Brazilians put Bolsonaro on notice

October 2 2021

Photo by Maria Fernanda Pissioli on Unsplash

he nationwide massive street rallies against President Jair Bolsonaro has marked a turning point for this divisive proto-fascist leader. These are the first rallies on the streets since March 2020, when the pandemic arrived in Brazil.

Due to the health emergency, the Brazilian left has refrained from organising — until last Saturday — mass street protests. Previous rallies have mainly been online actions or house-bound pot banging.

On the phone from Sao Paulo, one of the 200 Brazilian cities where the rallies were held, Chloe Pinheiro told me she walked against Bolsonaro for “so many reasons” — including the “deep wound he has caused to Brazil during this pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has taken all the wrong decisions,” she told me.

Pinheiro, whose parents are Bolsonaro’s supporters, told me the weekend national mobilisation was not only “one of the largest she has ever been,” but also one of the best organised. Protestors wore masks and “attempted” — she said — to maintain social distance. “I wore a mask, and I didn’t speak to anybody next to me,” she told me.

Pinheiro belongs to the highly educated Brazilians who have rejected Bolsonaro since he was sworn in on January 1, 2019. Bolsonaro’s rejection rating is currently 54 per cent, according to Datafolha, a Brazilian based public opinion company.

Marching under the banner “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro out), the weekend protests had two fundamental objectives, to demand his impeachment and lend support to the parliamentary committee investigating the role of the far-right government in exacerbating the health crisis.

At this stage, impeachment is unlikely. Dozens of impeachment petitions have been filed against Bolsonaro. So far, none have even been processed. Bolsonaro still has enough parliamentary support to negate them.

However, the fate of Bolsonaro might change significantly. The parliamentary committee has shown teeth in its investigation of the sluggishness of Bolsonaro government acquisition of vaccines and the promotion of ineffective drugs against COVID.

Bolsonaro’s dreadful management of the pandemic has transformed Brazil into a burial ground. Brazilians have dealt with the deaths of more than 460,000 from COVID, globally a death toll only second to the US. In this country of 210 million, the average daily death toll exceeds 1,900. No wonder that calls to accelerate the vaccination were high on the protestors’ demands.

The new strain of coronavirus, whose genesis was in the Amazonian territory, has contributed to deepening the epidemic crisis. And yet, Bolsonaro remains one of the most denialist world leaders. He rarely wears masks and has mocked those who stay at home.

Since the pandemic’s beginning, Bolsonaro has resisted calls to impose lockdowns and other measures to control the pandemic. He has maintained that the economy must be protected.

The fury against Bolsonaro, as expressed last weekend, is increasing, and his popularity is plummeting. Previous year’s subsidies, destined for some of the most vulnerable sectors of the Brazilian society — the foundation of his now gone popularity — have melted into the air. The 2020 subsidy of US$120 given to 85 million Brazilians has been reduced this year to $US30 and has reached only 46 million.

Bolsonaro has not only failed to manage the health crisis. He has also failed to provide the much needed social and economic protection for the ten million Brazilians slithering into poverty and starvation.

Unemployment has reached 14.7 per cent. According to The Brazilian Network of Research on Food Sovereignty and Security, 50 per cent of the population — 19.1 million — is haunted by hunger. “Vaccine in the arm, food on the plate” was one of the most powerful slogans during last weekend’s protests.

Among the organisers of last Saturday’s protest was the left-wing Workers’ Party, the party of the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula spent more than 18 months in jail for corruption and money laundering, as he is better known. Last March, a Brazilian Supreme Court annulled the former president’s corruption conviction.

Now he is a free man, and his political rights have been restored. In the last few months, Lula has become a political shadow of the, until now, unchallenged Bolsonaro. Lula is a serious contender for the country’s presidential election of 2022. “Lula is the only one who can challenge Bolsonaro,” told me on the phone health journalist Chloe Pinheiro.

In the last few months, Lula has not only been busy organising pre-2022 election political deals. He has also reclaimed the support from lower-income Brazilians — they account for more than half of the voting population. In recent polls, he is 18 points ahead of Bolsonaro.

As an alternative to Bolsonaro, Lula has been endorsed by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso from the centre-left Brazilian Social Democracy Party. In a statement to the Brazilian media, Henrique Cardoso said that Bolsonaro represented a future he was not “excited about.” If there was no third option in the 2022 election, Henrique Cardoso said, “I will vote for Lula.”

Last weekend’s protests won’t be the last one, organised by an eclectic group of social movements, environmental activists, trade unionists and supporters of left-wing parties. They will go on until Bolsonaro is defeated. As Guilherme Boulos, one of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party leaders and organiser of last weekend’s rally said: “Defeating Bolsonaro is a public health matter.”

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Antonio Castillo, PhD

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia