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In Brazil, Bolsonaro Gambles on a Coronavirus Culture War

Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images
President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro during a press conference on the coronavirus pandemic at the Planalto Palace, Brasilia, Brazil, March 20, 2020

On Thursday March 12, President Jair Bolsonaro addressed the Brazilian nation. Just two days earlier, he had called coronavirus a “fantasy,” but now he was wearing a mask. Using his preferred method of communication, Facebook Live, he confirmed that Communications Secretary Fabio Wajngarten had tested positive after they had both had dinner with Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Bolsonaro said that because of the pandemic, nationwide demonstrations planned for Sunday, March 15, organized to support the president and attack Congress and the Supreme Court for getting in the way of his autocratic instincts, should be suspended. After all, he said “a tremendous message has already been delivered” to the other branches of government.

This was true. Without needing to fill the streets with his supporters, the Bolsonarista movement had demonstrated its willingness to intimidate Brazil’s existing democratic institutions. It is not clear, however, what Jair Bolsonaro wants to do with them. His son Eduardo, now probably the chief ideologue in the family, has made sure that threats are not just subtext. “If someone dropped an H-bomb on Congress, do you really think the people would cry?” he tweeted last month. 

During his father’s 2018 campaign, Eduardo Bolsonaro boasted that all it would take is “one soldier and one corporal” to shut down the Supreme Court. Jair Bolsonaro has always defended authoritarianism, but as president he has not exactly put forward a coherent plan for Brazil that those more moderate bodies have even needed to block. Does the president really plan to shut down these institutions, or does he just want to fight with them constantly? And if the conflict worsens, might it be Bolsonaro who loses? These are the questions hanging over Latin America’s largest country as it begins to be rocked by Covid-19. 

“You now have a highly unpredictable situation, where it’s hard to rule out anything. Either team could win,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas University in São Paulo. In this schema, the teams are: Bolsonaro on one side and Congress and the Supreme Court on the other. Winning for the president would mean governing unimpeded by the other branches. “Usually, one of the key elements of democracy is that even if you lose, you don’t lose everything. But Bolsonaro may have produced a different situation, one more akin to the final rounds of the World Cup—either you survive, or you’re out.”

Bolsonarismo is an explicitly violent movement that holds democracy in contempt. It has made use of the niceties of representative government, but it also believes they can be discarded in service of the movement’s real goals: the affirmation of the traditional family, the maintenance of Brazil’s existing social order, and, most importantly, the eternal crusade to crush the left. Before an anti-corruption investigation destroyed the political establishment and allowed him to take center stage, the effective sum of Jair Bolsonaro’s political life, over twenty-seven years as a congressman from Rio, had been praise for the military dictatorship and support for the most violent police in the country. 

Since his election, he has been a tireless culture warrior, attacking the press, or the opposition, or the system of checks and balances, in an endless stream of attention-grabbing provocations. But if you shut down your social media and walk the streets instead, it’s clear that Bolsonaro has not remade Brazil in his own image. In the final week of his campaign, he outlined what that would mean: the deletion of all traces of the left from the country. He could still try to accomplish this, and subjugate Brazil’s institutions in the process; or he could suffer the same fate as the last three presidents here—and face impeachment or prison.

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Bolsonaro has been in power for over a year, and the sky has not fallen; that is, not unless you live in one of the Rio favelas where the state governor and erstwhile Bolsonaro ally Wilson Witzel last year authorized police to rain down gunfire and flash bombs from helicopters. For the country’s comfortable middle classes, life has felt much the same as it did before, if not a bit more stable than it had been under the previous, world-historically unpopular president, Michel Temer. 

There are two reasons for that. First, Bolsonaro adopted a free-market platform during his 2018 campaign. It seems he doesn’t care much about economic policy himself, but he installed a hard-neoliberal, Pinochet-admiring finance minister, and the business community has so far offered conditional support for the president. There has been just enough economic growth to keep things rolling for the people who really matter here. 

Second, Bolsonaro refuses to do what most Brazilian presidents since the fall of the dictatorship have done: unlike them, he has neglected to form a supportive coalition in Congress that would push through his agenda. As a result, the legislative branch has been semi-independent, governing as a relatively sane center-right body and issuing frequent rebukes to the executive. A far-reaching pensions reform bill, whose passage last year was crucial to keeping the markets on Bolsonaro’s side, was actually softened and repackaged and delivered by Rodrigo Maia, the leader of Congress, and ended up being much less regressive as a result. 

In the halls of Brazil’s otherworldly congressional complex in Brasília, there is disagreement as to what Bolsonaro is up to. One theory is that either he’s incompetent or just doesn’t care enough to work with the legislature; another is that the conflict is intentional and part of a larger scheme; and his supporters say he simply refuses to engage in the corrupt machinations he said he would abolish.

“He is constantly testing the limits of his power, moving forward, then retreating a little, to see how far he can go,” said Gleisi Hoffman, the president of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), which ruled the country under Presidents Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from 2003 to 2016. “But what he really wants is a closed, authoritarian system. That’s what he believes in.”

