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Will Bolsonaro Be Held Responsible for Brazil’s COVID-19 Disaster?

Jair Bolsonaro has overseen one of the most disastrous COVID-19 responses in the world. A new congressional inquiry into his misconduct faces long odds — but could help expose the disaster to the Brazilian people ahead of the election against former president Lula.

President Jair Bolsonaro removes his mask to speak to journalists during a press conference amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Rio de Janeiro on May 5, 2021. (Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What can be done against a government that is arguably committing genocide by incentivizing the spread of COVID-19 among its own population? This is the dilemma facing Brazil.

President Jair Bolsonaro has congressional immunity, and revoking it would require a two-thirds majority in the most right-leaning Congress in Brazil’s history. Before that, Bolsonaro would need to be indicted by Augusto Aras, a submissive attorney general who dreams of a Supreme Court appointment in the next few months.

Though Bolsonaro is tailing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the latest polls by eighteen points, the elections are over a year away. As Lula’s popularity rises, Bolsonaro ups the ante on his eternal campaign mode. Last Sunday, Bolsonaro held a motorcade around Rio de Janeiro with the help of state public funds and over a thousand policemen.

In such a bleak landscape, where major protests that could shift the political balance away from the right-wing president have not even been attempted, the last institutional resort to create political momentum and establish criminal liability for Bolsonaro lies with the Commission of Parliamentary Inquiry (Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito [CPI]).

The commission is a tool for the minority in Congress to expose and denounce the abuses of the majority. Akin to a US Congress investigative hearing, it serves the purpose of being a hybrid tool of both political and inquisitorial powers. It only requires a one-third of either house of Congress to be instituted.

Jair Bolsonaro heads a motorcade rally with his supporters in Rio de Janeiro, sparking numerous counterdemonstrations, on May 23, 2021. (ANDRE BORGES/AFP via Getty Images)

The possibility of such an inquiry was first instituted in the 1934 Brazilian Constitution, but whenever the country went through a period of autocratic governance, the right for Congress to investigate wrongdoings also went away.

Given the general instability and institutional chaos of Brazilian politics, when Brazil returned to democracy in 1989, it was only a matter of time until such an inquiry was needed. The first major CPI, the Paulo Cesar Farias inquiry, was brought by the opposition when Pedro Collor de Mello, brother of then president Fernando Collor de Mello, went public (supposedly after Fernando tried to sleep with his wife) about his brother’s dealings with Farias, a shady used-car salesman turned political fixer who channeled dirty money to fund Collor’s presidential campaign and his lavish lifestyle as president.

The inquiry had the power to investigate the Farias’s private finances and managed to gather enough physical evidence and political will to impeach Collor a few months later. This dual element — both investigative and political — is central to the logic of a congressional inquiry. But gathering damning evidence may not be enough; the proceedings must change the public perception of the crisis, or it will be a pyrrhic victory for the congresspeople that spearhead it.

A good example of such an investigation is the CPI das Milícias (CPI of Militias), run by then Rio de Janeiro state deputy and now Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) federal deputy Marcelo Freixo, who gathered a mountain of evidence for the state prosecutors to imprison over five hundred members of Rio’s paramilitary militias. The CPI also changed the public perspective that these groups of military, police, and firefighters that charged poorer communities for protection and controlled services in the region were a lesser evil when compared to the drug dealers, but it never managed to shift the political landscape to a point where a perennial fight against those criminal organizations became state policy.

Although Freixo’s work created a massive reshuffle in paramilitary power, it has not weakened the whole movement, as Bolsonaro himself has links to various militia groups. Several family members of known death-squad leaders and gun smugglers have worked under members of the Bolsonaro family, and they have a long pattern of clear-as-day money laundering with those underlings.

So, when a CPI is used to tackle high-profile corruption or other types of public mismanagement or criminal activity, it is usually a valorous and useful tool. It may not be the panacea that so many hope for, but a well-timed CPI will have a significant impact on Brazilian politics. And though there is plenty of competition, from the criminal dealings of Ricardo Salles, minister of the environment, to the many shady dealings of Bolsonaro and his politician sons, 2021 Brazil has no higher-profile issue than how the Bolsonaro Government has mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Pro-COVID Administration

Brazil’s COVID-19 situation is dire. It currently has the third-most deaths per million inhabitants in countries with over 10 million people, and is ninth in overall deaths, even though it has a far younger population than any other country on that grim list. There are no national guidelines, no airport and border screening protocols, nothing. Instead, Bolsonaro still advocates disproven medications to prevent COVID. The government continues to sabotage state government attempts to contain the virus and continually holds public rallies in open violation of any attempt to socially distance.

In reality, according to researchers at São Paulo University, there is much evidence to support the theory that Bolsonaro and his goons are enacting pro-virus policy as they still seek herd immunity.

The COVID-19 congressional inquiry was not easy to launch. Even though Randolfe Rodrigues, one of the few left-leaning senators, managed to gather the thirty-one signatures needed to begin proceedings, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco, a Bolsonaro ally, refused to allow it — a move which is, by any standard, completely illegal. Senators had to resort to the Supreme Court to force the inquiry to be opened, which delayed the investigation for almost two months.

