Brazil currently faces a confluence of at least three grave crises — one of public health, another economic, and other political and corruption-related — that has left the largest country in Latin America and the world’s sixth-most populous nation in greater turmoil and danger than at any time since its 1985 redemocratization. Our newest episode of SYSTEM UPDATE, which is roughly 30 minutes long and debuts on The Intercept’s YouTube channel at 10 a.m. ET, examines how one man — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — has single-handedly caused and then radically escalated each of these crises.
While several major world leaders minimized or even mocked the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic in January and into February — U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson among the most prominent — all of them have changed course in how they talk about and manage the pandemic (Johnson ended up in Intensive Care after contracting the virus). But not Bolsonaro.
Virtually alone among heads of major governments, he has not only maintained his original posture but encouraged Brazilians to do the same, most notoriously by leaving his own quarantine after being suspected of having been infected to greet crowds of supporters by shaking hands and taking selfies and, more recently, deliberately going into crowds gathered outside supermarkets and shopping malls. When his health minister began raising rapidly in approval ratings because of his daily briefings that followed the scientific consensus and often contradicted Bolsonaro’s own statements by encouraging isolation and debunking unproven cures, Bolsonaro fired him.
All of this led the Washington Post to declare him the “worst” of all world leaders, while The Atlantic crowned him leader of the coronavirus denial movement. And this has culminated in an exploding pandemic that has placed Brazil — a country which even prior to this pandemic was plagued by a barely functional public health system, extreme urban density, and massive wealth inequality — on an epidemiological curve at least as bad as, and likely worse, than Italy, Spain, and other nations who were so tragically devastated by the virus early on.
While all that is happening, the Brazilian economy is in virtual freefall, with the Brazilian real plummeting to all-time lows, the stock market tumblings, and economic growth nonexistent. But perhaps the most serious crisis of all is the one precipitated last weekend by the very dramatic resignation from Bolsonaro’s government of his once-beloved Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who used the occasion of his resignation to hurl extremely serious accusations of corruption and criminality at the president. The most serious of those is that he interfered in ongoing criminal investigations by the Federal Police, at least two of which — as we have extensively reported in the past — have as their targets Bolsonaro’s own sons as well as the family’s connections to the country’s most violent and dangerous paramilitary gangs, one of whom was at the center of the March 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro City Council Member Marielle Franco. Impeachment has entered, and is growing in, mainstream discourse.
The episode covers not only the fascinating and horrifying specifics of these crises and their consequences for Brazilians and Brazilian democracy, but also the recent political and cultural history of Brazil — including its U.S.-supported 1964 military coup and resulting 21-year brutal dictatorship that followed — in order to understand the unique threats Bolsonaro poses. Brazil is a country filled with vital resources (including the Amazon), a rich history and culture, and 220 million people long prevented by inequality, repression, and corruption from fulfilling their potential. These crises makes the fulfillment of that potential appear further away than ever, as a dark trinity of a public health disaster, economic collapse, and severe political instability are combining into a toxic brew, led by a president who seems to crave disorder and civil strife as a pretext for ushering in the dictatorship-era climate he has spent decades praising.
You can watch the program at its 10 a.m. ET debut here, with a transcript posted later, or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.
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Updated: Monday, May 4, 5:27 p.m. EDT
This article was updated to add a transcript of the program:
Glenn Greenwald: Welcome to a new edition of System Update. I’m Glenn Greenwald.
This episode focuses on the multiple, fascinating and very grave scandals currently engulfing the Bolsonaro presidency in Braziil. Scandals which carry a very substantial possibility of destroying the Bolsonaro government entirely.
There are multiple scandals which the Brazilian president is currently confronting, but two in particular are the most serious, the first of which is the debacle of his handling of the Corona virus pandemic, which has turned into an international embarrassment. In mid April The Washington Post noted that while many world leaders botched their handling of the Corona virus pandemic at the start, Bolsonaro “is the worst”. The Atlantic in late March proclaimed Bolsonaro to be the leader of the Corona virus denial movement worldwide. And a New York Times news article in early April read in the headlines that Bolsonaro is defiant and isolated as he denies the seriousness of the Corona virus pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s stubborn refusal to change course the way other leaders have done and acknowledge the gravity of this crisis has created not only serious political problems for his presidency in a country where people now believe that this virus poses very serious threats, but has also damaged public health in a very severe way, as Brazil, despite still facing a sparse number of tests, is now on the epidemiological curve worse than some of the countries that confronted the virus in the most tragic ways early on, including Italy and Spain.
[THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE PODCAST]
HOST: So things like city and state authorities and businesses and so on, they seem to be pretty switched on to the risk. But the one person who seemed to be fairly flippant about it from the start is the president.
REPORTER: All of this is despite, not because of the president, jair Bolsonaro. From the very beginning. He’s dismissed this disease, calling it a little sniffle and going out in public right after the social distancing guidelines were introduced. Over the past few weeks, he has taken to social media and national television to slam social distancing guidelines, saying that it’s ruining Brazil’s economy and urging local governments to abandon their strategies of closing schools and businesses. He calls those strategies scorched earth. He’s blamed the media for spreading hysteria.
At the same time that his handling of the Corona virus pandemic has become a domestic and an international disgrace, Bolsonaro in what might be a crisis even more threatening, now faces a very serious corruption and criminality scandal. It’s been the case since the very first days of the Bolsonaro presidency in early twenty nineteen that investigations involving suspected corruption and criminality on the part of his sons posed a threat to the Bolsonaro presidency.
But that threat severely escalated earlier this week, when Bolsonaro was once beloved Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, who led the world renowned anti-corruption probe that, among other things, resulted in former President Lula da Silva being imprisoned at a time when he led all presidential polls in 2017 has left the government in a very dramatic way. He announced over the weekend that he was resigning, held a press conference and accused President Bolsonaro of very grave corruption, specifically trying to fire the head of the federal police for corrupt motives, at exactly the time that the Brazilian press was reporting that the federal police was closing in on several criminal cases involving Bolsonaro sons.
[JUSTICE MINISTER SERGIO MORO ANNOUNCES RESIGNATION]
SERGIO MORO: The big problem with making this exchange is that first, there would be a violation of a promise by President Bolsonaro that was made initially: that I would have carte blanche. Secondly, there would be no cause for this replacement idea. It would be clear that there is political interference in the Federal Police. You know, I still looked for an alternative solution to try to avoid a political crisis during a pandemic. I think the focus should be on fighting the pandemic. But I understood that I could not put aside my commitment to the rule of law.
The president really wants me out of office. He doesn’t want me in this post. And in carrying out his dismissal of the director of the federal police, I don’t see much justification to stay. I’m going to start packing my things and I’m going to arrange my resignation letters here.
And the fact that it’s now Sergio Moro, the monster created by the Bolsonaro movement, who they turned into the icon and high priest of ethics and probity and law and order, who has now become the principal accuser of President Bolsonaro, has created enormous political problems for him that are unprecedented in the roughly 18 months that he’s governed Brazil.
While these two enormous crises are taking place, the Corona virus pandemic, as well as the criminal and corruption scandal arising out of Moro’s accusations, there are multiple other crises swirling around the president. To begin with, the Brazilian real the Brazilian currency has collapsed to an all time low against both the U.S. dollar and the euro. The Brazilian stock market is bottoming out. And on top of all of that, the economic growth which Brazilians were promised when Bolsonaro trumpeted the appointment of his new economics minister in early 2019, Paulo Guedes, who was trained at the University of Chicago, who admires the austerity measures of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet that helped the oligarchical class at the expense of the vast majority of the country’s poor. None of that economic growth has materialized, quite the contrary. Brazil remained stagnant economically, is now not experiencing economic growth, at the same time that unemployment is exploding.
So the economic picture is as grim for Bolsonaro as the political picture, the criminal and corruption picture and the corona virus pandemic are. And it’s happening all at the same time.
Now, to really understand the full context of what’s happening in Brazil, it’s necessary to understand the political and historical context for the country. Brazil is, no matter what you think of it. An extraordinarily important nation for the entire world. To begin with, it is the sixth most populous country on the planet. It is the largest country and the largest democracy in Latin America, by far the most influential country in that on that continent. It possesses vast oil reserves, including pre-salt reserves, which have become increasingly valuable as the world’s oil supply is depleted, and it’s in control of the vast majority of the single most important environmental asset to avert climate catastrophe, which is the Amazon.
Brazil’s history is extremely important for understanding the current crisis as well. During the Cold War, in the 1950s 1960s, Brazil tried very hard to stay out of the crosshairs of both the United States and the Soviet Union, trying to be the puppet of neither side. They were building their own independent democracy that had the potential to spawn liberal democracy throughout the region of Latin America, which never had it.
A 1946 constitution had become a model around the world for how a developing country could implement the values of liberal democracy. And throughout the 50s and 60s, its democracy blossomed. And all of that came crashing down when in 1961, Brazilians elected a ticket of a center right president and a center left vice-president. And in 1962, the Center-Right president resigned, which elevated the center left president João Goulart to the presidency. He was no communist. He really wasn’t even a socialist. He was simply a center left reformist. But his reforms, such as modest land reform and rent controls, infuriated the Kennedy administration, which feared that Brazil, under the Center-Left democratically elected government, was moving closer to Moscow.
