Something peculiar is going on between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourão.
Late last month, Bolsonaro was scheduled for a surgical procedure to remove the colostomy bag he’d been using since being stabbed ahead of the presidential election. Before he went under the knife, Bolsonaro told his advisers that he would not turn over the powers of the presidency to Mourão while in surgery. A few days earlier, Mourão had made the most of the four days he spent as acting president while Bolsonaro was in Davos, Switzerland, by publicly undercutting his boss on a series of key issues in interviews with the press.
Members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet were “irritated” by his decision not to bestow Mourão with presidential powers, Época magazine reported. And the unofficial word coming from Bolsonaro’s office was that he hadn’t been “properly advised on the delicacy of the surgery.” Eventually, he would reverse course and sign over executive powers for 48 hours — but not the full 17 days he would spend in the hospital.
The whole saga nicely encapsulates Bolsonaro’s young presidency: mistrust sowing internal division, a leak, the unmasking of the president’s ignorance, and then, eventually, a forced reversal.
Bolsonaro rose to power thanks to a hodgepodge far-right coalition that came together just long enough to get the 63-year-old politician elected president of Brazil. But that coalition has spent all 53 days of his tenure in office eating itself alive. The rhetoric of Bolsonaro’s campaign crashed into the reality of his government with resounding thunder. Indecisiveness; power struggles leaked to the media; revelations of a son’s links to an organized crime boss; and multiple corruption allegations have dogged the president as he walked back campaign promises and stumbled through the turbulent, sometimes nonsensical, early days of the new administration.
So much has happened over the last 7 1/2 weeks that it’s impossible to take stock of it all. But by looking through the wreckage, perhaps you can get a sense of Brazil’s political life as of late.
As Bolsonaro World quickly melts into a puddle, Mourão apparently spotted an opening — the latest chapter in a roller coaster of political controversies for the vice president. In 2015, Mourão, at the time an active duty general, was relieved of his command for publicly criticizing then-President Dilma Rousseff and praising the man responsible for her brutal torture during the military dictatorship. In 2017, he suggested in a speech that it might soon be time for another military coup in Brazil. The defense minister and army chief of staff at the time felt that Mourão’s opinions were too popular among the rank and file to risk punishing him. Nonetheless, Mourão retired soon thereafter to pursue a political career.
Before the campaign, Bolsonaro and Mourão had no relationship to speak of. The general was chosen mere hours before the deadline for parties to lock in their nominees, after many other candidates were discarded or had turned down Bolsonaro’s offer. Bolsonaro seemed to have intentionally chosen someone even more brutish than himself. Mourão had the added benefit of being a general who still supported the 1964 military coup d’état; for leftists traumatized by that dark period of history, the thought of such a man assuming the presidency again effectively neuters the option of one day impeaching Bolsonaro.
In the middle of the campaign last year, Mourão said that modern Brazilian culture inherited “indolence” from Indigenous peoples and “trickery” from Africans. He spoke out against the “13th month salary,” a much-beloved, guaranteed additional payment that salaried employees receive at the end of the year — and a constitutional right.
Yet since taking office, Mourão has moderated his tone, presenting himself as a rare voice of reason. Mourão recently said that Brazil is not considering moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and that increasing access to firearms will not reduce gun violence — both contradictions of Bolsonaro’s positions. He has spoken in favor of abortion rights and been exceedingly polite and available to reporters. When the leftist member of Congress Jean Wyllys fled the country instead of taking his seat, citing threats to his life, Bolsonaro and his sons celebrated. Mourão told the press that “those who threaten parliamentarians are committing a crime against democracy.”
Mourão’s independent streak has been viewed as unabashed treachery by the true believers in Bolsonaro’s inner circle. This is especially so for the president’s three adult sons, Eduardo, Carlos, and Flávio, who all hold elected office, as well as the band of unhinged political outsiders whose support they have cultivated over the years.
Jair Bolsonaro’s sons have long since firmly set their sights on Mourão — and have made repeated attempts to silence him. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, they even enlisted the help of the unofficial “guru” of the administration, the conspiracy-peddling pseudo-intellectual Olavo de Carvalho, who has a YouTube channel and a large, influential far-right following. Carvalho has called Mourão a “despicable charlatan.” (Carvalho, it should be noted, has questioned whether the Earth revolves around the Sun and claimed that Pepsi is sweetened with the cells of aborted fetuses, among other nonsensical musings.)
And U.S. President Donald Trump’s former top adviser Steve Bannon has also gotten in on the action. Bannon, who has called Carvalho a “hero,” said Mourão is “unpleasant and steps out of line.” The vice president deftly responded, “I’m a cool guy, dude.”
