Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said last month he was willing to deploy the army on the streets, if governors and mayors continued to enforce COVID-19 quarantines, confinements and curfews.
“If I decree it, it will be enforced. Our Armed Forces can go to the streets to enforce the fifth article of the constitution on freedom of movement in the national territory in times of peace.” He called the COVID-19 restrictions “cowardly and absurd”.
This followed on the heels of an earlier statement, where Bolsonaro declared that if he were to order the military to take the streets and restore order, “the order will be followed”. Bolsonaro said he would not “go into details into what I’m preparing”, adding, “if we were to have problems, we have a plan of how to enter the field … our armed forces could one day go into the streets.”
Bolsonaro’s unhinged utterances portray the increasing paranoia in the fissured neo-fascist political camp, as opposition to the ruling government’s policies rises.
Sergio Lirio, editor of “Carta Capital”, wrote: “Bolsonaro’s approval rating is hovering around 30%. He is no longer concerned with governing. His sole focus is avoiding impeachment and making it to 2022 with at least some chance of making it to the second round of the presidential elections.”
The leaders of nine opposition parties joined forces in a virtual meeting on April 23 to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment. The virtual meeting was convened by the Workers' Party (PT), the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), Popular Unity (UP), Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), Sustainability Network (REDE), Green Party (PV), Democratic Labor Party (PTB), Citizenship Party (Cidadania) and the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).
They decided on this initiative after Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco ruled out opening a judicial process against Bolsonaro. PCB leader Renildo Calheiros said the executive’s “paralysis” in the face of the deaths of more than 350,000 Brazilians “cannot continue”.
“Brazil breaks records in the number of deaths, and the president seeks side disputes and fights instead of mobilising the country.”
Calheiros said that coordinated work among all opposition parties was necessary in order to build a “movement to fight the pandemic and to fight the government”.
Bolsonaro recently ridiculed citizens intending to vote for PT leader Inacio “Lula” da Silva in next year’s presidential election. “For God's sake, people who vote for a guy like him are people who deserve to suffer”, he said, also criticising the eight members of the Supreme Federal Court (STF) who overturned Lula’s convictions, allowing him to contest future elections.
Referring to the welfare policies that the PT administrations implemented from 2003--16, Bolsonaro said that “people get used to the benefits”. In another instance, he remarked: “Look what Brazil’s future is going to be, with the kind of people he [Lula] would bring into the presidency … You can all draw your own conclusions.”
While Lula has not officially announced his presidential candidacy, he told Argentine television station C5N, that if push comes to shove he will be a candidate in the elections, “to defeat a fascist like Bolsonaro, a genocidal leader who is most responsible for the chaos brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Nevertheless, Lula said he would first seek consensus with other leftist forces to find “someone who represents progressive sectors”.
Mounting resistance to Bolsonaro is the corollary to the pandemic catastrophe brought about by the president’s governance, or lack thereof.
Infections in Brazil rose with the prevalence of the P1 variant, reported to be more than twice as transmissible as the pre-existing strains of COVID-19.
This variant affects young people more immediately than others, in a country with a burgeoning population of youth. The new variant first emerged in the Amazonas region. There, more than twice as many 20- to 39-year-olds are dying in the current wave than in the first.
Instead of instituting robust measures aimed at breaking the chain of infection, Bolsonaro allowed the pandemic to run amok. While the infection spread like wildfire, Bolsonaro remained in a state of delirium, endlessly ranting against lockdowns and curfews.
He even went to the Supreme Court on March 19, with an injunction to prohibit federal governors and mayors from deciding on lockdowns and curfews. This was rejected by the court on the basis that it lacked the signature of the federal state attorney; it turned out he declined to provide the signature.
As a direct consequence of Bolsonaro’s anti-scientism, this year began with the disintegration of the health architectures in the states of Amazonas and Roraima in the north. Minister of Health Eduardo Pazuello received warnings at the end of December last year that oxygen supply shortages in Amazonas might occur by mid-January.
He only acted when this deficiency inevitably led to numerous deaths on January 11 in the capital city Manaus. In the first days of January, instead of oxygen, he sent thousands of doses of the anti-malaria drug Chloroquine to Manaus, which has no proven efficacy against COVID-19.
The situation in other areas is no better. According to an article written by Alfredo Saad Filho and Fernanda Feil, “There are reports of patients being tied up in order to be intubated, for want of anaesthetics. Hundreds have died on trolleys, hospital floors or at home, even when their families could procure much-needed oxygen tubes in the parallel market.”
With Brazilian healthcare tail-spinning into turmoil, a section of the economic elite was finally forced to give the Bolsonaro government a rap over the knuckles. On March 22, 300 corporate leaders and economists wrote a public letter, calling for a national policy to fight the pandemic based on science.
The letter was signed by four former finance ministers, five former presidents of the Brazilian Central Bank and the national development bank BNDES, the two co-chairs of the largest private bank Itáu Unibanco and the president of Credit Suisse in Brazil.
Neoliberalism on steroids
Bolsonaro has used Brazil’s descent into an uncontrolled epidemiological emergency to furtively enact neoliberal reforms. The April edition of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST)’s fortnightly report on Brazil presents a clear-headed analysis of the government’s pro-business orientation.
Initially, Bolsonaro refused to maintain the emergency aid of $120 a month in order not to breach the spending ceiling of the annual budget - an arbitrary rule part of the post-PT fiscal regime. After much pressure, the aid was extended this year, but it excludes 25% of beneficiaries and was cut to $30 a month.
Unemployment figures are skyrocketing in tandem with declining social services; there are now more than 17 million Brazilians without jobs. Endemic joblessness is a hallmark of the Bolsonaro government. The unemployment rate rose from 11.9% to 13.5% in the first year of his tenure.
Disregard for workers’ lives is not specific to the pandemic period. From the start, Bolsonaro has been tone-deaf to the poor’s plight. The Ministry of Labor and Employment has been eliminated altogether, while the Ministry of Environment has been subordinated to the Ministry of Agriculture, which itself has been under the control of agribusiness interests.
The number of workplace inspectors has been reduced by a third (from 2935 in 2010 to 2050 in 2020). Budget allocated for tackling modern slavery has also been slashed. Bolsonaro - working hand in glove with agribusiness - dismantled protections against forced labour by re-defining what counts as modern slavery under Brazilian law.
One of the most striking instances of this deregulatory project is the so-called “Law for Economic Freedom”. The law exempts companies with 20 employees or less from reporting working hours. Without any records, workplace inspectors are no longer able to check the payment of overtime wages, and firms can evade rules governing the length of the working day. As a result, workers in small firms are now unable to dispute violations of working hours’ rights in court.
The Brazilian Central Bank’s $233.81 billion rescue package for the financial system, announced in March last year, has contributed to growth in financial sector profits rather than assistance to businesses in crisis.
A study by the Economics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) shows that little more than 10% of the bailout was used for loans to companies in difficulty.
The financial elite are deeply integrated with the Bolsonaro government and fully represented in the Ministry of Economy of Paulo Guedes - former founding partner of BTG Pactual bank - and in the Central Bank of Roberto Campos Neto, former market manager of Bank Santander. It is no secret that Bolsonaro receives his orders from Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima - a well-known avenue in Sao Paulo where the cream of the financial sector gathers.
As Brazilians are slaughtered by the criminal negligence of the Bolsonaro administration, it is becoming abundantly clear that the toxic mix of neoliberalism and denialism is rotten at its core.
There is a desire for a compassionate response, which combines scientific rationality with pro-people initiatives. Hope for a better future resides within these desires.
[Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]