They first tried cajoling and pressuring and threatening the Brazilian government to become more hospitable to free market policies that Washington insisted on, especially in its own backyard. And when that failed, the United States worked with Brazilian generals to overthrow in a military coup, the Goulart presidency and instituted what became a 21 year, very brutal military dictatorship, a right wing military dictatorship supported by both the U.S. and the U.K.. They trained the Brazilian generals, now in charge of Brazil in an unelected manner, in the arts of torture, imprisoning and even killing dissidents and shutting down all institutions, including the Congress and the courts that could have opposed them. For 21 years, Brazil lived through a very dark period under military rule supported by the U.S. and U.K., because the U.S. simply couldn’t withstand a center left government in the biggest country in Latin America, even though it was democratically elected. So, Brazilian democracy for more than two decades was destroyed.
And part of that military dictatorship included a young army captain named Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil, wantin to democratize, redemocratize in 1985 and then had its first direct presidential elections in 1989, had adopted as essentially a cultural taboo any attempts to apologize for the crimes of the military dictatorship, let alone to praise dictatorship as a superior form of government. In fact, apologizing for the dictatorship is a criminal offense in Brazil, and yet it’s one that the young army captain Jair Bolsonaro routinely violated from the start. He ran for city council in Rio de Janeiro on a platform of raising salaries for soldiers and defending the police when they killed innocent people and quickly elevated himself to the federal Congress based on a far right, law and order, pro-military platform. And for the next 30 years, Jair Bolsonaro continued to praise the military dictatorship as a superior form of government than democracy. He praised the torturers who imposed the most brutal interrogation methods on dissidents.
In 2010, Brazil elected its first female president, the center left Dilma Rousseff of the Worker’s Party, founded by Lula da Silva. And Dilma herself, had become a rebel, a guerilla, against the military dictatorship and was brutally tortured by one of the most notorious torturers of that regime. And in 2016, when the Congress, which then included Congressman Bolsonaro, voted to impeach Dilma, and one after the next stood up to explain their vote both Jair Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo, who was also in the Congress, stood up and praised the dictatorship and specifically praised the colonels who had personally tortured Dilma Rousseff when justifying why they were voting to impeach her. So they’ve always been pro dictator, pro military rule and anti-democracy. And that was the context of the 2018 election.
And that’s the reason that Brazilian democracy, despite experiencing all kinds of turbulent events such as impeachment and crises and corruption scandals, has remained a fairly stable democracy since it read democratised 35 years ago, has never been more imperiled than it is today.
Bolsonaro’s handling of the Corona virus pandemic has been remarkable even when set against the behavior of the leaders who have handled it most poorly. There were many leaders early on, including Donald Trump, the United States, Boris Johnson in the UK and other leaders in Europe and Asia, who minimized the threat of the virus. But after February, when they saw the gravity of what this virus really was, the contagiousness that it possessed, the lethality of the virus for a large sectors of the population, radically changed course and began advocating for isolation, begun speaking of the virus in a much more serious manner. Bolsonaro has stood alone in continuing to refuse to do so. To this very day, he minimizes the public health dangers posed by the virus, emphasizes the need for Brazil to get back to work, and constantly mocks the seriousness of the disease.
As many of you may recall, in March, Bolsonaro, with a large entourage, visited Donald Trump at a state visit in Mar a Lago. And when Bolsonaro returned with an entourage of almost two dozen aides, it quickly was discovered that virtually all of them tested positive for the Corona virus, leading to suspicions that obviously Bolsonaro, who has been around them, who flew with them, must have it as well.
And yet Bolsonaro proclaimed on social media that his test was negative. He twice proclaimed that he tested negative, and yet he has refused to this very day, despite numerous requests, to show that test.
It is even more suspicious, given the fact that Fox News reported in late March that Bolsonaro tested positive for a Corona virus. And the reason Fox News reported that was because Bolsonaro son, the congressman, Eduardo Bolsonaro told Fox News that his father’s test had come back and was positive. This has obviously led to suspicions that Bolsonaro was lying when he said that he tested negative.