Bannon, for his part, has become increasingly involved in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. As of last September, during the presidential race, Bannon was enthusiastic about the then-candidate, but couldn’t remember his name and referred to him as “Botolini.” Since then, the bonds between the American far-right ideologue and his Brazilian counterparts have strengthened. This month, Bannon named Eduardo Bolsonaro as the South American leader of “The Movement,” his international alliance to combat “globalism.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro took a trip in January to the U.S., where he met with Carvalho and Bannon. And he brought along one of his father’s favorite purveyors of fake, far-right news: Allan dos Santos, who happens to be a Carvalho sycophant. Santos is best known for his feverish, babbling rants, full of such pearls of wisdom as, “Smoking is bad. I hope you don’t masturbate. Because my smoking doesn’t kill neurons, but now you’re jerking off, you’re fucking yourself. I die smart. You die dumb.”
The bedrock of the Bolsonaro political movement is formed by men and women of similar genius, and some of their fever dreams are making it to the floor of Congress. One of the newest representatives from Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, Márcio Labre, introduced a bill on the first full day of his new job to outlaw the sale and use of contraceptives, including the pill, intrauterine devices, and the morning-after pill — all of which he considers to be “micro abortions.” After public backlash and ridicule, he pulled the proposal, but other similarly outlandish proposals remain in play.
The Social Liberal Party was left reeling following the revelation of two schemes that stink to high heaven of corruption. The stories, in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, told of how the party allocated $182,000 in public funding to the congressional campaigns of five unknown candidates — who ended up receiving almost no votes. Much of the money, according to official receipts, was spent at companies linked to top party officials. The federal police opened an investigation last Tuesday. Jair Bolsonaro and his party campaigned first and foremost on combating corruption in politics — which they conveniently framed as a problem created by the center-left Workers’ Party and its allies — thereby making this a serious challenge to their credibility.
The episode provoked a major crisis in the government. Gustavo Bebianno was the party president during the election and was then appointed as the secretary general of the presidency, an important cabinet-level position in Bolsonaro’s administration. Bebianno quickly became a central figure of administration infighting: He is the mortal foe of Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons. Officially a Rio de Janeiro city council member, Carlos Bolsonaro has unofficially worked behind the scenes for years as the president’s social media guru — earning his father’s trust and support. Bebianno, however, used his influence to block Carlos Bolsonaro from gaining an official role in the administration.
“I need to apologize to Brazil for making Bolsonaro’s candidacy viable. I never imagined that he would be such a weak president.”
Carlos Bolsonaro used the scandal over disbursements to irrelevant candidates to strike back. He conspired to have his father sacrifice the party leader to the outrage over the episode, going so far as to “leak” part of a conversation between his dad and the minister; he used the recording to publicly label Bebianno a “liar,” a remark his father later endorsed. After days of back-and-forth speculation and negotiations, Bebianno was finally fired on Monday, but on the following day additional recordings were leaked to the press — proving that it was Carlos and Jair Bolsonaro who had lied.
Top party officials, allies from other parties, and military figures are all concerned by this development. Some worry that the president will throw them to the wolves if the next scandal touches them; others worry that Bebianno knows too many secrets and needs to be kept in the fold. The generals, for their part, fear the unchecked influence of Jair Bolsonaro’s impulsive and power hungry sons.
Bebianno reportedly told an ally, “I need to apologize to Brazil for making Bolsonaro’s candidacy viable. I never imagined that he would be such a weak president.”
Perhaps Jair Bolsonaro would’ve been able to brush it all off as “fake news” — invented by conspiratorial foes — were it not for the fact that he and his son Flávio are at the center of a larger and more serious corruption scandal that is currently being investigated by the public prosecutor’s office. Flávio Bolsonaro attempted to quash the inquiry with a petition to the Supreme Court, but the move backfired — only serving to provoke greater public indignation.
The story goes something like this: A federal investigation into corruption in Rio de Janeiro’s extremely corrupt State Assembly found multiple representatives and staffers with large bank transfers that did not jibe with their stated incomes. Among them was Flávio Bolsonaro, now a federal senator, and his former driver, a retired police officer named Fabrício Queiroz. Queiroz, it turned out, was regularly receiving deposits from staffers in Flávio’s and Jair Bolsonaro’s offices — generally on or just after payday and generally for most or all of their after-tax pay. Through his wife, Queiroz also transferred money to Flávio and Jair Bolsonaro. Over three years, the transactions totaled more than $1.8 million.
Flávio Bolsonaro is also being investigated for a series of “lightning” real estate transactions in which he’d buy properties and quickly flip them for enormous profits. The declared values in mandatory filings rarely matched the purchase or sale prices, irregularities that raised suspicions. Authorities requested that Flávio Bolsonaro and Queiroz come in to be deposed, but both simply decided not to, instead giving squishy interviews to friendly media outlets.