The proceedings are not being primarily handled by the Left. In fact, this is much more a moment in the sun for veteran journeyman politicians, the kind who sell their support to whomever is in power at the time.

The most prestigious post in the inquiry commission is the one of reporter, who has the responsibility to write the inquiry’s final report, with all its conclusions and suggestions to indict, and is given unlimited time to ask questions to the witnesses and people of interest.

Renan Calheiros, one of the most skilled and astute politicians in Brazil, took the post. Through means both fair and foul, Calheiros has managed to be part of almost every democratic government, first working with right-winger Collor, later becoming minister for center-right Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and finally being head of Senate for the center-left presidencies of Lula and Dilma Rousseff.

A master of the dark arts of Brazilian politics, Calheiros is not a man one should cross. Yet that is just what Bolsonaro did in 2019. He assured Calheiros would have no opposition in his bid to be the head of Senate as he secretly schemed to elect a man of his trust, an inexpressive newcomer from the northern state of Amapá, Davi Alcolumbre. Bolsonaro did something frowned upon in Brasília — he went back on his word. As the late MF Doom wisely put it, “‘It don’t make no sense, what happened to the loyalty? Honor amongst crooks, trust amongst royalty.” The president’s constant backstabbing of allies would prove he is not royalty and has no honor, reducing his own capacity to wield power and pass his reactionary agenda through Congress.

Calheiros, who was already weary of the negative effects of Dilma’s impeachment in 2016, had one too many reasons to quietly wait for an opportunity to strike back, regain his prestige, and show he still wields significant power. This is a chance for Calheiros to take his revenge.

Pro-government senators attempted to broaden the scope of the inquiry and turn it into a vendetta against opposition governors and mayors, but they miscalculated their numbers and the scope was kept as intended: investigate the misdeeds of the federal government throughout the pandemic and the crisis in Manaus, where many Brazilians lost their lives due to a contagion boom and subsequent lack of basic medical equipment, oxygen in particular.

Refusing to Take Responsibility

After three weeks of depositions, the political mood in Brazil has already changed significantly. After the reporter, Calheiros, finishes his question period (which lasts about two hours), every senator in the commission and their alternates have 15 minutes each. The time can be used either to ask questions or to grandstand about the issue in play — an unusual use of deposition time that many who oppose Bolsonaro opt to take, for reasons I can’t quite understand.

Bolsonaro’s allies are mounting less-enthused defenses by the day. Many are not even present for the whole proceeding, limiting their involvement to a few questions sent directly by the presidency — making sure everyone can tell they are reading a script — and disappearing soon after.

All of the support for President Bolsonaro has come into question recently, as a billion-dollar corruption scandal begins to unravel. Senators and federal deputies who support the president seem to have access to a budget of their own, to be spent in cities where they think they can get votes in 2022, or just in places where their families have businesses.

Former head of senate Davi Alcolumbre spent part of his secret allotment in the southern state of Paraná, over 3,000 km away from the state he represents, Amapá. So, when the alt-right Donald Trump fanboy Fábio Wajngarten, former presidential secretary of communication, was deposed and started to melt down on national TV, there wasn’t a senator in sight to save his skin.

Wajngarten was summoned because he gave an interview to a major weekly magazine saying the country had no Pfizer vaccines because of the sheer incompetence of the health minister, General Pazuello. When pressed about it, he denied ever saying such things, claiming that the magazine was taking his words out of context. The magazine promptly divulged the tapes from the interview, just in time for one of the senators to play it for him during the hearing.

After clearly committing perjury, he never quite recovered. Every time a senator reminded him that he should be arrested at the end of the hearing you could see his body twitching in despair and the fear in his eyes. Both senators, Renan Calheiros and Fabiano Contarato, a former police detective and left-wing senator, vigorously argued for his arrest. But the president of the inquiry, Senator Omar Aziz from the COVID-stricken state of Amazonas, refused to do so, arguing Wajngarten was far too insignificant to warrant such an extreme measure and that his arrest could derail the proceedings.

Former communications secretary Fabio Wajngarten speaks during a session of the congressional inquiry investigating the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on May 12, 2021. (SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images)

His point would be proven the day after, when a pro-Bolsonaro senator moved to arrest the CEO of Pfizer Latin America for perjury he didn’t even commit. Had Wajngarten been arrested, surely the senator would not quit until the Pfizer executive was also jailed.

Wajngarten was in such a precarious situation that senator Flávio Bolsonaro, the eldest son of the president (who is accused of numerous corruption scams involving Rio’s militias), showed up and attempted to cause the deposition to be stopped, calling Calheiros a bum and telling him to go fuck himself in the process. That should and would be enough to impeach Flávio in normal circumstances, but Brazil is about as far from normal as a country not in a civil war can be.

Another issue at play is how Brazil’s pandemic policy was decided to appease foreign leaders, namely Donald Trump. When Ernesto Araújo, former minister of foreign affairs and Trump sycophant, was deposed, he denied any alignment in Brazil’s COVID-19 policy, but could not explain why Trump was so generous in sending millions of hydroxychloroquine tablets yet offered no help in vaccine negotiations.

