Twenty months into the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is on the brink of a democratic disaster.
More than 100,000 Brazilians have died of COVID-19, a pandemic the far-right president largely dismissed as a conspiracy. The economy is approaching a free-fall. And Bolsonaro’s authoritarian attempts to seize control of the world’s fourth-largest democracy have pushed Brazil into a political crisis.
As the trio of crises hammers the country, Bolsonaro has not only abdicated any responsibility to govern his country, he has used the turmoil to ramp up his attacks on its most vital democratic institutions. In May, the scandal-plagued president even contemplated sending the military to shut down Brazil’s Supreme Court as it continued investigations into his family and network of advisers, according to an explosive report last week by the news magazine Revista Piauí.
“This is the worst crisis Brazil has faced in its history,” said James Green, a Brazilian studies professor at Brown University who lived in Brazil during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. “It’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a public health crisis. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I can’t think of another moment when the country was in worse shape than it is right now.”
Bolsonaro’s improbable triumph two years ago generated widespread fears that he would be the most dangerous of the quasi-populist leaders whose victories triggered talk of a global democratic recession, and he has consistently proved his most alarmist observers right.
Now, the crises plaguing Brazil, along with Bolsonaro’s authoritarian response to them, have turned that concern into an outright panic that the country’s democracy may not be strong enough to withstand the onslaught it is facing.
“Brazilian democracy has been tested to its limit by a government that uses democracy to destroy democracy,” Felipe Santa Cruz, the president of the Brazilian Bar Association, said in a recent interview with HuffPost Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s approval ratings plummeted this spring as he fumbled the pandemic ― during which he fired one health minister and drove another to quit ― and did away with any remaining pretense that he was the anti-corruption zealot he fashioned himself to be during the 2018 campaign. In early May, Bolsonaro effectively forced out Justice Minister Sergio Moro, the former judge behind Brazil’s massive anti-corruption efforts who, in resigning his post, accused Bolsonaro of improperly intervening in the Federal Police, Brazil’s equivalent of the FBI.
Moro stopped short of accusing Bolsonaro of interfering to protect himself and his sons who are facing police investigations. But the insinuation was obvious. His departure, and the Supreme Court investigation into the allegations that commenced, set up a tense standoff between Bolsonaro and Brazil’s judicial branch.
Over the last two months, corruption investigations from the Supreme Court and Brazil’s Federal Police have closed in on Bolsonaro, his advisers and his family, including two sons who are also elected officials. And amid reports that the Supreme Court wanted to seize the cellphones of Bolsonaro and his son Carlos (a Rio de Janeiro lawmaker and the president’s social media guru) as part of an investigation into allegations that he spearheaded a massive online disinformation campaign to help his father win the election, Bolsonaro told advisers on May 22 that he planned to have the military depose all 11 justices and replace them with friendly appointees “until everything is in order,” Revista Piauí reported.
“The risk to democracy is as high as it was a couple months ago. It’s just that he’s currently seeking to undermine it from a different angle.”
The report confirmed fears of a possible military intervention that increased after the military men in Bolsonaro’s Cabinet began to issue warnings, this spring, that the judges’ efforts risked causing a democratic “rupture” with “unforeseen consequences,” assertions that rattled a country still haunted by memories of the dictatorship.
“He would love to stage this kind of military intervention,” Alessandro Molon, the opposition leader in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, told HuffPost in June, as worries mounted across Brazil that Bolsonaro might be plotting his own coup against Congress and the Supreme Court. “Fortunately, I don’t think there’s enough support for that in society, among our people, among our institutions, in public opinion.”
Molon has proved correct, at least for the time being: Although one of the former generals advising Bolsonaro favored the plan to shut down the Supreme Court because it was “the only way to reestablish the authority of the president,” others succeeded in talking down Bolsonaro, Revista Piauí reported.
But the threat Bolsonaro poses to Brazilian democracy has not subsided since May, said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Instead of sending in the tanks to blast away at Brazil’s democratic institutions, Bolsonaro has resumed his efforts to usurp them.
“The risk to democracy is as high as it was a couple months ago,” Stuenkel said. “It’s just that he’s currently seeking to undermine it from a different angle.”
Bolsonaro has now made the Ministry of Justice ― one of the country’s most influential departments ― a focal point of his autocratic crusade. In June, the ministry assembled a dossier on nearly 600 government officials and multiple university presidents it labeled members of “the anti-fascist movement” because they had criticized the government, the Brazilian news outlet UOL revealed last month.
Days later, Bolsonaro signed a decree expanding the scope of Brazil’s intelligence agency, which sits inside the Justice ministry, and handing it power to “tackle threats to the safety and stability of the state and society.”
Brazil’s intelligence agency now reports to the Bolsonaro family ally who heads the Federal Police. Alongside the dossier, the decree sparked fears that Bolsonaro is attempting to set up a politicized intelligence agency of the sort that targeted opponents of the dictatorship decades ago.
A Dangerous Militarization Of The Government
The would-be military intervention fit into Bolsonaro’s pattern of leaning on the armed forces to help solidify his control of Brazil, a practice that has only intensified during the pandemic. After ousting two health ministers, Bolsonaro turned the health department over to pliant military officials, handing the armed forces even more influence inside a government that already included more former generals than any since the return of democratic rule.
The ministry now marches in lockstep with a president who has opposed social distancing measures, business closures and the wearing of masks. Unlike his predecessors, the current minister has backed Bolsonaro’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that he believes is a useful coronavirus treatment, though studies haven’t confirmed it. The new health minister also went along with Bolsonaro’s efforts to stop publishing daily updates to coronavirus case numbers and deaths, which led to accusations that the government was trying to obscure the true toll of the pandemic.
