The Covid-19 pandemic is accentuating changes that were already occurring in Brazil's political structure, with profound impacts on the way the country will position itself internationally in the next few years.
Brazil's political structures have responded to the Covid-19 outbreak based primarily on President Jair Bolsonaro's chaotic response to the situation. Bolsonaro is the only democratic leader in the region (some analysts say in the world
) to effectively deny the seriousness of the problem. He has already described it as a “simple flu,”
deliberately asking people to go out on the streets and ignore any kind of quarantine. In early April, Bolsonaro caused national commotion by firing the popular health minister, who had been publicly asking Brazilians to help with a national lockdown. Days later, the president joined protesters in the federal capital who called for the closure of the Supreme Court and National Congress, as both were supposedly hampering the resumption of the economy and encouraging isolation. When asked about the growing numbers of deaths, his answer was “So what? What do you want me to do?”
Bolsonaro's behavior has two explanations. The first concerns a bet that a stagnant economy will have a greater impact on the population than the Covid-19 fatalities. The expressive increase in unemployment and the fall in income could be pointed out as the fault of the government, while eventual deaths, “centered on the elderly,” in the president’s words, would be minimised. This can be appealing to part of the population, especially those in the poorer segments of society. Bolsonaro is pushing these Brazilians to a false dichotomy—the stock market or life, certain economic death and a probable physical death.
The second explanation is the clear mimicry of US President Donald Trump by operating, politically, on a constant movement of enemy creation. In this dynamic, scientists, university professors and the press would all be part of an alliance to destabilise the government, with the virus being an overrated threat, based on ‘mass hysteria.’ This speech has helped keep Bolsonaro's support base active, as well as maintaining the public debate in a chaotic stream of new statements and catchphrases.
The situation changed when the governors of the country's most important states decided to go in the other direction. Brazil's political system is essentially centralised in the hands of the federal executive. But the current executive, and its hectic decisions, are pushing other political actors to be more relevant. Since the environmental crisis in the Amazon in 2019, governors have been standing directly against the president, creating coalitions and trying to reverse decisions by the federal executive. Bolsonaro speeches about closing the National Congress have also moved the legislature closer to governors, which has facilitated some of the decisions.
The Covid-19 response is an example of this movement. Despite the president's speeches minimising the gravity of the situation, governors were relatively quick to decree quarantine in several states, making decisions diametrically opposed to the federal government's stance. Regardless of the lack of essential equipment in Brazilian hospitals, several important states, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, were quick to avoid crowding people. When Bolsonaro threatened to “open the entire country by decree,” the Supreme Court guaranteed that leaders at the state level have the autonomy to choose the best way to fight the virus. The president, at the end of April, is fighting a battle not to carry out an emergency economic package to help the states. The National Congress, again, signals that it will guarantee the creation of the law, regardless of Bolsonaro’s wishes.
The governors' revolt had already been observed during the great burnings in the Amazon forest in 2019. At that time, the president had said that it was an international conspiracy, influenced by Brazilian NGOs. The governors of the Amazon states, fearing possible international sanctions, were quick to send representatives to Europe. The message was clear: ignore the president and deal directly with us.
The pandemic has generated similar movements, mainly regarding the relationship with China. Members of the Brazilian government, again in a mimicry of the US, have blamed Beijing for the virus. The education minister caused a stir when he tweeted racist messages indicating that the Chinese would be the main beneficiary of the chaos caused by the pandemic. Beijing, which traditionally did not manifest itself in these cases in Brazil, was quick to reply. The China’s ambassador to Brazil accused the minister of attacking the Chinese people, in addition to pointing out that the president's son—also a vocal actor against China—had a "mental illness contracted in Miami''
Chinese harshness with the federal government came along with rapprochements with governors. In an unprecedented “international activism of the states,'' governors are directly negotiating with China to purchase ventilators and medical supplies. While the federal government is having trouble buying directly from Beijing, cargo has been arriving in friendly states without a problem. This is particularly centered on the so-called ‘Northeast Consortium,’ a loose alliance between states from this area. Most of the governors directly opposing Bolsonaro are from this sector, famous for the sunny beaches and with more than a decade of experience dealing with Chinese companies on infrastructure projects. There are public discussions now that the consortium should create a permanent bureaucratic structure to negotiate with Beijing, a move that could isolate Bolsonaro even further.
Although the international activism of governors is not new in countries like the US, the Brazilian case represents a profound change on the way the country's foreign policy has been carried out since the 19th century. The pandemic is becoming an example that any political analysis of the largest country in South America will have to include, from now on, a profusion of new actors and interests.
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