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Who is Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Brazil’s Health Minister (for the time being)

. Apr 14, 2020
Who is Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Brazil's Health Minister (for the time being) Photo: Ettore Chiereguini/Shutterstock

Once unknown to the Brazilian public — let alone to foreign observers — Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta was thrust into the limelight by the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming one of the most popular cabinet ministers in the current government. However, the public knows very little about Mr. Mandetta from before March 11, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic.

Mr. Mandetta is often described as having been a “technical appointment” to Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet, as opposed to a political one. Indeed, the Health Minister does not display utter contempt for science, unlike some of his peers. His decisions throughout the pandemic have been backed up by evidence, as opposed to gut feeling or wishful thinking. He also displays a low profile on social media, especially in comparison to the crass style of Education Minister Abraham Weintraub or of President Jair Bolsonaro himself.

However,

this image of Luiz Henrique Mandetta as an impartial, apolitical medical expert, guided only by science, is inaccurate. Mr. Mandetta is a career politician, and his recent spats with Jair Bolsonaro have helped that side of his persona shine through.</p> <p>The elected <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/deputados/160633/biografia">member of Congress</a> politician in him was more apparent than ever on Sunday evening, when he gave an interview to weekly news program &#8220;<a href="https://g1.globo.com/fantastico/noticia/2020/04/12/maio-e-junho-serao-os-meses-mais-duros-afirma-mandetta-em-entrevista-exclusiva-ao-fantastico.ghtml?utm_source=twitter&amp;utm_medium=social&amp;utm_content=post&amp;utm_campaign=fant">Fantástico</a>,&#8221; on leading TV station <em>Globo</em>. In the 20-minute segment, the Health Minister repeatedly defied his boss, with almost every answer and behavior taking on a political sting.</p> <p>For starters, Mr. Mandetta spoke from the home of Goiás state governor Ronaldo Caiado, his ally and fellow member of the center-right Democratas party. Mr. Caiado, who had endorsed Jair Bolsonaro throughout the 2018 campaign, recently announced he had cut ties with the president.</p> <p>Asked about public gatherings, Mr. Mandetta made a point of saying that crowds shouldn&#8217;t be gathering &#8220;inside bakeries,&#8221; after Mr. Bolsonaro had been filmed going into one last week and sparking a media frenzy. This act of defiance <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/04/13/coronavirus-sets-brazil-worst-economic-drop-over-century/">rubbed military cabinet members up the wrong way</a>, and was seen in Brasília as Mr. Mandetta handing in his notice: once the pandemic is gone, so is the Health Minister.</p> <h2>From local politics to the Health Ministry</h2> <p>As an orthopedist, 55-year-old congressman Luiz Henrique Mandetta was known for correcting his colleagues&#8217; posture during House sessions. That is reportedly how he and backbencher-turned-president Jair Bolsonaro came to know one another. They shared a lot of values, such as staunch opposition to the Workers&#8217; Party, abortion rights, and the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/11/21/brazil-congress-cuban-doctors/">More Doctors program</a> (which brought Cuban doctors to remote areas in Brazil with a shortage of physicians).</p> <p>His political career began in 2001, as president of medical cooperative Unimed in his home state of Mato Grosso do Sul. He then became the top health official in the state capital of Campo Grande, before earning a seat in Congress at the 2010 election. His time in the House has always been linked to health issues, often acting as a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/14/jair-bolsonaro-military-career/">defender of corporatist interests</a>.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="960" height="640" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mandetta-rodrigo-maia.jpeg" alt="mandetta rodrigo maia" class="wp-image-35963" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mandetta-rodrigo-maia.jpeg 960w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mandetta-rodrigo-maia-300x200.jpeg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mandetta-rodrigo-maia-768x512.jpeg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mandetta-rodrigo-maia-610x407.jpeg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 960px) 100vw, 960px" /><figcaption>Speaker Rodrigo Maia (left) and Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Photo: Ag. Câmara</figcaption></figure> <p>Mr. Mandetta, along with many members of his Democratas party, has also been an advocate for the <a href="https://www.huffpostbrasil.com/entry/perfil-mandetta_br_5e853ff2c5b6927805072b77">interests of rural producers</a> — the driving force of the economy in his home state. On the rare occasion he took the stand of the lower house to talk about something other than health, Mr. Mandetta criticized the indigenous land demarcation policies promoted by former President Dilma Rousseff.