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Jair Bolsonaro is facing a political reckoning in Brazil. How far will it go?

Brazil saw big protests last week, and an inquiry is showing just how deeply Bolsonaro botched the pandemic response.

Anti-government protest in Sao Paulo
Demonstrators gather during a protest against the government’s Covid-19 response on Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo on May 29, 2021.
Photo by Cristina Szucinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The panelaços — the banging of pots and pans — became a socially distanced way for Brazilians to protest President Jair Bolsonaro during the pandemic. But last weekend, a year into a prolonged coronavirus crisis, hundreds of thousands marched in more than 200 cities across Brazil to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment.

Signs bore slogans, such as “fora Bolsonaro” (“Bolsonaro out”) and “genocida,” a reference to Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the pandemic, which has left more than 460,000 Brazilians dead, one of the worst death rates in the world.

Protesters blame Bolsonaro for it. Their case is now being backed up by a formal Senate inquiry into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. The hearings have become a public accounting of Bolsonaro’s negligence — including testimony from a Pfizer executive who said the pharmaceutical company reached out to Brazil about procuring doses last year, and Bolsonaro’s government didn’t respond for two months.

These hearings are taking place as Brazil still averages around 2,000 coronavirus deaths daily, with many bracing for third wave, and the public-health system is battered to the point of near-collapse. Brazil’s vaccination campaign is chaos, and what is working is largely happening in spite of Bolsonaro. A little more than 10 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Opinion polls suggest support for impeachment is growing: 57 percent are now in favor, up 11 percentage points from three months ago.

All of this would suggest Bolsonaro’s year-long pandemic blunder is finally catching up to him along with plenty of other scandals, from those involving his family to his environmental minister who was allegedly smuggling illegal timber.

Whether this is a real reckoning for Bolsonaro — one that could truly push him from power — is the larger question. The anger and frustration are real, at the handling of the pandemic, at the economic situation, and plenty of other issues.

But experts said many of the groups mobilizing against him — including women, students, and labor groups — already largely opposed the president. Bolsonaro himself has remained defiant, drawing on the unwavering support of his base. And impeachment is a tricky question, in part because Bolsonaro is up for reelection in just over a year.

“I think this is a kind of catharsis movement, you know — ‘I cannot stay at home seeing this anymore. So I prefer to take some risk and go to the streets,’” said Arthur Ituassu, a professor of political communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro.

“But if this will have political consequences,” he added, “I don’t know.”

The growing push to impeach Bolsonaro, explained

Brazil’s coronavirus situation is dire, but it’s not surprising given that Bolsonaro downplayed the pandemic from the beginning.

He called it the “little flu.” He shrugged at the country’s mounting death toll by saying “we’ll all die one day.” He undermined governors’ attempts to enforce social distancing and other measures, insisting economies reopen. He used a homophobic slur to refer to those who wore masks. He has continued to tout the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and other unproven drugs as coronavirus cures.

When it comes to Covid-19 vaccinations, Bolsonaro has sowed misinformation and doubt. In December, he said of possible side effects on the Pfizer vaccine, “If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem.” He strongly criticized Chinese-made vaccines, including bashing his own government’s deal to acquire the CoronaVac vaccine. “The Brazilian people WON’T BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG,” he wrote on social media last year. Ultimately, Bolsonaro had to backtrack early this year and thank China for fast-tracking the vaccine, as Brazil faced a deadly wave of the pandemic, with few vaccines available.

João Nunes, senior lecturer of international relations at the University of York, said Bolsonaro’s “denialist approach” to the pandemic contributed to its severity, which led to disarray and lack of coordination. “Denialism, botching the vaccination program, continuing to support this myth of precocious treatment based on hydroxychloroquine, denying and going against regulations of the public health authorities promoting social gatherings without masks,” Nunes said, enumerating Bolsonaro’s misdeeds.

Just how serious these misdeeds are is being examined by a parliamentary inquiry in Brazil’s Senate. The investigation is broadly looking into the government’s failures during the pandemic. It is also examining the government’s blunders in its vaccination strategy, including procurement.