Demonized by the president and only recently having secured the release of Lula from prison, the PT is on the defensive, though it is still the largest party in the lower house of Congress. Hoffman thinks Bolsonaro’s alliance with capital could fall apart, especially if his government mishandles the economy, but readily admits that the president has a committed base that believed him when he said he was an “anti-system” candidate. So he needs conflict to survive. “The way that he does politics, and this is a characteristic of fascism, is that he always needs an enemy in order to fire up his supporters,” she added. “First it is the PT, then Congress, then Lula, then all the institutions, then Lula again. That’s how he operates.”

Carla Zambelli, an outspoken pro-Bolsonaro congresswoman from São Paulo, has a different view. “President Jair Bolsonaro has never put forward an authoritarian program,” she said, “and he defends the full functioning of Brazil’s institutions.” What is distinct, she said, is that he “doesn’t engage in the horse-trading those before him did.” Zambelli was an outspoken supporter of the protests set for March 15, before withdrawing her support because of the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s fairly easy to draw a map of Brazil’s power structures, indicating where allegiances lie and how the chips might fall in a moment of real crisis. Congress and the Supreme Court are in the hands of Brazil’s messy political center, while the left opposition has control of precisely zero institutions. Bolsonarismo, meanwhile, has the presidency, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, the military and, to an even greater extent, the military police—plus a hard core of fanatical supporters. Bolsonaro won the presidency with 55 percent of the vote, meaning that he got the support of many people who had once cast their ballots for Lula. But studies published since then have confirmed what was already clear on the streets: that there is a smaller, especially zealous set of followers—above all, privileged young men in the big cities—who are likely to stick with him even if other voters end up regretting their decision. 

This new movement formed alliances with existing power structures, just as others were being crushed. Judge Sérgio Moro spearheaded the sprawling, ambitious “Car Wash” anti-corruption investigation that put Lula in jail in 2018, when he was the front-runner in the presidential race. Immediately after his victory, Bolsonaro made Moro his “super justice minister” and put him in charge of internal security in Brazil, despite Moro’s earlier assurances he would never take a political post. But after a set of stunning revelations published by the Intercept last year, it became clear that Moro himself was breaking the law as judge and had actively conspired to put Lula behind bars. 

Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Bolsonaro with Minister of Justice and Public Security Sergio Moro before the Brazilian Supercopa final at Mane Garrincha Stadium, Brasilia, Brazil, February 16, 2020

Although the global liberal press had lionized Moro for years as an anti-corruption crusader, he may in fact be the “most important supporter of an authoritarian project” in government, according to well-connected Folha de S.Paulo journalist Mônica Bergamo. Lula has been relatively cautious since his release, and it’s possible he is afraid he would be thrown back in if he makes too much noise. 

Then there is armed power. Since Bolsonaro’s presidency began, it has become clear that his family has deep ties to police “militias,” paramilitary forces of off-duty or former officers that control large swathes of Rio de Janeiro state, including the gang that in 2018 assassinated the progressive city councilor Marielle Franco. Some have wondered if Bolsonaro’s bombastic outbursts have been an attempt to distract attention from the gruesome developments in this case, which would make sense—if he hadn’t always acted that way. 

Ominously, though, a set of military police mutinies earlier this year, ostensibly over a pay raise, demonstrated the willingness of the officers to act outside of the chain of command. A senator was shot and nearly two hundred and fifty people were killed during these strikes; and Bolsonaro’s son Flávio said it was “legitimate self-defense” and concerns for salaries that led to the wounding of the politician, a rival of his political clan. São Paulo’s governor, João Doria, a former Bolsonaro ally in charge of police in the largest state, accused the president of stimulating the miliciamento, or “militia-ization,” of the country’s police. Support for Bolsonarismo is less solid in the armed forces, despite the president’s lavish spending on the troops and the fact that a third of his cabinet members are soldiers. The military high command never had much regard for Bolsonaro before he was president, and it is conceivable they could abandon him if things really go south.

“Another military regime is unthinkable. That was a different era,” Congressman Carlos Jordy, the vice-leader of the Bolsonaro government in the House, told me. But he was quick to acknowledge his belief that the 1964–1985 period of military rule was “necessary,” because “there were guerrillas that wanted to install a Communist regime in Brazil.” Armed left-wing resistance did not actually start until after the US-backed military coup, but I was more interested in finding out if anything could justify canceling democracy once again, if perhaps in a different way. Are there people in the country now who want to turn Brazil Communist? I asked. “There are, there are,” but instead of being an armed movement, it is “cultural Marxism that proliferates in every corner of the country,” he said. “We now have people who think they aren’t socialists, but think like socialists. It’s that Gramscismo.”

Along with Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jordy wants to make the defense of communism a criminal offense in Brazil. Since there is a prominent Communist Party here—which often governs moderately, and helped put on the World Cup—that would mean sending his congressional colleagues to jail. But he said they wouldn’t need to be arrested, because they could just stop being Communists. 

