While his country wages war against a deadly pandemic, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has taken a similar approach to the former US President in that he has downplayed the pandemic and hailed pseudo-scientific cures.
Source: Sergio Limo with AFP (Agence France-Presse)
All the while, he has continued to further his own political agenda. Whether it be pushing out those who disagree, attempting to manipulate the federal courts and institutions, or intensifying other pursuits, Bolsonaro has undermined democratic institutions and democracy in Brazil over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s Authoritarianism Before the Pandemic
President Jair Bolsonaro is a far-right populist whose term thus far has been characterized by adherence to extreme cultural conservatism, reflected in policies such as an initial stripping away of human rights protections from LGBT people and the cutting of funding for arts projects deemed un-Christian.
Culturally far-right stances were a key component of his 2018 campaign. He vocally supported a rollback of affirmative action, a reversal of anti-femicide legislation, and opposed the inclusion of topics relating to sexual minorities in education. In one speech, he lamented on the greatest “mistake” of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship—“to torture, not kill” left-wing activists; his answer? To stop funding human rights organizations “because human rights are a disservice to Brazil.” These are not simply the ramblings of a hyper-partisan, far-right figure—they are explicitly authoritarian in nature and fundamentally anti-democratic.
Trends in Brazilian Democracy & Coronavirus Response
The US-based democracy think tank Freedom House gave Brazil a global freedom score of 75/100 in 2019, indicating it was free, and an internet freedom score of 63/100. This report was published following the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency. Given the relatively short period of time since Bolsonaro’s inauguration (it has been ~2 years), there is no definitive answer on the long-term effects of his presidency on Brazil’s democratic standing. However, there are certainly red flags.
In Freedom House’s 2019 report on Brazil, an area of deep concern was the protection from illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies, receiving a 1/4. One reason for this low rating is that “Brazil’s police force remains mired in corruption, and serious police abuses, including extrajudicial killings,” which continued in 2019. Bolsonaro has worsened this problem, as a central campaign vow was to use brute force and violent tactics against crime, legitimizing the use of deadly force by police. Furthermore, Freedom House’s 2019-2020 data reflects a decline in civil liberties in topics such as the freedom of the media, intimidation and harassment by pro-government groups, and threats of violence directed at environmental activists. This reflects a government increasingly antagonistic toward dissidents and political opponents.
V-Dem, a research project measuring multiple forms and dimensions of democracy around the world, has attributed a score of .508/1 to liberal democracy in Brazil. In their March-December 2020 Pandemic Backsliding Project (PanDem), V-Dem analysts rated Brazil at 0.3 out of 1 in terms of pandemic violations, indicating that “some violations” had occurred. A score equal to or above 0.35 indicates “major violations,” putting Brazil in the upper echelon of the “some violations” ranking. Brazil’s violations predominantly include official disinformation campaigns and restrictions of media freedom, as is indicated in the figure below.
Brazil’s COVID Catastrophe
Brazil is among the countries which have been most impacted by the Coronavirus, with a recorded 8.4 million infections as of January 18, 55,000 new cases per day, and 209,847 total deaths. In proportion to its population, John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center records that Brazil has had a 2.5% mortality rate, the 10th highest worldwide.
During the first handful of months of the pandemic, Bolsonaro “largely dismissed [it] as a conspiracy.” Even when the government took a more direct approach, inadequacies were abundant. According to Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Professor Marcos Cueto, Bolsonaro’s responses have been especially ignorant of “the living conditions of the most vulnerable during [the] pandemic,” hailing chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a “silver bullet” to the virus rather than investing in vital infrastructure and providing adequate aid. Chloroquine, primarily used to combat malaria, is unproven to work against coronavirus. Bolsonaro has affirmed the inability to countermand his “right to advocate chloroquine” as being based on his position as the “comandante,” or military commander, of Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s reference to himself is a “comandante” brings to mind the concept of a Rechtsstaat, a regime in which the law rather than might prevails (Rose 2019). This is tied to the rule of law and is a foundation of political accountability; Bolsonaro’s refusal to cut off the stream of disinformation he is spewing based on a self-identity as the nation’s military commander reflects a disdain for the institutional process and an appeal to aspects of authoritarianism. Both of these traits have long been characteristic of the man himself.
Undermining Democratic Institutions Amidst Chaos
During the pandemic, President Bolsonaro has relied upon measures which have undermined a number of Brazil’s key democratic institutions. In one early instance, he fired a Minister of Health who urged people to socially distance and stay indoors. A month later, he pushed out the new health minister, who sought more studies on chloroquine before approving its use. Finally, he hired a new military-adjacent “Yes”-man who would go on to agree to efforts such as putting a stop to the publishing of daily updates to coronavirus case numbers and deaths.
The undermining and ultimate weakening of the health ministry is a blow to the institutional strength of Brazil, and the situation is not unique. Following his gutting of the environmental regulatory agencies that “typically deal with illegal logging operations and other drivers of deforestation,” Bolsonaro replaced regulatory executives with trusted military and ex-military personnel and mobilized the military to defend the Amazon. As Brazilian political scientist Cláudio Couto has acknowledged, “This is a politicization of the army [that is] incompatible with democracy.” This reliance on the military reflects other recent anti-democratic moves made by Bolsonaro, such as threats to use military action against the courts. Ministries and government offices which are designed to provide crucial and specialized feedback are being emptied and replaced with individuals who strictly comply with Bolsonaro’s decisions and agenda.
Nancy Bermeo, Nuffield Chair of Comparative Politics at Oxford and PIIRS Senior Scholar at Princeton, defines democratic backsliding as, at its most basic, a “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy” (Bermeo 2016). Although Bolsonaro has yet to eliminate key political institutions, he has certainly weakened them. His efforts represent an attempt to undermine democracy and the results represent an instance of democratic backsliding in Brazil.
Bolsonaro is a far-right “strongman” character who has routinely refused to take critical feedback, decided to surround himself with “Yes”-men, and relied on military bonafides and threats when opposed. These qualities are all harmful to Brazilian democracy and its institutions, and indicative overall of an underlying disdain for the checks and balances of democracy. This reality, along with its costs, have become increasingly obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robert Billings majors in history and political science at SUNY Geneseo and is expected to graduate in the Spring of 2022.
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