The committee has existed for about a month. The testimony has been damning, essentially showing that Bolsonaro planned to pursue a policy of herd immunity, a strategy that not only prolonged the crisis in Brazil but likely gave rise to new variants.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Brazil’s former health minister who had backed social distancing and so found himself quickly fired by Bolsonaro last year, told the committee that the government had no communication plan. “There was no way to do a campaign, they didn’t want to do it,” he said. Mandetta provided a letter, dated March 28, 2020, urging Bolsonaro to follow the scientific recommendations of the health ministry, which the president largely ignored.

Bolsonaro’s former communications director, Fábio Wajngarten, testified that letters from Pfizer offering to make deals with Brazil on vaccine doses went unanswered for months in the fall of 2020. The president of Pfizer for Latin America, Carlos Murillo, also testified that the company had begun outreach to the Brazilian government in May 2020, with two formal offers made in August — both of which went unanswered.

The company sent another request directly to Bolsonaro and the health minister, which languished until at least December. Murillo said that if Bolsonaro had struck a deal in August 2020, Pfizer could have delivered 18.5 million doses to the country by June 2021. Instead, Brazil and Pfizer didn’t strike a deal until March of this year; as it stands now, Brazil has received fewer than 6 million doses from Pfizer.

The hearings are a political spectacle, with senators accusing Bolsonaro’s allies of lying and trying to shield him. Bolsonaro’s defenders, meanwhile, are accusing the hearing of being politically motivated; though on this, they’re not totally wrong. With Brazil’s elections approaching, this public record of Bolsonaro’s dereliction is a potent tool for the opposition.

But it is also a legitimate, and some argue necessary, fact-finding mission. If the outcome is incriminating for Bolsonaro, it is largely because the evidence is bearing that out.

Many of these revelations are not exactly earth-shattering or even all that new, having already leaked out in news reports. And Bolsonaro’s public record alone makes apparent how he trivialized the pandemic.

But the difference, experts say, is that it is all happening in one place. Witnesses are also under oath. Even those who are trying to defend Bolsonaro are mostly just succeeding in contradicting themselves or highlighting the ineptitude of the government.

“I think it’s really laid naked what a lot of people suspected, what a lot of reports have said; they are now seeing the actors who were involved, who were in the room,” said Colin Snider, assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Texas at Tyler.

Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the pandemic has created ripple effects in other areas, including the economy and public health care system, all of it increasing the public’s frustration and dissatisfaction. And as some of his critics have pointed out, his mismanagement of the vaccination campaign has made it all but impossible for Brazil to emerge swiftly from this Covid-19 crisis, an irony for a guy who claimed he didn’t want to shut down the economy.

“The record that is being put together of incompetence, negligence, bad faith, [and] political opportunism in the Bolsonaro administration dealing with the pandemic is overwhelming,” Paulo Barrozo, an associate law professor at Boston College, said.

“But I don’t think that is going to lead to an impeachment Congres,” Barrozo added. “I think there is a record that is being built for historical purposes and also to be used in the next presidential election.”

Bolsonaro’s coronavirus record is damning. But maybe don’t expect impeachment just yet.

Bolsonaro has about 130 impeachment petitions against him. Some predate the pandemic and cover all kinds of offenses. But the pandemic and Bolsonaro’s handling of it have galvanized the public.

“I do think we are now maybe in the worst moment of Bolsonaro’s government,” Pontifícia Universidade Católica’s Ituassu said.

But it might not be enough for impeachment — at least not yet. The big thing right now is timing: Impeachment could be a long, drawn-out affair, and Brazil’s elections are just over a year away. If Bolsonaro continues to do nothing about the coronavirus and the crisis continues, voters may kick him out of the job anyway.

Bolsonaro is doing what he always does in the face of criticism: doubling down. Just this week, Bolsonaro offered to host the Copa America tournament, after the original hosts, Argentina and Colombia, pulled out, because of a coronavirus surge and unrest, respectively. “Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been saying, I regret the deaths, but we have to live,” Bolsonaro said at the announcement. Brazil is still seeing about 60,000 Covid-19 cases a day and around 2,000 deaths.

