Besides the pandemic, Brazilian governors face multiple crises

. Jul 29, 2020
Besides the pandemic, Brazilian governors face multiple crises Image: André Chiavassa/TBR

Brazil’s 27 sitting governors, among them newcomers and second-termers, took office on January 1, 2019, to what they knew would be a challenging four-year stint in office. The country’s financial conditions had worsened, while spending on wages and pensions increasingly hobbled state finances from north to south. However, no one was prepared for just how tough 2020 has been. The Covid-19 pandemic hit state administrations in different forms, putting job security on the line for many governors. Tax revenues fell sharply. The state of São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest, reported a 10-percent drop in tax collection from its ICMS goods and services tax, the main source of revenue for states. 

But the financial hit only tells a part of the story.


the beginning of the <a href="">coronavirus spread in Brazil</a>, the overly-politicized debate on quarantine rules pitted governors against President Jair Bolsonaro — who staunchly stood against social isolation and tried to place the blame for the current crisis solely on state governments.</p> <p>Moreover, the pandemic forced administrations to make emergency purchases of medical supplies and hastily build field hospitals in order to cope with the eye-watering increase in demand for hospital beds. In several cases, contracts did not respect Brazil&#8217;s public procurement laws — putting governors in the crosshairs of the Federal Police. The most recent governor to find himself in that situation was Wellington Dias, from the northeastern state of Piauí, who was targeted by an anti-corruption investigation into allegedly embezzled education funds. But Mr. Dias is by no means alone.</p> <p>A survey carried out by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> found that law enforcement has targeted 14 state governments since March, when the pandemic first reached Brazil. Some inquiries concern the governors themselves, while others concern members of their administration.</p> <p>Some are even at risk of losing their offices, with state lawmakers launching impeachment proceedings.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/3315761" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Governors facing impeachment proceedings</h2> <p>While two Brazilian presidents have been impeached in the last three decades, only one state governor has ever been ousted from office in the country&#8217;s history — and that happened in the <a href="">distant year of 1957</a>. But 2020 could see this total quadruple, with state legislatures opening proceedings to impeach governors in Santa Catarina, Rio de Janeiro, and Amazonas.</p> <p>Rio de Janeiro is the highest-profile case of all. Governor Wilson Witzel faces accusations of accepting kickbacks from government contractors hired to build Rio’s Covid-19 field hospitals. The money was allegedly being laundered through a law firm belonging to Mr. Witzel&#8217;s wife.&nbsp;</p> <p>The governor calls the probe a “political hit job,” commissioned by President Jair Bolsonaro — Mr. Witzel&#8217;s ally-turned-foe in 2019. But the pleas were not enough to persuade state lawmakers, who unanimously voted to open impeachment proceedings against him. This week, however, Mr. Witzel got a rare win, with the Supreme Court agreeing with his defense that the State Congress did not respect proper due process when setting up an impeachment committee, ordering the case to return to square one.</p> <p>While the decision might not save Mr. Witzel, it has bought him some time to try and use pork-barrelling tactics to draw some form support.</p> <p>In Amazonas, the first state to experience a complete collapse of its healthcare network during the Covid-19 crisis, Governor Wilson Lima is accused of mismanaging the pandemic, including purchasing <a href="">overpriced ventilators</a>. The state currently has the fourth-worst rate of cases — and the third-worst death rate — per 1 million people.</p> <p>Finally, in Santa Catarina, the impeachment process against Governor Carlos Moisés bears no relation to the coronavirus. Instead, Mr. Moisés is accused of financial crimes, for increasing the wage of state prosecutors without permission from lawmakers.</p> <h2>Coronavirus probes: was there presidential tampering?</h2> <p>Like Mr. Witzel, other governors who found themselves under investigation for siphoning away coronavirus funds have blamed President Jair Bolsonaro — suggesting that he is using the Federal Police to order &#8220;political hit jobs&#8221; against his adversaries.&nbsp;</p> <p>In June, governors from the Northeast region published an <a href="">open letter</a> complaining about the president. “After repeated political threats and unusual prior announcements that there would be police operations, spectacular actions were intensified, including at governors’ houses, without prior testimony (&#8230;). It is as if there was an absurd presumption that all procurement processes in this pandemic period were rigged.”</p> <p>This mention of &#8220;prior announcements&#8221; was in reference to Congresswoman Carla Zambelli — a fervent supporter of the president — who &#8216;predicted&#8217; police operations against Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s opponents while speaking to the press. Back in May, she called that Mr. Witzel would be targeted by a police probe just days before the Feds carried out a search and seizure warrant at his home. Two days later, in an <a href=";t=830s">interview to deny having access to inside information</a>, she mentioned other governors as potential targets: among them was Pará Governor Helder Barbalho. Once again, she was spot on.</p> <p>The president&#8217;s detractors point to the fact that of the 14 governors currently under investigation, 11 have adopted an openly adversarial position toward the president.</p> <p>But placing the blame on the president is an easy cop out, and many observers don&#8217;t buy it. Political scientist Marco Antônio Carvalho Teixeira, a professor at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, points out that in many cases there is strong evidence to support the police operations.</p> <p>“The president&#8217;s demeanor fuels suspicions, but probes have progressed where there is a concrete fact [for investigation]. But in the game of politics, whoever is targeted tries to deflect blame by fueling a conspiracy theory,” analyses Mr. Teixeira.</p> <h2>The pandemic&#8217;s impact on governors&#8217; popularity</h2> <p>Corruption operations are not the starting point of the dispute between the president and state governors. Some clashes began even before the pandemic. Criticized for high fuel prices in February, Mr. Bolsonaro <a href="">blamed state taxes on petrol</a>. The coronavirus came along to ramp up the dispute.</p> <p>When the coronavirus started to spread, the denialist president repeated his opposition to any social isolation measures — and tried to circumvent them himself and encourage his supporters to do the same. Ultimately, though, the Supreme Court ruled that the decision on opening or closing non-essential businesses comes under state governors&#8217; jurisdiction.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then, a blame game over the coronavirus situation and the economic crisis has ensued. And governors&#8217; popularity took a serious dent.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3316572" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>After reaching the impressive mark of 76 percent in March, governors’ approval ratings plummeted in the months that followed. This has happened while Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies have singled them out as being responsible for unemployment and other economic problems. Many of them have yielded to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s message and reopened their economies, even with the number of cases and deaths still high.</p> <p>“The problem [of the relationship between federal and state governments] is wide open in the pandemic, making it extremely difficult to fight the health crisis. These authorities should be taking a leadership role,” complains Mr. Teixeira. He blames the president’s behavior but does not exonerate lower authorities implicated in investigations. “In Rio de Janeiro, for example, emergency hospitals didn’t even work. Cases like that revolt the population when they are most vulnerable because of the pandemic.”

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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