By: Luisa Portugal
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro causes political chaos, leaving Brazil’s future more uncertain than ever. For the first time in weeks, on April 24th the front pages of local newspapers in Brazil were covered with news not directly related to the pandemic. Not because the crisis was winding down (still in an upwards trajectory), but because news of Sérgio Moro’s resignation from his position as Minister of Justice was so unexpected, it made even the most severe health crisis of the century take a back seat.
As a former judge, Moro first gained notoriety in Brazil during ‘Operation Car Wash’, an expansive investigation into Brazil’s corruption schemes. This investigation resulted in the arrest of several of the country’s most notorious politicians, such as José Dirceu, a former vice-president, and Sérgio Cabral, Rio de Janeiro´s ex-governor. Moro was the judge assigned to preside over the trial, which ultimately led to his reputation as a symbol of the fight against corruption. The operation gained more publicity when former president Luis ‘Lula’ Inácio da Silva was implicated in the corruption scheme.
During Inácio da Silva’s presidency from ‘03-’10, 21 million people climbed out of poverty, while economic growth hit record high numbers. Nonetheless, Brazilian citizens could never accept the idea of Lula in power despite a rise in the economy. An ex-metalworker with little education, Lula first appeared in the public eyes leading workers’ protests during the Military Dictatorship that dominated the country for more than twenty years. As his notability continued to rise, many conservative middle and upper class citizens feared his left-wing origins and distrusted his Workers’ Party.
Considering this, it was very opportune that Moro was able to convict Lula for corruption weeks before the 2017 elections, when Lula was expected to run again for president—seven years after he left the position. His main opposition was then-congressman and current President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-military officer that worked in Congress for more than thirty years. Bolsonaro was the personification of an “anti-Lula”, with a speech that included unabashed support for the military dictatorship, criticism of human rights, and a strong anti-corruption stance. With Lula out of the running due to his guilty conviction, Bolsonaro won the election and promptly nominated Moro as Minister of Justice. When scandals began to plague Bolsonaro’s administration, the former judge became something of a last bastion of morality and honesty in Brazilian politics (never mind allegations that Moro may have acted in less-than-legal ways himself).
Pandemic vs Politics
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Brazil in March of this year, things became more politically complicated. Bolsonaro’s science-defying speech about ignoring social isolation rules cost him support among the population and former political allies. As his approval ratings declined, his message became increasingly radicalized, going as far as to fire Henrique Mandetta, the Minister of Health who was being universally praised for his coronavirus response. Even Mandetta’s firing, however, could not prepare the country for the events that would follow.
On April 24th, Sérgio Moro, the former Minister of Justice, offered his resignation after the public learned Bolsonaro had fired Maurício Valeixo, the head of the federal police was being removed from his position. It was previously disclosed that the federal police were investigating illegal operations involving Bolsonaro’s family, but the idea that the president would so blatantly interfere with a federal investigation was so far-fetched. Moments after announcing his resignation, Moro went on national television to confirm that he was quitting due to Bolsonaro’s unacceptable interference with the work of the federal police.
President Bolsonaro himself went on to address the country in a speech that will be remembered as one of the most bizarre moments in Brazil’s political history. In the address, he attempted to discredit Moro and implicate his former ally in a conspiracy theory in order to cover up a murder attempt against him. As he continued his speech, Bolsonaro managed to insert comments about a public swimming pool’s heating system, the National Institute of Metrology, the fact that his mother-in-law faked her age in her i.d., and lewd remarks about his youngest son’s sexual prowess.
In the days that followed, the Attorney General announced a federal investigation on the president based on Moro’s allegations. As part of the investigations, the Supreme Court authorized the release of a video that exposed a meeting between the president and his cabinet. In the video, an exasperated Bolsonaro openly admits to wanting to interfere with the works of the police, while also making threats to the press and clamoring for an armed population that could defend his government from internal threats. The release of the video accentuated the divide of the country, with Bolsonaro’s most extreme supporters gathering around him, while his popularity continues to decline among the general population. To complicate matters further, the Health Minister that replaced Mandetta quitted less than a month after his nomination, leaving the country’s Health Ministry headless.
As Bolsonaro’s presidency becomes increasingly unsustainable, two paths emerge out of the political crisis. The first option is the one defended by Bolsonaro himself. With increased frequency, Bolsonaro has been gathering his supporters in manifestations against Congress and the Supreme Court. His Secretary of Security, a retired general, warned that further probes from the Supreme Court on Bolsonaro’s activities could have ‘unpredictable consequences’, which gives weight to Bolsonaro’s musings about a military intervention to shut down the Supreme Court and Congress. While celebrated by his most extreme supporters, the prospect of a military intervention is particularly frightening in a country that never held perpetrators accountable for the crimes committed during a violent, oppressive, twenty-years-long Military Dictatorship.
The second path out of this crisis is through an impeachment. Claims for it mount in Congress, but initiating a political process of such magnitude in the middle of a pandemic can be more complicated than it appears. Furthermore, an impeachment would put Hamilton Mourão, a retired general and Bolsonaro’s vice-president, in the president’s seat, still leaving an opening for the Military to take power of the country and enact their authoritarian traditions. Nonetheless, this is the only acceptable path going forward for Brazil.
While the political crisis deepens, the pandemic takes a stronger hold of the country, propelling it to second place in number of deaths, with no signs of slowing down. Instead of pushing for social isolation measures that could prevent the spread of the disease, Bolsonaro and his administration chose to hide coronavirus related data, in a desperate attempt to control the narrative. The longer Bolsonaro remains in power, the more lives will be lost and the fewer we will know about it. According to the Brazilian Institute of Lawyers (IAB), Bolsonaro committed what is considered a crime of responsibility under Brazilian law in two instances: first, when he disregarded WHO’s recommendations and endangered the lives of millions of Brazilians; and second, when he joined manifestations urging for the disbandment of Congress. As stated in our Constitution, crimes of responsibility are one of the possible reasons to impeach a president. In this case, it is the only chance Brazil has to overcome the pandemic while also uphold its democracy.
Luisa Portugal is a first-year MPA student at NYU Wagner specializing in International Development Management & Policy. She earned an LLM in Constitutional Law and Theory in Brazil. Her main topics of interest are international development, climate change and the coronavirus crisis. Luisa will serve as Co-Chair of Events for the Alliance for Climate Change and Environment (ACE) in the upcoming year. She is also the co-founder of the ‘What’s up with Coronavirus Policy’ discussion group.
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