The attraction for Bolsonaro supporters is partly the doubling down. Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump, and like Trump, Bolsonaro has a steady and unflaggingly loyal base that is, give or take, somewhere around a third of the voting population. The more Bolsonaro feels under attack by the political establishment or the media or his critics, the more he goes after those institutions and the more that fires up his supporters.

“He’s lost support. But what has remained is very loyal,” Barrozo said. “So in a way, he is solidifying, crystallizing, [and] firming his bases by doubling down.”

And the thing about impeachment is that it can be easily sold to his base as, to borrow a phrase from a Bolsonaro pal, “the greatest witch-hunt in the history of our country” — which is exactly what Bolsonaro and his backers feed off.

Another big factor, experts say, is that Bolsonaro still retains support in Brazil’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies (kind of like the House of Representatives). They are the bodies that are ultimately going to have to take up impeachment. This isn’t ideological or even about party loyalty; in fact, Bolsonaro doesn’t even have a party affiliation right now. Instead, it’s about perks.

The thing standing in the way is the Centrão (Big Center), a bloc of centrist voting parties in Brazil’s Congress. Bolsonaro has basically had to build alliances with these members of Congress, who agree to work with Bolsonaro in exchange for the president basically giving them what they want.

“Bolsonaro has actually gotten pretty good at handing out goodies — like pork-barrel projects — for the members of Congress to bring home the bacon and show their voters that they’re doing their job,” said David Samuels, distinguished McKnight University professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “And so they’re also happy to see Bolsonaro twist in the wind as long as he keeps the spigots of money going.”

Experts said it’s going to take a lot for them to basically turn their back on those goodies — whether they’re cushy jobs or beneficial projects. An investigation by the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo found that Bolsonaro’s government set aside about 20 billion reais ($3.9 billion) for what are basically pork projects.

“The question for impeachment becomes this: Does popular will and senatorial and deputy outrage turn to the point where enough are willing to abandon that sort of legislative sway over the national political agenda for the sake of impeachment?” Snider of the University of Texas said.

Right now, the answer looks like a big “no.”

As experts said, because these alliances aren’t born from any real loyalty, they can shift pretty quickly. But politicians also want to know exactly which way the wind is blowing before they abandon Bolsonaro.

So while Bolsonaro is unpopular, he may need to get even more unpopular. The street protests matter, but they must grow even more massive and consistent. The anti-Bolsonaro coalition on the streets may need to widen to include more centrist and center-right people — folks who may have backed Bolsonaro before but now unequivocally reject him.

Otherwise, lawmakers are content to just let Bolsonaro self-destruct. “I do think they prefer a weak Bolsonaro more than anything else,” Ituassu said.

That includes a weak Bolsonaro in the October 2022 election, who could very likely be facing off against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who just got the clear from courts to be able to run again after corruption charges had barred him from running. Early polls suggest if Lula and Bolsonaro were to face off in a runoff — both polarizing populists in their own way — Lula would win handily. (If Bolsonaro, sigh, accepts the results — but that’s a crisis for another day.)

So there is a sense of just riding this out until the election. That comes with its own risks for the country, as it continues to battle the pandemic, and those who want to see Bolsonaro defeated. Bolsonaro is not going to change — no one expects him to suddenly become a deft manager of the pandemic — but circumstances around him might. The economy could bounce back, and the vaccination campaign could gain momentum. If that happens, Bolsonaro’s coronavirus record might not be as potent a force in October 2022.

Pressure against Bolsonaro is building. But so far, nothing Bolsonaro has done has really threatened his position or destroyed his loyal base of support. The question may not be whether a reckoning is coming for Bolsonaro but whether it will actually be enough.

“This is one more element in place that could lead to Bolsonaro’s downfall,” Jessica Rich, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said. “I don’t think they are yet all in place. But this is a real escalation of the threat against him.”

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