Bolsonaro has mobilized the military to combat yet another devastating outbreak of fires in the Amazon rainforest, placing them in charge of the environmental regulatory agencies that typically deal with illegal logging operations and other drivers of deforestation but that Bolsonaro has gutted.
Brazil’s military is one of the most trusted institutions in the country, and its top brass has maintained that they have no interest in intervening in democratic affairs. But “it seems that the president is trying to co-opt the military for his authoritarian project,” Brazilian political scientist Cláudio Couto told HuffPost Brazil in June. Couto compared Bolsonaro’s efforts to those of Venezuela’s ruling regime, which has leaned on the armed forces to maintain power as it has become increasingly autocratic over the last two decades.
“This is a politicization of the army [that is] incompatible with democracy,” Couto said. “And this is frightening.”
Bolsonaro, who tested positive for COVID-19 in early July and spent much of the month in quarantine, has shifted his strategy and toned down his rhetoric ever so slightly in recent weeks, after one of his top campaign allies was arrested. Facing mounting calls for his impeachment and the increasing threat of investigations, Bolsonaro began to ingratiate himself with the centrão, an influential group of center-right legislators.
As he has cozied up with them, Bolsonaro has taken steps toward ending Operation Car Wash, the anti-corruption probe that implicated many establishment politicians with whom he now needs to curry favor. Car Wash, which was led by the former Justice Minister Moro, has faced its own major scandals, and its critics have long argued that its abuses are at least partially responsible for Brazil’s lurch toward autocracy. But it’s also impossible to divorce Bolsonaro’s decision to target it now from his broader attacks on the judicial system or his desperate attempts at political self-preservation, Stuenkel said.
“He’s putting an end to that because that was destabilizing for the political class, the traditional political actors and backroom dealers that he now depends on to avoid impeachment,” Stuenkel said. “But it’s also been done in a way that shows he’s clearly seeking to gain greater control over the country’s judiciary.”
There’s a dark irony to the anti-establishment candidate who used corruption as a cudgel to win an election immediately wielding the power of the state to ensure he and his allies face no recourse for their own. But much as it was for President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro considers an ally and a role model, anti-corruption was merely polite window dressing on the authoritarian culture war that was Bolsonaro’s campaign.
Approaching The Cliff’s Edge
As Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic project rolls on, Brazil’s crises are only deepening. The coronavirus outbreak is likely much worse than government statistics acknowledge, and its peak may still be months away. Tens of thousands more Brazilians will likely die as their president continues to pretend the virus is no big deal and urges a return to normal.
“His only solution is to pretend it’s all going to go away, and that people should go back to work,” Green said. “That means, as in the United States, that the people who are most affected are Afro-Brazilians, poor people and Indigenous peoples, and it’s basically condemning them to death.”
The government program to extend financial assistance to low-income Brazilian workers during the pandemic, which helped reduce extreme poverty to its lowest levels in a generation, is set to expire soon, although ultra-conservative Economic Minister Paulo Guedes has said the government is likely to extend it. Still, the crisis has battered the country’s economy just three years after it emerged from another brutal recession, and Brazil’s inability to curb the virus will only worsen the economic pain it causes too.
The political crisis Bolsonaro instigated is still in its nascent stages. And the hatred Bolsonaro has already unleashed can’t easily be put back in a bottle. On June 13, a group of ultra-right-wing Bolsonaro supporters launched fireworks at the Supreme Court to mimic a bombing of an institution they said housed “bandits” who were “leading the country to communism.” The fanatical mobs of trolls that assemble to attack journalists, academics and other critics of Bolsonaro have moved off Twitter and WhatsApp and into the streets, as Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello, who like many other female reporters in Brazil is subject to daily attacks for having the audacity to do her job, wrote in The New York Times last week.
Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism has drawn opposition from the United States over the last two months. Democrats on the House Foreign Relations Committee expressed alarm at the end of July over reports that Todd Chapman, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, urged Brazil to lift ethanol tariffs in an effort to help bolster Trump’s reelection campaign.
Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee also announced their opposition to Trump’s planned trade deal with Brazil in a June letter to the administration that argued such an agreement would amount to an endorsement of Bolsonaro’s autocratic government. A trade deal, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told HuffPost, would sanction Bolsonaro’s destruction of the Amazon and his targeting of LGBTQ people, Indigenous tribes, Black Brazilians and the country’s democracy.
“It’s a pretty ruthless regime,” said Blumenauer, who helped draft the letter. “Why would we want to facilitate them economically?”
But Bolsonaro may have avoided a public reckoning at home, where the once-nightly pot-banging protests have died down and opposition parties remain splintered and unfocused. His approval ratings have bounced back slightly from their record lows, thanks largely to gains among poor Brazilians who have benefited from emergency assistance during the pandemic. A recent survey showed that he’s currently the favorite to win reelection in 2022.
A more confident Bolsonaro could lead to a revival of the conflict with the Supreme Court and other institutions that try to constrain him; as the investigations proceed, a more desperate Bolsonaro could too.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro’s attempts to adopt new, moderated tones never last long. Another clash of some sort between him and the Supreme Court or other democratic institutions is only a matter of time.
“He thinks he is an emperor,” Molon, the opposition leader, said. “He doesn’t like to govern with limits. He is not someone who thinks about his actions, about the consequences, or even about the support for them. He’s very impulsive. He’s, I would say, a very unbalanced character. So the fact that he doesn’t have support for [military intervention] doesn’t mean he’s not going to try.”
That Bolsonaro has managed to push Brazil’s democracy to its breaking point without such a drastic step, however, suggests he may not have to.