We spoke at night in his office, on the last day before Congress was shut to visitors due to the novel coronavirus. Congress had just overruled one of Bolsonaro’s vetoes in a testy back-and-forth over the budget. Jordy said that Bolsonaro had rejected the old logic of governance, refusing to hand out jobs and favors in order to buy votes, and that it may take some time for the rest of the government to adjust to the new logic. On the wall outside his offices, I noticed a large photo of him standing above “Deus Vult,” the words supposedly used to launch the First Crusade. He said he identifies with them, since he believes we must go to battle with “those that want to destroy Western Civilization.” Who are they, I asked. “Communists and globalists.” 

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As it turned out, the real Bolsonaristas hadn’t wanted to call off the protests. They believed their dear leader the first time, when he said coronavirus was nothing to worry about, and not his half-hearted appeal to slow the arrival of the pandemic. The hashtag #desculpejairmaseuvou, or “Sorry, Jair, but I’m going,” took off on social media. One video in particular captured the spirit of this digital movement: Congessman Éder Mauro posted a video in which he declared: “A soldier that goes to war, but is afraid of death, is a coward.” Then dozens of people stood up behind him, saluted the camera, and pledged to take to the streets.

As things got going last Sunday, it became clear that—despite earlier assurances to the contrary from officialdom—these marches were not just about supporting the president. Calls for a military coup, or to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court, or to usher in a new age of brutal repression, were everywhere. In downtown São Paulo, one giant banner read: “Military Intervention—Now!” One participant, a forty-five-year-old man named Alexandre Lima, told me, “It was a good idea to postpone the demonstrations. But I went anyways.” For now, he prefers just telling the rest of the government they’d better do what Bolsonaro wants. He doesn’t favor a coup, he said, because it would look bad.  

“The world already thinks this is too much of a military government,” he explained. “That would do unnecessary damage to our reputation.” Another protester, a twenty-nine-year-old teacher called Abimael Pereira, was a lot less diplomatic. “We could try two things to resolve this conflict. One is that we put pressure on Congress and the Supreme Court, out on the streets, democratically,” he said. “The other is that those two buildings become our Twin Towers.” No further explanation was necessary, but he offered it anyway. “You know, we blow them up and kill everyone inside.”

Jair Bolsonaro himself was supposed to be in isolation due to concerns that he had recently come into contact with Covid-19. Or did he actually have it? His family did little to clear that up. Apparently, Eduardo Bolsonaro told Fox News that his father had tested positive, then attacked the “fake news” media for reporting exactly that, going back on Fox News to tell a visibly perplexed anchor that the president had in fact tested negative. As for Bolsonaro himself, who was supposed to be against the idea of the populace forming large crowds in the streets, he began tweeting out videos of the demonstrations around the nation, obviously encouraging more of the true believers to hit the streets.

Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images
Bolsonaro greeting supporters after a protest against the National Congress and the Supreme Court, Brasilia, Brazil, March 15, 2020

Then he decided to go out himself. Defying his own health minister, he greeted supporters at close quarters and posed for selfies. No mask this time. According to one count, he touched nearly three hundred people. According to current epidemiological statistics, if he is infected, that would make it likely that he would be ultimately responsible for several deaths from infection with Covid-19. 

Obviously nettled in an interview the next day, he said he shook those people’s hands “because it was the will of the people.” All of this seemed to confirm, finally, that Bolsonaro is incapable of moderating his behavior: he will always make war on perceived enemies, and he will always prefer maintaining the support of 15 to 25 percent of Brazilians, the true radicals, to recognizing that there should be any restraint on his actions. 

For some Brazilians, this was the last straw. Leaks to the Brazilian press indicated that previously tolerant figures in Congress and the Supreme Court may now unite against him. Congressman Alexandre Frota, a former adult film star and one-time Bolsonarista, said he would bring impeachment charges against the president. The president lost the support of an influential conservative woman, Janaina Paschoal, who’d helped lead the charge to remove Dilma Rousseff. Parts of big cities erupted in “panelaço,” the ritual banging of pots and pans, on Tuesday night. The panelaço was bigger and louder still on Wednesday, the day that Eduardo Bolsonaro chose once more to blame communism, this time in China, for the country’s problems, causing a rift with the country’s largest trading partner. 

The panelaços have continued, taking place in some form every day, as a majority of Brazilians sampled told pollsters they support taking extraordinary measures against the novel coronavirus. Over the weekend of March 22–23, the new enemy-of-the-hour for radical Bolsonaristas became governors like Witzel and Dória, former allies who stepped up implement far-reaching measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 in Brazil’s most populous states. In another unhinged interview Sunday night, President Bolsonaro said Brazilians don’t believe in polls, and that this was all part of a plot, backed by the media, to remove him from power.

This was the same outcome as the previous Sunday’s. The Bolsonaros always seem to choose to escalate conflict. It is what they must think will best serve their interests.