By DIANE JEANTET Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greeted hundreds of supporters —and joined some in a series of push-ups— who gathered before the presidential offices Sunday to back his open-the-economy drive even as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the country.
Demonstrators in Brasilia and Sao Paulo defied local stay-at-home orders to join the pro-Bolsonaro rallies at a time when the president is facing increasing pressure over his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 15,000 Brazilians.
“We hope to be free of this question soon, for the good of all of us,” Bolsonaro told the crowd in Brasilia. “Brazil will come back stronger.”
Bolsonaro later invited a group of about 20 paratroopers, who were taking part in the protest, to join him on the stoop of the presidential office. The men, wearing camouflage trousers, black Bolsonaro t-shirts and red berets, swore allegiance to the president and his family, stretching their right arms, before some joined him in a series of push-ups.
Supporters have gathered daily at the presidential residence, with larger crowds turning out on weekends.
Among the protesters Sunday were members of “the 300 from Brazil,” a group of fierce Bolsonaro supporters who have been camping outside the presidential offices to defend the president against a possible coup since the beginning of May.
In an interview with BBC News Brasil, the group’s spokesperson, known as Sara Winter, acknowledged the presence of arms on the site for members to “protect themselves.” In their convocation message, members wrote: “You are not a militant, you are a military man.”
Prosecutors in Brasilia, denouncing the presence of “armed militias” outside the presidential offices, have asked that a judge order for the group to be removed. So far, the campsite has been allowed to remain.
Some displayed banners denouncing Congress and the Supreme Court, which they believe are part of a plot to derail Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Others have called for broader release of chloroquine, an antimalaria drug touted by Bolsonaro as a coronavirus treatment despite a lack of scientific evidence.
“Chloroquine … I know you save me, in the name of Jesus!,” some sang during Saturday’s gathering at the residence.
Health Minister Nelson Teich resigned on Friday, a day after Bolsonaro told business leaders in a videoconference he would ease rules for using chloroquine to treat people infected with the virus. Teich had said the drug was still “an uncertainty,” and warned of its side effects. He had served less than a month.
While many states and cities have renewed their stay-at-home measures or introduced stricter lockdowns, Bolsonaro has campaigned to reopen the economy and get people to go back to work.
In recent days, more than 800 people have been added to the official COVID-19 death toll every 24 hours and experts say the crisis’ peak has yet to hit Latin America’s largest nation.