The Winter of Brazil’s Discontent (OPINION)

Dec 29, 2021
12:11 PM

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)

Bolsonaro continues to wreak havoc in Brazil as the year comes to an end. His popularity reached a new low, however, and the electoral chessboard begins to take shape with alliances being negotiated for the October 2022 elections. 

Bolsonaro may end up isolated—he is already starting to see his ship being abandoned by leaders of the Centrão (Big Center), the set of physiological right-wing parties that guarantee his support and that of basically any other administration in exchange for public funds, jobs, and other favors.

But isolated or not, the President still has control of the state machine and does not hesitate to use it.

In mid-December, the Federal Police carried out an operation against center-left presidential candidate Ciro Gomes as well as his brothers, Sen. Cid Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party and Lúcio. The three are suspected of receiving 11 million reais in bribes since 2017 to benefit a contractor in the construction of Arena Castelão, a soccer stadium in Fortaleza, the state capital of Ceará.

Ciro Gomes, as well as many political analysts, have accused Bolsonaro of using the Federal Police as a political weapon against opponents —the Ceará prosecutor’s office itself was against the operation— and even chiefs of the Federal Police were uncomfortable with the operation and its political use.

Still aiming at the elections, the former governor of São Paulo and former presidential candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, has quit the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) after 33 years. A staunch and longtime opponent of Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party, Alckmin is negotiating for the vice-presidential spot on the ticket of the very same Lula da Silva.

A ticket with Lula and Alckmin would be an attempt at a “broad front” against Bolsonaro, uniting two historic adversaries and causing mixed feelings among the traditional supporters of both politicians. 

Polls show that Lula has a wide advantage in the electoral race and may even win in the first round. A union with Alckmin could attract the center-right electorate, who would now see Lula as a less “extremist” candidate—even though the image has never matched the actions of the former president, who has always favored alliances with right-wing parties.

Beyond the electoral disputes, the state of Bahia was hit by heavy rains throughout the month, leading thousands of people to leave their homes in dozens of towns completely overrun by water. Parts of the state of Minas Gerais were also affected. 

The floods are a small example of the looming climate crisis and human effects on the environment. During Christmas, 16,000 people were forced to leave their homes due to heavy rain and flooding in the state of Bahia state.  

Roads were closed, power and water were cut off in several towns, hospitals had to operate on an emergency basis and rescue teams spent days searching for survivors. President Bolsonaro declared that the tragedy caused by the rains would be comparable to the lockdown imposed to contain the pandemic, whose effects he denies to this day.

Bolsonaro created artificial controversies throughout the month, such as his refusal to start the vaccination process for children or impose a requirement of proof of vaccination for entry into the country.

Not until a justice of the Supreme Federal Court, Luís Roberto Barroso, ruled preliminarily in favor of the requirement for a vaccination passport did the President finally implement guidelines in line with most other developed countries of the world.

The governor of São Paulo, João Dória, who had already pressed for mass vaccinations, announced that his state would require proof of vaccination from newcomers. “Your state is shit,” Bolsonaro said of Dória’s statement.

The subject of a Supreme Court inquiry for spreading falsehoods about COVID vaccines —which according to the President would increase the risk of contracting the AIDS virus— Bolsonaro continued his attacks against the Court after a short lull.

Thus, not much changed in the year 2021 in terms of Bolsonaro and his aggressive statements and actions against politicians, the media, and other parts of government.

And Bolsonaro’s prayers seem to have been answered, at least momentarily. 

Earlier this month, a hacker attack prevented the public from accessing vaccination vouchers and left the Ministry of Health’s ConecteSUS portal offline for 13 days. Ministry employees were also unable to access phones, their internal network, corporate email, and other systems after a second attack days after the first.

The ransomware attack reported that 50TB of data had been copied and deleted from the Ministry’s server and demanded the payment of a ransom. One week later, the Federal Police and Federal Highway Police systems were also attacked and had data deleted. 

The attacks on the Ministry of Health’s system are nothing new, leading to suspicions that it could be an inside job as a way of preventing the requirement of a vaccination passport for those arriving in Brazil or patronizing businesses.

Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga even stated that it would be “better to lose one’s life than one’s freedom” when justifying his and the President’s opposition to the vaccine passport. A few days later, Queiroga declared that “child deaths have reached a plateau that does not require emergency decisions,” implying an acceptable number of deaths.

Meanwhile, on December 17 the President said through his social networks that he would release the names of the members of the health surveillance agency ANVISA who approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children as young as five years old—yet another instance of the President intimidating employees of a body subordinate to him.

This resulted in a series of threats to the agency’s employee and, subsequently, a Federal Police investigation and the request for police protection by the employees.

Despite 143 requests for impeachment against Bolsonaro, his government is still going strong while threatening opponents and even employees of the state. On the contrary, Bolsonaro scored a major victory earlier this month with the nomination of André Mendonça to the Supreme Court. The new minister is an evangelical pastor, conservative, and pleases the President’s main electoral bases, putting at risk social advances and minority agendas that have been carried out by the Supreme Court without the consent of Congress or the President himself.

In a service for 4,000 people, Mendonça was greeted by the President, ministers, and religious leaders. Soon after being elected, Bolsonaro had declared that he would appoint someone “terribly evangelical” to the Supreme Court—a promise Bolsonaro kept.

And that means yet more bad news for Brazil.


Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with a Ph.D in human rights (focused on migration and diaspora). His portfolio is here. Twitter: @Tsavkko.