Araújo also could not explain why vaccine inputs are constantly delayed in Chinese airports. He also could not see any relation between that and the fact his government and himself have consistently called the virus an in vitro fabrication by Chinese authorities to subjugate the West. Neither could he explain why his office spent half a million reais (US$96,000) in a two-day trip to Israel to buy a miracle nasal spray that wasn’t even in human trial phase, or why the president’s personal bodyguard was part of the delegation. But he was proud to boast that he never thanked the Venezuelan government for sending a shipment of oxygen to Manaus that saved the lives of many Brazilians.

During the pandemic, all four ministers of health were deposed, and both the current, Marcelo Queiroga, and the former, active-duty army general Eduardo Pazuello, will soon be recalled. Both will be confronted with the lies they dished in their depositions. But neither could be arrested for perjury because the current minister has immunity, and the former had a habeas corpus preventing any arrests.

General Pazuello spent the most time in office and thus supplied the most-awaited deposition. Pazuello — a self-proclaimed “logistics specialist” with no medical background who, when asked about basic information about the COVID transmission cycle, could provide no answers — later admitted he hadn’t researched the subject at all. Pazuello also struggled to explain why he, a logistics expert, could not come to terms with the necessary logistics to distribute the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be kept at -80ºC, nor why he let over eight million rapid tests expire or why the vaccines meant for Amazonas went to the wrong state.

The most damning part of his deposition was when he was asked about the Manaus crisis by the two senators from Amazonas. He would not admit that the state had over a week with intermittent supply of oxygen, and could not provide a credible explanation to why he never sent a plane to pick up the donated oxygen from Venezuela, making them haul the shipment by truck over a thousand kilometers. He refused to admit he was notified that the state had an oxygen shortage on January 7, even when asked by people who were there managing the crisis alongside him, claiming he was only made aware of the shortage two days later, when he arrived in Manaus. He refused to own up to any responsibility over the death of almost 300,000 people during his tenure.

In three short weeks, it has been firmly established that the Bolsonaro government had no interest in buying vaccines, having snubbed offers from Pfizer on at least ten separate occasions. The official excuse for that came from General Pazuello: the vaccines were too expensive at $10 a dose. That was the same reason given for the country’s refusal to sign with COVAX Facility, the WHO vaccine scheme, for the maximum coverage of 50 percent of the population.

But the real reason is that they had no intention of buying any vaccines at all. They believed the only true immunity came from catching the disease. That is why they pushed for opening the country like nothing was happening and tried to shove hydroxychloroquine and other unproven snake-oil cures down people’s throats. The drugs were to be a sort of social placebo, to give people the necessary confidence to go about their business.

They only stopped stalling on all potential vaccine deals after one of Bolsonaro’s main rivals, the right-wing governor of São Paulo, João Doria, announced the State of São Paulo public health company Butantã signed a partnership agreement with Sinopharm to produce its vaccine locally. This is the most baffling part of it all. Brazil was and is still capable of mass-producing vaccines; its state companies already produce almost every single vaccine administered in the country.

But since no preparations were made, local production was pushed months down the line. Fiocruz, a federal institution, only established an international partnership with AstraZeneca in September 2020, and had to build an entire new plant to produce the vaccine. Brazilian vaccines only began to be locally produced in April 2021. Therefore, 85 percent of all vaccines administered in Brazil so far have come from the Butantã partnership with Sinopharm.

Bolsonaro’s Fault

The inquiry is helping to cement the idea in the public’s mind that the sanitary hellscape we live in Brazil was caused by the president himself. Less than 30 percent of Brazilians believed that in January; now the number has risen to 48 percent.

Bolsonaro is behaving in increasingly desperate ways, invoking weekly public gatherings that attest to his decreasing popularity. His weekly “live” broadcast from his Facebook and YouTube accounts is now heavily moderated or have no space for comments at all. Even in his theatrical cercadinho (playpen), his selected herd of supporters are only asking rehearsed questions.

Sensing that the president is at his weakest so far, the left has organized massive countrywide street protests for the first time in the pandemic. But, perhaps fearing accusations of virus-spreading activity by the most diligent of virus spreaders, no official left organizations are behind the protest that will take part on May 29.

It is typical of Brazil that all institutional hopes lie in a man like Calheiros, a very traditional political operator with no real ideology who knows his way around Brasília like few others. In his normal mode, he is a powerful government ally. But with a vendetta on his mind, he just might be the one to shift the public’s view of Bolsonaro to the point where the president can’t enter the 2022 contest with a real chance of winning reelection.

Since having his political rights reinstated by the Supreme Court, Lula has performed well in polls and has begun showing his teeth publicly, criticizing the government and positioning himself as an alternative to Bolsonaro. Even in its early proceedings, it is clear this inquiry will only benefit Lula. Bolsonaro has a plan to pull a Trump and claim election fraud, but if he’s too far behind, it is difficult to imagine anyone outside his inner circle actually buying it.