The forces enabling Jair Bolsonaro to create a coronavirus disaster

. May 18, 2020
From the presidential palace, Jair Bolsonaro waves at supporters. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR From the presidential palace, Jair Bolsonaro waves at supporters. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Many premature obituaries have been written for the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Over the last month alone, mistaken death sentences were issued following Sergio Moro’s resignation from the Justice Ministry, and then the tumultuous exit of two Health Ministers amidst the worst pandemic in a century. It has been commonplace to assert that his presidency is on its last legs.

However, despite the 32-plus impeachment requests currently sitting on House Speaker Rodrigo Maia’s desk, Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency is far from over. There is life to this unmitigated disaster yet. 

</p> <p>How, then, is Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s position still relatively secure despite the fact he is now leading what is widely regarded as the world’s most inept response to the <a href="">Covid-19 pandemic</a>? Brazil&#8217;s confirmed totals stand at 16,118 dead and 241,080 infected, not taking into account the massive underreporting experts have warned about. One of the primary reasons is that many of Brazil’s most powerful leaders and institutions are actively enabling this unfolding disaster.</p> <h2>The Armed Forces</h2> <p>Most notably there are the Armed Forces. Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet contains <a href="">more military members than any</a> in the history of Brazil — including the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The number of officers serving is set to increase with the likely appointment of General Eduardo Pazuello as the new Health Minister, gaining a promotion from his previous role as deputy to former head Nelson Teich. While many commentators insisted the presence of generals would constrain Mr. Bolsonaro’s worst instincts and <a href="">perhaps serve as a moderate counterpoint to the civilian flat-earthers</a> and ideological zealots serving in his cabinet, the opposite has been true.</p> <p>Instead, figures such as General Augusto Heleno, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s chief security officer, have proven themselves to be ideological bedfellows of the Brazilian president and actively attempted to mobilize his supporters against Brazil’s democratic institutions. Earlier this year, Gen. Heleno said — overheard during a live broadcast&nbsp; — &#8220;<a href="">fuck Congress</a>.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has also bought their support by dramatically increasing military spending. In last year&#8217;s sweeping social security reform, military pensions were largely unaffected, despite being responsible for a huge portion of the social security deficit. Moreover, the military has invested so much of its political capital into Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency, it perhaps feels obligated to maintain it in office.</p> <h2>Big Business</h2> <p>The other major group of enablers is made up of certain <a href="">sectors of big business</a>. Paulo Skaf, chairman of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp), has become one of the president&#8217;s more enthusiastic supporters.&nbsp;</p> <p>Businessmen operating in the retail, fast food, and fitness sectors are also firmly in Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s corner. They have been actively supporting his attempts to sabotage social isolation measures implemented by state governments and have been accused of funding the “<a href="">office of hate</a>,” an underground — and illegal — disinformation machine allegedly controlled by the president’s sons.</p> <h2>The Big Center</h2> <p>More recently, the ideologically amorphous rent-seeking group of oligarchical center-right parties known as the “<a href="">Big Center</a>,” who sell their support to the highest bidder, have fallen in behind Mr. Bolsonaro — who is now willing to pay the price needed to maintain his presidency, despite rallying against the &#8220;old politics&#8221; of horse-trading throughout his campaign and first year in office.</p> <p>The Big Center sees the crisis in the Bolsonaro administration as precisely the moment to add their support to the administration. They can provide precious votes in Congress, which could block an impeachment or indictment against the president. In exchange, these bottom-feeding parties want positions that will secure votes — or, in many cases, <a href="">more money</a>&nbsp;—&nbsp;in the short term.</p> <h2>The opposition</h2> <p>While much of the political opposition is sincere, there have been segments that have enabled Mr. Bolsonaro. While House Speaker Rodrigo Maia has borne <a href="">much of the wrath of the president’s most frenzied supporters</a> and at times reined in the president, he also ensured that the far-right government would survive its first year in office by taking responsibility for passing the 2019 pension reform.&nbsp;</p> <p>More recently, he has refused to initiate impeachment proceedings on the grounds that &#8220;now is not the time,&#8221; despite evidence that the president’s criminal actions are mounting on a daily basis — as are the number of impeachment requests.</p> <p>There are also sections of the opposition who would <a href="">rally behind Jair Bolsonaro</a> if it meant keeping the center-left Workers&#8217; Party out of power. As long as the largest party in Congress is treated as illegitimate, it is hard to imagine the sort of unity emerging that could hold the president to account.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the end, many respectable pundits in the country continue to draw a false equivalence between the Workers&#8217; Party and Mr. Bolsonaro, presented as equal threats to democracy.&nbsp;</p> <p>That&#8217;s not to minimize the Workers’ Party&#8217;s poor record in the opposition. Despite having the largest bench in Congress, it has avoided a full-scale confrontation with the government —&nbsp;which was the party&#8217;s <em>modus operandi</em> as a consistently opposition force during the 1980s and 1990s.</p> <p>Some of the <a href="">Workers&#8217; Party top brass</a> believe that letting Mr. Bolsonaro serve out his term is the best electoral move — as he would reach the 2022 election having frittered away his entire political capital.</p> <p>There is also a section of the opposition that is relieved that Mr. Bolsonaro is in power during this unprecedented crisis, as they don’t have to take responsibility for the unfolding disaster.&nbsp;</p> <p>While the death toll skyrockets and Brazil’s economy faces collapse, it is worth remembering who exactly is keeping Mr. Bolsonaro in power and why. This is a dark time in the country’s history and it is being enabled by those who purport to serve the national interest and defend the constitution. If Brazil is going to weather this crisis, somebody needs to take responsibility for dealing with a president that has bet his political future on escalating it.&nbsp;

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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