This Wednesday, the Brazilian Senate decided that Jair Bolsonaro should face criminal charges for his disastrous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. By a seven-to-four vote, the senate committee investigating the far-right president’s actions approved a severely critical report on his decisions — although it pulled back from an earlier text that accused him of “genocide.” The four senators who voted against the report were all close allies of the president.
Yet, while the right-wingers on the committee sought to soften criticism of Bolsonaro, the final report concluded that his ministers, government authorities, and even some businesses were responsible for policies that caused hundreds of thousands of extra deaths. This toll was unsurprising given Bolsonaro’s failure to take preventive measures and insistence on defending (and investing public funds in) ineffective quack remedies. Yet it was aggravated by unnecessary delays in buying vaccines — the product of both the president’s denialism and government officials’ corruption in dealings with laboratories.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has in recent months become the world’s seventh-worst country for COVID-19 death rates. The total is already approaching 600,000, with more than half these deaths occurring in 2021, despite the availability of vaccines. Among the states with the highest per capita fatality rates worldwide, Brazil is the only country of continental proportions.
Now, Brazilians want accountability for the disaster. However, another Bolsonaro ally — Augusto Aras, the prosecutor general of Brazil — will decide what to do with the report and whether to submit any indictment to the Supreme Federal Court. Yet even if he or the Brazilian justice system neglects to take action, the International Criminal Court will be able to try the case, since the report on Bolsonaro was also submitted there. Aras will also have to decide whether to open an investigation into the president’s social media — a prospect which has already sparked panic in Bolsonaro’s camp.
The decision to press ahead with charges is a tough defeat for Bolsonaro, coming as it does just under a year before the October 2022 presidential elections. He is confronted with multiple crises, including his own low popularity, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s regained strength, and a catastrophic economic scenario marked by inflation and even growing hunger.
Nothing New Under the Sun
None of this was inevitable. Although Brazil is an emerging economy, its public, free, and universal health care system has been internationally praised. Indeed, under Lula’s leadership, it had the capacity to immunize more than 80 million people against H1N1 in just three months, making it a world leader. After the senate committee pressured the government and it stopped boycotting the vaccination system, Brazil did manage to vaccinate millions of people quickly — causing the alarming rates of infection and death to fall.
Unable to claim credit for this improvement in Brazil’s situation, Bolsonaro is increasingly weak — and for the first time, there is majority public support for his impeachment. Meanwhile, former president Lula, released from prison and with his political rights restored, is leading polls for the presidential contest set for next fall. With Lula’s reappearance, Bolsonaro has escalated tactics designed to intimidate the opposition, even participating in large motorcades that Brazilian media have compared to Benito Mussolini’s parades through Rome.
As the clash between Bolsonaro and his left-wing rival escalates, this September 7, the incumbent tried to provide a show of force on the anniversary of Brazilian independence. Yet the stunt ended in a debacle, and scenes of Bolsonaro despondently looking from a helicopter at the dismally small crowd will surely enter the history books.
But there has also been a counteroffensive by “normal” center-right leaders, who declare their opposition to Bolsonaro but approve of his core economic agenda and still keep him in power today. Former president Michel Temer, who himself came to power after participating in the 2016 parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff, visited Bolsonaro demanding a retreat from his fiery rhetoric — and the president signed a capitulation.
Here, the cards were clearly set out. Brazil’s dominant oligarchy does not want a dictatorship led by Bolsonaro, but neither does it want to overthrow him if that means strengthening the Left and reversing the radical austerity measures taken in the country in recent years. Yet, with the senate report into his mishandling of the pandemic, even these elite maneuvers may not be enough to maintain the status quo.
Bolsonaro’s Anti-Vax Crusade
Last year, when laboratories were eager to sell large batches of vaccines to Brazil, Bolsonaro’s response was to issue statements dismissing the need for jabs. As evidenced by early testimonies delivered to the senate investigative committee, the Brazilian government all but ignored 53 emails in which pharmaceutical company Pfizer offered Brazil half-price vaccines. Instead, Bolsonaro’s government sided with the Donald Trump administration in blocking any breaking of vaccine patents, even though such a measure would have facilitated the mass, low-cost production of vaccines in Brazil and across the Third World.