That’s not all. The magazine Veja and the newspaper O Globo both report that Queiroz, the ex-cop, was allegedly involved in multiple killings in the line of duty. And, according to Flávio Bolsonaro, he was responsible for hiring and supervising the mother and wife of Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega. Nóbrega is said to be the chief of a militia group known as the “Office of Crime,” which has been accused of murder, extortion, fraud, and more. A former police captain, Nóbrega is currently a fugitive and also the primary suspect in the murder of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco and her driver.
Flávio and Jair Bolsonaro have both publicly commended Nóbrega in the past, despite his arrest on murder allegations. Since their ties to prominent militia members came to light late last month, however, the Bolsonaros have been quiet on the subject. The day after the story of those links broke, Jair Bolsonaro blew off a scheduled press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, claiming that he was “tired.”
While Jair Bolsonaro’s connection to these particular killer ex-cops is shocking, it’s not entirely surprising. Two of his top campaign promises were giving cops “carte blanche” to kill in the line of duty and expanding access to guns for average citizens. While neither will improve public security, as he claims, both measures are advancing swiftly, a sign that perhaps Jair Bolsonaro will be able to get some things done despite all the chaos surrounding his presidency.
A bill presented by the justice minister this month would allow judges to suspend homicide convictions of cops who acted under broadly defined “excusable fear, surprise, or intense emotion.” Human Rights Watch says the measure “could be used to let police officers who kill people in unjustifiable circumstances evade punishment.” One could argue that is exactly the point, since the prosecution rate of police officers is already infinitesimally small.
Rio de Janeiro’s new governor, Wilson Witzel, is not waiting for any vote in Brasília to put the philosophy into practice — and there is a body count to prove it. Witzel supported Jair Bolsonaro during the campaign and took a similar line on police-involved killings, promising to greenlight the “slaughter” of anyone seen carrying a rifle and the use of police snipers. He even floated the possibility of policing with armed drones.
Last month, three unarmed civilians in the Manguinhos favela were shot seemingly at random, and two of them died. One of the victims, a 22-year-old bricklayer’s assistant, was hit in the back while buying a coconut for his daughter. Family members and witnesses say the bullets came from a tower in the nearby police headquarters, and initial investigations have found holes punched into the walls that could be used to fire a rifle. Witzel hasn’t uttered a word on the subject.
This month, police in another Rio de Janeiro neighborhood killed 15 young men during a raid. Ten of them had been corralled into a home and appear to have been executed. Witzel praised the operation and referred to it as a “legitimate action.” Meanwhile, police oversight mechanisms and protections for internal affairs investigators have been rolled back or undone completely. According to official statistics, which are frequently underreported, on-duty Brazilian police killed 5,144 people in 2017.
To an American observer in 2019, all of this might sound insane and yet quite familiar. A corrupt, nepotistic, right-wing populist is elected on a platform to end corruption; his handful of policy prescriptions please the base but do nothing (or worse) to solve the problems they are supposed to fix. This leader’s own ignorance and incompetence end up forcing him to spend most of his time cleaning up the messes that he and his allies inadvertently created. All the while, he blames the press for pointing out multiple times a day that his pants — and his administration — are on fire.
In such a chaotic environment, stories that would have been major scandals in other administrations — like a foreign minister who believes that Nazism was a leftist movement and “climatism” is a manufactured, totalitarian “globalist” plot, or the revelation that intelligence agencies may be spying on the Catholic Church because they wish to “neutralize” their “leftist agenda” — have become minor footnotes.
Like the U.S., the mainstream opposition is entirely feckless and lacks vision; unlike the U.S., no insurgent, progressive rays of hope have emerged to reveal a conceivable new way forward. Like the U.S., government agencies and crucial oversight mechanisms are being gutted, and corporations and oligarchs are quickly and quietly seizing the moment to rewrite the rules even further in their favor; unlike the U.S., few effective institutional safeguards exist to slow their advances.
In Brazil, the right-wing agenda is mostly the following: Gut regulations of all kinds, particularly environmental and labor; cut social spending; make taxation even more regressive; privatize almost every government-controlled asset; expand the privatization of education and health care; increase access to firearms; ban abortions in all circumstances; promote environmentally destructive extractive industries; build more prisons and fill them by passing tougher sentencing guidelines; greenlight more aggressive policing of poor neighborhoods; increase the military’s power and prestige; reign in the press; roll back freedom of information programs; and dismantle laws and programs that support and are supported by progressives. Sound familiar?
Both countries are racked by colossal economic, social, and environmental challenges that must be addressed immediately. The fate of their populations and the whole planet literally hang in the balance. It isn’t clear if these (mostly) men have never pondered or simply don’t care about the potentially catastrophic implications of their short-term aims, but what is clear is that there is no quick fix. Even if you defeat the president, a vice president with all of the same central policy goals, but with only a fraction of the personal drama, lies waiting in the wings to swoop down and more efficiently execute the agenda.
This is what hangs, and will continue to hang, over Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro has another 1,409 days in his first term as president.