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;She is directing her anger at rural producers, treating Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness sector with ill will,&#8221; said Mr. Mandetta, back in 2016. On another occasion, he lashed out at the Federal Police for launching an investigation into meat producers who <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2018/03/06/brazil-meat-brf-cheat-food-safety/">deliberately evaded quality inspections</a> and sold spoiled products.</p> <p>He hasn&#8217;t stayed out of trouble either. Mr. Mandetta is currently targeted by four criminal probes for allegedly using his position as Campo Grande&#8217;s Health Secretary to unlawfully favor private companies. Three investigations concern the implementation of a failed information system that cost the city BRL 8.1 million. Prosecutors suggest there was foul play in the bidding process, accusing the minister of receiving kickbacks from a Portuguese business group.</p> <p>A fifth investigation, for influence peddling, was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2015.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3290023"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/3290023-coronavirus-shopping-for-a-new-health-minister.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-3290023&amp;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Unremarkable … until the pandemic</h2> <p>In the year between his inauguration as Health Minister and the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Mandetta was one of the least talked-about cabinet members in the government. The most newsworthy pieces of information coming out of his department concerned two leaks of private healthcare data, but even then they flew somewhat under the radar of the Brazilian news cycle.</p> <p>In January 2019, Brazilian pharmaceutical company Panamerican Medical Supply filed a lawsuit accusing the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) of leaking corporate secrets concerning a drug to British pharmaceutical firm Shire. The case was closed in March of that year due to a <a href="http://www.consultaesic.cgu.gov.br/busca/dados/Lists/Pedido/Attachments/748484/RESPOSTA_PEDIDO_2019108693_DESPACHON023-CORGE-25351135916201949.pdf?utm_source=%3Cspan%20class=jota%3EJOTA%3C/span%3E+Full+List&amp;utm_campaign=9035b04fac-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_15_01_58_COPY_02&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_5e71fd639b-9035b04fac-380357973&amp;">lack of evidence</a> of any wrongdoing by civil servants. A month later, personal data from 2.5 million users of the country&#8217;s public healthcare system was obtained by hackers and published online. The Health Ministry said the leak was not real and forwarded the case to the Federal Police.</p> <p>Then came the coronavirus.</p> <p>Mr. Mandetta became the face of the government&#8217;s response to the crisis, and a <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/02/28/health-minister-mandetta-coronavirus-arrives/">rare voice in favor of science</a> within the government. He also changed his stance on the Health Ministry&#8217;s budget, defending an increase to the pot of resources he called &#8220;already too big&#8221; one year ago.&nbsp;</p> <p>In just over a couple of months, the minister became a &#8220;star,&#8221; as Mr. Bolsonaro alluded to last week. His Twitter followers jumped from just over 3,000 to 300,000,&nbsp;while his <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/03/poll-brazilians-reject-bolsonaro-coronavirus-approach/">approval ratings</a> are over twice as high as the president&#8217;s (76 v. 33 percent). As our <em>Explaining Brazil</em> podcast debated last week, Jair Bolsonaro is frightened by the idea of being shown up by a member of his own cabinet —&nbsp;seeing Mr. Mandetta as a threat, he has attempted to clip his wings.</p> <p>The path Luiz Henrique Mandetta goes down after the pandemic is uncertain, but his public standing is now high enough to guarantee him election to almost any office in Brazilian politics, with the exception of the presidency. </p> <p>But as things stand, we are not seeing the &#8220;real&#8221; Luiz Henrique Mandetta, only a counterpoint to Jair Bolsonaro, who has quickly become one of the most criticized leaders in the world due to his coronavirus stance.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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