The alliance between Bolsonaro and Trump didn’t stop there. Bolsonaro’s government, like Trump’s, also promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine, going so far as to receive a donation from the United States with which the Brazilian military was meant to produce the quack remedy on a massive scale. This went forward despite overwhelming evidence that the drug is ineffective in fighting COVID-19.
Worse still, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services 2020 annual report, the Trump administration succeeded in persuading Brazil not to purchase Russian vaccines:
Combatting malign influences in the Americas: OGA used diplomatic relations in the Americas region to mitigate efforts by states, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia, who are working to increase their influence in the region to the detriment of US safety and security. OGA coordinated with other U.S. government agencies to strengthen diplomatic ties and offer technical and humanitarian assistance to dissuade countries in the region from accepting aid from these ill-intentioned states. Examples include using OGA’s Health Attaché office to persuade Brazil to reject the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, and offering CDC technical assistance in lieu of Panama accepting an offer of Cuban doctors.
For now, the Brazilian equivalent of the FDA, Anvisa (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária, Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency), has upheld the ban on the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, even though it has proven effective and is being used in Argentina, Mexico, and throughout Latin America. The Chinese vaccine CoronaVac was eventually approved, albeit only thanks to the intense lobbying of João Doria Jr, the conservative governor of São Paulo. Even with this approval, production has been stymied by shortages of various materials imported from China.
High-ranking members of Bolsonaro’s government, including the president himself, continue to indulge in xenophobic attacks against China and the Chinese people, sabotaging collaboration with Beijing. This is especially reckless given that the only other vaccine produced in Brazil, AstraZeneca, also depends on Chinese imports. Bolsonaro’s antics have at least won him a fresh endorsement from Donald Trump, on the very day that the Senate voted to go ahead with charges.
The senate committee further reported that high-ranking members of the administration swindled cash from vaccine agreements with an Indian company while delaying the purchase of vaccines from other parties. Indeed, despite their explicit anti-vax rhetoric, it seems that government officials sought above all to raise the price of the bribes that should be paid before they would implement a national vaccination plan.
Cornered, but Still in the Fight
Bolsonaro’s dismal record is not just a matter of bad public policy. It is the result of willful choices, neglect, and corruption, killing thousands of people — some of them simply being fooled by official speeches or dying from lack of vaccines. In one of his most recent public statements, Bolsonaro even said that COVID-19 vaccines cause AIDS.
However, the vaccination process has today advanced, bringing down death rates and encountering a strong response from Brazilians who want shots. Thanks to the efforts of its public, universal, and free health system — a chunk of socialism that the pro-democracy movement managed to create through the country’s 1988 constitution — the pandemic is finally subsiding. Brazil has once again proven that it is bigger than Bolsonaro.
But it is also worth emphasizing that, besides personal ties, Bolsonaro managed to get this far because his agenda really has suited the economic interests of a large portion of the Brazilian elite. They were relatively unaffected by a pandemic whose death toll is itself a map of the country’s steep inequalities. While rich Brazilians were safe in their mansions, farms, and beach villas — or even outside the country — during the pandemic, and the upper middle classes worked from home, the poor and working class were forced to go on working in person.
But as the pandemic got out of control in 2021, it became a problem for the Brazilian elite, and initiatives like the senate commission became a reality. That first required that COVID-19 hit the richest sectors of society, after its spread through the working class had already produced a four-thousand-a-day death rate this April. As well as the Senate’s pressure on Bolsonaro, the democratic socialist elements that still exist in the Brazilian system acted quickly, causing deaths and cases to collapse.
Recently, in audio recordings leaked by the news site Brasil 247, André Esteves, one of the most powerful Brazilian bankers, admits that Bolsonaro would be the elite’s favorite if only he could keep his mouth shut. Esteves defended the president’s murderous austerity policies, the deposition of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and even the 1964 military coup.
Esteves’s comments were evidence of what Brazil’s economic elites think but don’t like to say in public. This is also what the 2022 contest between Lula and Bolsonaro is really about. Despite Lula’s polling advantage, growing dissatisfaction at Bolsonaro, and the outright economic disaster today producing growing hunger and social inequality in Brazil, the oligarchy that has, at the very least, tolerated a far-right administration will fight to maintain its privileges. Bolsonaro and his allies are criminals — but they certainly do serve their class interests.