Brazil faces two threats, both lethal. On top of COVID-19, the country faces another virus, lethal to democracy: the virus of autocracy. The pandemic is brutally sweeping Brazil. Almost 4000 deaths per day, according to official data. There is no reason to doubt that we will reach more than 500,000 deaths, that we will be the country with the highest death toll in the world. After one year of the pandemic, one out of every three people who die in the world die in Brazil. The Brazilian government has implemented no countermeasures. Nothing! The Brazilian government rejected all vaccine offers made to us. All of them! Bolsonaro rules through the chaos and hopes that, in chaos, autocracy will be imposed.
Since the beginning of his government in 2019, Bolsonaro has constantly challenged democratic institutions. He has attacked the press and intellectuals on an almost daily basis, strangled universities and public agencies that criticize or contradict his retrograde directives, placed more than 7,000 military personnel in civilian positions and participated in paramilitary demonstrations calling for military intervention and the closure of Congress and the Federal Supreme Court.
When it came to fighting the biological virus, his government refused to do what was necessary to try to contain its uncontrolled spread: reduce economic activity, give economic aid so that workers could stay at home, carry out mass tests to map the spread of the virus, and strengthen the health system. Congress even managed to approve, against the government, emergency aid for families who found themselves in a highly fragile situation, which helped contain the virus in 2020. Nevertheless, between the health of the population and the economy, Bolsonaro and his government never doubt the economy first.
The president and his economic team’s priority ended up giving the Ministry of Health command to a general whose sense of public duty is summed up in the following statement: “the President commands and I obey.” What, then, does the President command? To fight isolation and lockdown measures, to undo contracts for the supply of materials to hospitals, and to insist on confusing the population, making them believe that there is a treatment for what there is not. If we are not entirely without vaccines, it is because two Brazilian public institutions have participated in the international effort to develop vaccines. But our production capacity is low. The purchase of many inputs depends on international agreements. The Foreign Ministry of the Bolsonaro government has been an obstacle to these agreements, especially with China. Thus, even though Brazil has a vaccination system known worldwide for its efficiency, the population dies, since to vaccinate, it is necessary to have vaccines.
Our healthcare system has collapsed. Furthermore, of course, our economy is about to collapse. What lies before us is a total collapse: thousands of people dying daily from the virus, millions of people without jobs, misery, and hunger returning in alarming numbers. It will not take long, and violence will be the rule in the streets. The Congress, in large part co-opted by Bolsonaro through budget negotiations, even rehearsed a reaction and demanded the exit of two central ministers in the Bolsonaro way of doing politics: the Minister of Health, whose mission was not to fight the pandemic, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose task was to make any international negotiation that could be a way out impossible.
Bolsonaro, however, could not seem defeated— not he who claims to be an autocrat, not he who refers to the Armed Forces as “his,” as having to obey his orders and his wishes unconditionally. So, instead of backing down, he advances in his attack on democracy and fires the Defense Minister, which ends up leading to the resignation of the entire military leadership because they, as we have learned, did not support the decree of a state of siege, using which Bolsonaro intended to intervene in state governments. Unlike the Health Minister, the military high command did not seem willing to obey any order, at least not from Bolsonaro. However, the resignation of the high command was not the victory Bolsonaro had hoped for since he was forced to respect, in the appointment of new commanders, the Armed Forces’ internal hierarchy.
Bolsonaro has urged the military chiefs to speak out publicly in his favor and against the Supreme Court on at least two occasions: first, when the Supreme Court ruled for the authority of local governments, especially state governments, to enact policies that restrict mobility, and second, when the Supreme Court judged the case of President Lula. Though it is the conflict with the governors that most mobilizes Bolsonaro and his followers, since they see measures to relieve the health system as measures against the federal government that will harm the economy and thus harm the genocidal President’s chances of reelection.
The governors, in general, have managed to resist and have the support of their constituents. Many have come together in joint actions, including the acquisition of vaccines. However, the deterioration of the economy is also working against them. With the deterioration of the economy, with an increase of unemployment and hunger, new stress on the police will be added to the stress on the health system. Moreover, here we have a big problem: Bolsonaro’s penetration in state policy is immense, especially in military policy. If he had his action blocked by the Armed Forces’ high command, he would then turn his attention to state military policies. Here and there, one can already count cases of insubordination. If we continue like this, we will face the scenario desired by Bolsonaro: terror, chaos, death and despair, despair in democracy.
The tragic thing is that even impeachment is not an alternative. If approved, which is not feasible today, impeachment would hand over the presidency to General Mourão, the Vice President. Here a bit of history is necessary. The military faction closest to Bolsonaro, among them vice-president Mourão, are those members of the military who were defeated in the return to democracy; they are the military who wanted the dictatorship’s continuity. We cannot accept that the military who worked for Bolsonaro to come to power – and this is also true for those who now say no to him – are the ones who will save the democracy destroyed by Bolsonaro. We cannot turn the Presidency over to the military unless it is to restore politics to civilian power immediately.
For now, there is only one alternative available: governors, together with the House of Representatives and the Senate, must create a structure that can nationally coordinate the fight against the virus, something that the federal government has never done. At the same time, they must approve the economic package needed to support the poorest people and small and medium-sized businesses. For both actions to be successful, however, they must have their authority recognized internationally. The international community needs to trust the internal actors who want to defend lives and democracy while pressuring the federal government to respect the democratic game and stop its brutal nature. There is no alternative outside of democracy. We must look forward to the election in 2022 and defeat Bolsonaro at the polls. Otherwise our future will be our present: despair.
Daniel Peres is a professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Brazil.