If you thought the United States has become massively divided over the coronavirus pandemic, you should take a look at Brazil, where the situation is even worse. This week, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was formally accused of crimes against humanity by a group of Brazilian senators who asserted he intentionally allowed thousands of people to die from Covid-19.
To many Brazilians, fascism is not some distant memory of years gone by.
Additionally, The New York Times reported that a roughly 1,200-page report by 11 senators — seven of whom are Bolsonaro’s political opponents — initially said it would seek a “mass homicide” charge against the first-term president, who is considered by many to be one of the world’s most vocal Covid deniers, but that charge was dropped from the final report.
Clearly politically motivated, the report is just the latest attempt to hold Bolsonaro accountable for a pandemic in Brazil that has seen close to 22 million coronavirus cases, more than 600,000 deaths and a vaccination rate that still hovers around 50 percent.
But, taking a page from the Donald Trump playbook, Brazil’s president has been all-in on what has become an apparently effective strategy for modern-day authoritarians.
Last week, Bolsonaro said he didn’t want to be “bored” by questions about Brazil’s death toll — the highest in Latin America and the second-highest in the world, right behind the U.S. His popularity continues to decline, suggesting his positions about masks (he doesn’t want them), vaccines (he’s not their biggest advocate) and hydroxychloroquine (he supported it after testing positive for Covid) aren’t winning over the hearts and minds of many Brazilians.
He also isn’t winning over Brazilians when it comes to issues that will play into his re-election hopes next year. Inflation is high, jobs are scarce and people are hungry.
“Data shows that 116 million Brazilians live without full and permanent access to food and of these, 19 million go hungry on a daily basis,” Latino Rebels contributor Raphael Tsavkko Garcia wrote Oct. 5. “This sad reality ends up being left aside, hidden but also exacerbated by the political crisis ravaging the country.”
This political crisis has seen pro-Bolsonaro supporters call for a military coup in a country that witnessed a brutal 21-year military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, an era Bolsonaro has publicly supported. To many Brazilians, fascism is not some distant memory of years gone by. It was active less than 40 years ago, and Bolsonaro is a direct link to a time that Brazil’s right wing still recalls fondly.
This is why the political battle to end Bolsonaro’s reach is a serious matter for those who never want to revisit the country’s tragic past. So will the 1,200-page report accusing Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity be what finally causes his downfall?
The answer is no.
As expected, in a politically divisive universe where it is easy to stick with your side and denounce the other, Bolsonaro will survive the fallout, just like he did when calls for his impeachment began during the pandemic.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, won the 2018 presidential election in spite of his candidacy. Before he became president, Brazil’s left wing ruled the country for 13 of the previous 15 years. Bolsonaro was a byproduct of Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 19-month sentence on a corruption conviction, plus the right-wing campaign to destroy the left. It was easy to run on an “anti-communist” platform when those on the left provided you with political capital and acceptance.
You think Trump has used social media for disinformation? Bolsonaro made it an art.
And like Trump (although some would say he is way more dangerous than Trump ever was), once Bolsonaro was in power, he made sure he kept following the authoritarian textbook: degrade your opponents, lie if you have to, show no mercy and when you are in trouble — like Bolsonaro is now — begin to claim that your re-election bid is already being hijacked and the Big Brazilian Election Steal will be happening in 2022. You think Trump has used social media for disinformation? Bolsonaro made it an art.
What makes this more dangerous for Brazil is that, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro has the support of the country’s military. It’s not far-fetched to predict that if Bolsonaro does lose next year, he will be calling on his supporters to “save democracy” and “protect Brazil from communism.” This a country that has already been ruled by the military for more than two decades.
Still there are moments when, for all the macho anti-Covid bluster Bolsonaro keeps spouting, his presidency can be almost comical. Take, for example, last month in New York City, when Bolsonaro attended the United Nations summit and had to eat pizza on the street with his health minister because of the city’s vaccine mandates. His health minister, Bolsonaro’s fourth since the pandemic started, tested positive for Covid right after.
Even with moments like these, Bolsonaro’s political opponents are fully aware that the current president of Brazil is not a laughing matter. The report out this week confirms that. (Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing and had mocked the report’s findings in advance.)
So far, there is no indication that Brazil and the rest of the world will see less of Bolsonaro. In fact, they will likely see more of him, and in the middle of a pandemic that has led to more than 600,000 dead Brazilians, he will keep fighting for his survival, no matter the means, no matter the methods.
Will it lead to another dictatorship in Brazil? There’s no need; the dictatorship is already there. No 1,200-page report will stop it.