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Weekly Report - 24 June 2021 (WR-21-25)

Bolsonaro faces fresh protests in Brazil

“Half a million reasons to oust [President Jair] Bolsonaro,” read a sign held high by a protester in São Paulo on 19 June. The protester was one of the thousands of Brazilians to take to the country’s streets that day in rejection of Bolsonaro and his role in the country’s coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, on the same day that the death toll from the disease passed the half-million mark.

Brazil has stayed immune to the waves of social unrest that have rocked many of its Latin American neighbours over the past year in spite of, or in some cases because of, the Covid-19 pandemic. By the same token, President Bolsonaro had until recently remained shielded from mass public protests stemming from discontent with the pandemic response, such as those that shook Paraguay in March [WR-21-10]. The public demonstrations which have been taking place since the start of the pandemic in Brazil have mostly been in defence of the president and of his denialist attitude to the virus.

This is now beginning to change, as anger at the Bolsonaro government’s mishandling of the pandemic and at the president’s lack of empathy to its human toll is starting to boil over and bring people onto the streets. Last weekend’s protests built on the momentum of a first round of big anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations held across the country on 29 May [WR-21-22]; although no official figures were given for the 19 June rallies, they appeared to attract larger crowds than those three weeks earlier. The organisers spoke of hundreds of thousands of attendees in hundreds of cities across Brazil, with a turnout of 70,000 in Rio de Janeiro and 100,000 in São Paulo.

‘Fora Bolsonaro’ (‘Out with Bolsonaro’) was the rallying cry. Protesters referenced the high Covid-19 death toll and Bolsonaro’s deficient response to the pandemic, notably the fact that his government ignored dozens of offers from vaccine producers last year. High unemployment and rising food prices, inadequate education policies, and racial violence were some of the other issues raised. In Brasília, indigenous people who have been staging protests for over a fortnight in defence of their rights (see below) joined in with the anti-Bolsonaro demonstration in the capital.

Several left-leaning social organisations were behind the protests, which this time received overt support from trade unions and left-wing political parties (these had been reluctant to promote the first protests on 29 May given the public health crisis). Left-wing political figures took part, such as Guilherme Boulos from the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL) in São Paulo, although former president Lula da Silva (2003-2011) – Bolsonaro’s chief political rival – did not. Lula said he did not want his presence to turn the protests into an electoral event – he is widely expected to challenge Bolsonaro’s re-election bid as the candidate for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in next year’s presidential elections, a vote which polls currently show he would win. The leftist former president, who is eligible after the supreme court overturned his corruption convictions on procedural grounds in March [WR-21-10], received a further boost this week when a federal judge absolved him in one of the many other open corruption cases against him; due to lack of evidence, Lula was cleared of having received bribes to issue a law which benefited companies in the automobile sector.

As Lula appears to be growing politically stronger, with no rival in the centre, Bolsonaro is increasingly on edge. That he is feeling under pressure was made evident on 21 June, when he lashed out at a journalist who questioned him on his failure to wear facemasks. Bolsonaro, who was wearing a mask on this occasion, ripped it off as he launched into a rant in which he told the journalist to “shut up”, accused the media of “destroying the Brazilian family”, and attacked the Rede Globo TV network. It is also notable that Bolsonaro made no public pronunciation on the country having passed the grim and symbolic milestone of 500,000 Covid-19 victims.

  • An absent centre

Movements which are opposed to President Bolsonaro but politically on the right/centre-right have resisted calls to join the leftist-led anti-government protests so far, in no small part due to their pro-Lula tone. These movements are yet to gather behind an alternative anti-Bolsonaro candidate for 2022, with the space for a ‘third-way’ candidate in the centre looking very small. Last week, TV presenter Luciano Huck put paid to speculation and said he will not be running in the next presidential elections – perhaps because he now knows he has no chance of winning. João Doria, on the other hand, currently São Paulo state governor for the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB), confirmed his pre-presidential candidacy on 22 June.

Congressional inquiry ploughs on

Along with the anti-government street protests, Bolsonaro is facing pressure from a parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI), led by the senate, which is investigating his government’s response to the pandemic. The opposition and independent senators on the CPI – particularly the president, Omar Aziz, vice-president, Randolfe Rodrigues, and rapporteur, Renan Calheiros – have become increasingly vocal in reprimanding Bolsonaro. These three senators were amongst the 10 members of the CPI who signed a note lamenting the 500,000 Covid-19 victims on 19 June and promising that those responsible for the “devastating, inhuman situation” would be held to account. The same group also spoke out against Bolsonaro’s “disproportional” attack on the Globo journalist two days later, noting that “to try and silence and attack the press is typical of fascists and people opposed to Brazilian democracy”.

After weeks of hearing testimonies from current and former members of the Bolsonaro government, as well as members of the scientific community on both sides of the (moot) debate on Covid-19 remedies and containment measures, the CPI has confirmed a list of 14 people who are formally under investigation. They include incumbent health minister Marcelo Queiroga and his predecessor, Eduardo Pazuello. On 22 June, Rodrigues said that the commission is now opening a third line of inquiry; after gathering data “confirming that the government failed to purchase vaccines” and discovering the existence of a “parallel cabinet” advising the government on its pandemic response, the CPI will be looking into suspicions of corruption. This follows indications that the Brazilian government signed a contract for India’s Covaxin vaccine 1,000% above market price.

Indigenous resistance in Brasília   

Since 8 June, some 850 indigenous Brazilians from 43 different ethnic groups have gathered in Brasília in defence of their rights, which have come under increased attack during Bolsonaro’s presidency [WR-21-16]. The ‘Levante pela Terra’ (Stand up for the Earth) mobilisation is particularly focused on a bill, the PL 490/2007, which would change the rules for the demarcation of indigenous lands and is supported by the agribusiness caucus in congress. The chamber of deputies’ constitution and justice committee approved the bill on 23 June, meaning it is now admissible for voting in the plenary.

This indigenous mobilisation fits into wider opposition to a swathe of other bills which have gained new impetus in recent months and which would further erode both indigenous rights and environmental safeguards [WR-21-19]. The protests in Brasília have been met on some days by a repressive police response, seen as a further symbol of state violence against the indigenous.