minorities”.

However, the Public Ministry and the police do not rule out the possibility that the defendants were hired hitmen.

So who were Marielle’s murderers hired by?

Marielle's death is linked to the interests of powerful groups, possibly militias or politicians.

Marcelo Freixo said: "Whoever killed Marielle was not only the one who pulled the trigger, who killed Marielle was the one who planned her death, who hired and politically wished to eliminate Marielle."

The argument is reinforced by the fact that Lessa has a reputation for being a hitman for hire. As prosecutor, Luiz Antônio Ayres said [last year in a Ponte article] it is unacceptable that a professional killer "will simply be angry with someone and decide to kill that person".

The doorman of the condominium ‒ where then-deputy president Bolsonaro resided, and Lessa lived at the time - said that on March 14, the day when Marielle was murdered, Queiroz entered the condominium, said he would go to Bolsonaro’s home, [and] Bolsonaro opened his door to Queiroz. In the field of coincidences, there are more episodes, but there is a lot of evidence pointing to the family of Bolsonaro.

What are the next steps for the progressive and left in Brazil to stop Bolsonaro?

The Brazilian left and progressives are showing signs of unity to fight against Bolsonaro.

Many laws proposed by Bolsonaro's team are not being approved by progressive and left-wing senators and deputies. The government's economic team proposed a payment of R$200 a month to help people affected by the COVID 19 crisis. Representatives of the left parties managed to increase this amount to R$600 a month.

Representatives of social movements, trade union organisations, opposition parties, artists, teachers and people who oppose the government united to compile documents and declared a campaign for the impeachment of Bolsonaro.

In these documents, they accuse Bolsonaro of: crimes against the free exercise of political, social and individual rights; against the probity of public administration; for a threat to other powers; and crimes against the country's internal security and inability to properly respond to the new coronavirus.

However, the president of the Chamber, deputy Rodrigo Maia, who is from the centrist Democratic Party blocked the impeachment process, arguing that starting an impeachment process at this moment could deepen the crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic. It seems this impeachment request will not be approved, as Bolsonaro has many allies in the courts and the centrist parties that were having problems with Bolsonaro at the beginning of this year changed their position, and are now supporting the government.

The struggle against Bolsonaro and for a stronger, more effective left and progressive movement faces even more difficulty under COVID-19.

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