And the reason this is so important is not just because the public has a right to know about the health of its elected leaders, nor because lying to the public about a serious matter is an important aspect for the public to know. But also because Bolsonaro, in order to highlight what he believes to be the lack of seriousness of the disease, repeatedly left the quarantine that doctors had suggested he voluntarily undertake in order to leave the presidential palace and go greet hundreds of supporters, to go out into Brasilia, the nation’s capital, to markets and supermarkets and shopping malls, in order to mingle with large crowds of people. And obviously, if he was, in fact, infected with the virus, as he did that, it’s almost certain that he passed the virus to dozens, potentially hundreds of people. And only now has a large center-right newspaper in Brazil, Estadão, obtained a court ruling that Bolsonaro is required within 48 hours to show the actual exams on the grounds that the public has the right to know.
But all of that behavior – going out into crowds, mocking the virus is nothing more than a little flu or a cold, telling people who are under 60 that they have nothing to worry about – created a very serious scandal and paralyzed the country’s ability to manage the pandemic.
All at the same time, Bolsonaro’s health minister, who he chose, and who is a political ally but also a medical doctor, had been following science and giving daily press briefings in which he was contradicting Bolsonaro virtually on a daily basis, urging the country to remain in quarantine and isolation, to socially distance, to emphasize that the virus is very lethal and very dangerous. And most importantly of all, warning the country that the cures that Bolsonaro was touting were wildly unproven and offered no scientific hope because no studies had demonstrated their efficacy.
Those daily briefings caused this minister, Mandetta, to skyrocket in popularity at exactly the same time that Bolsonaro popularity was plummeting. And as a result of that popularity increasing as a result of his continuous contradicting a Bolsonaro, because he was following the science as a medical doctor, Bolsonaro two weeks ago fired his popular health minister, which only worsened his political problems even further and made the country even less capable of handling the pandemic.
Even before this pandemic, Brazil’s public health care system was virtually dysfunctional. People who have heart attacks or strokes often wait hours, if not longer, in waiting rooms of emergency rooms and often die without ever even being treated. That’s the public health system in Brazil prior to the pandemic.
Needless to say, the ability of hospitals, public hospitals, to manage a pandemic of this sort, that is spreading especially throughout very dense poor favelas in large cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, states in the northern part of Brazil, including the capital city of Amazonas, Manaus, are now in collapse in terms of their health care system. We’re seeing mass graves. All of this is really creating a grave public health problem for Brazil that is yet to reach the epidemiological peak of this virus.
Some studies show that Brazil is undercounting by at least seven times the number of confirmed cases and the number of fatalities due to covid-19 because of the lack of task. They only count confirmed cases and deaths when the test comes back positive, it takes two weeks for the tests to come back. Oftentimes people die before they’re even tested. The official numbers dramatically are undercounting the real numbers.
And yet, even the official numbers are starting to put Brazil, not just on the Italy and Spain and United States curve, but worse than that. And the country is realizing that weeks and weeks of messaging from Bolsonaro that this is nothing more than a flu, that it’s just a little cold. His behavior and going out into the public even while he was likely infected, encouraging other people to do so, has really placed hundreds of millions of people in Brazil, the 220 million people who live in this country, in very severe danger.
The crises that exploded this week in terms of corruption and criminality on the part of Bolsonaro’s family has obviously exacerbated Bolsonaro is very tenuous political standing. In fact, it knocked the Corona virus pandemic off the front pages for days, even as Brazil was finally arriving at the high end of the curve.
Over the weekend, Sergio Moro Bolsonaro as justice minister announced that he was quitting, and when he announced that he was quitting, he convened a press conference and lobbed very serious accusations at President Bolsonaro, specifically accusing him of trying to interfere in ongoing criminal investigations, many of which are aimed at Bolsonaro as close political allies and his sons and even Bolsonaro himself.
Some of the most serious scandals involve his senator son, Flavio Bolsonaro, his eldest son, who has long been a member of the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, and then was elected along with Bolsonaro’s presidential bid in 2018 to the federal Senate.
In March of 2018, as many of you probably recall, the African-American LGBT city councilwoman, who was raised in one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas, Marielle Franco, was brutally assassinated on the streets of Rio de Janeiro at 9:30 at night.
[AL JAZEERA NEWS REPORT ON MARIELLE’S ASSASSINATION]
Reporter: Despite the music and dancing, this is not a happy occasion. Protesters rally in the streets of São Paulo to mourn the murder of a prominent politician once described as a tireless social warrior.
The biggest marches were in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, where tens of thousands of Brazilians gathered outside the city’s council. This is the woman whose killing has provoked such outrage: Marielle Franco. The 38 year old councilor, has become a voice for gay and black rights, as well as fighting against police violence in poor areas of the city. Police officials say she was deliberately targeted. Franco was shot four times in the head and her driver was also killed. Her ass