The Brazilian Perfect Storm

The Brazilian Perfect Storm

Rogério Gimenes Giugliano

In the midst of the global pandemic and the inevitable economic fallout that comes with it, Brazil is experiencing an acute political crisis. The dramatic humanitarian health crisis, deserving of the nation’s full attention, has given way to another powerful battlefront in which power brokers, political movements and social forces wrestle for internal hegemony.

This has deepened divisions within Brazilian society and fractured beyond repair the ruling majority that emerged from the ashes of the Worker’s Party (PT) fall from power. An intense stress-test is being applied to the young Brazilian democracy and doubts about its strength are already brewing. This political turmoil, although intensified and transformed by COVID-19, is a direct result of a forced political transition that began in 2013.

COVID-19 has begun to show its sharpest edge in Brazil. According to the grossly underestimated official figures, the country registered 26,000 deaths and over 500.000 confirmed cases positioning the country at the epicentre of the global pandemic. The Ministry of Health itself, estimates the real figures are at least 4 times larger. Projections by international institutions and Brazilian observatories indicate an even more dire picture. The Imperial College, for example, estimates sub-notification in Brazil around 90%. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation projects real figures 12x larger than the official account, based on comparisons with death rates in previous years. The University of Minas Gerais calculates the sub-notification ratio around 8:1 and the University of São Paulo suggests that only 7% of COVID-19 are being registered.

Actions to prevent the spread of the virus have been erratic at most, and social distancing has missed its 75% isolation target by far. São Paulo, epicentre of the crisis, at its best reached a 55% reduction in circulation. In Northern Brazil – The Amazon Region – a dramatic situation is already developing. States like Amapá and Roraima have ratios of only 0,5 ICU’s for each 10.000 inhabitants. In Europe, the average was 1,15 before the pandemic, and in many places, that was not enough. Manaus, the largest northern city, has witnessed tragic scenes of mass burials.

The situation of indigenous populations is even more dramatic. Since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s government, loggers and miners have been encouraged to ignore indigenous rights and lands. Environment and indigenous protection agencies like IBAMA and FUNAI have been defunded and key posts were given to military personnel and evangelical missionaries. The invasion of legal indigenous reserves has been publicly defended by the Environment Minister and the President himself. As result, 2019 witnessed a 23% increase in murders of indigenous populations by police, miners and loggers. COVID-19 carried to the reserves by these groups has already reached isolated communities with little chance of medical attention since Cuban doctors were expelled.

The response to the pandemic has been marked by brutal in-fighting between different governmental departments and agencies, lacking coordination, funding and leadership. To understand how this scenario came to be, it’s necessary a closer look at the entanglements between the pandemic and the economic/political front.

Brazil is a very young democracy. Since 1985’s re-democratization, the country has been struggling to develop its republican political institutions. Brazil, up to now, has had only 6 presidents elected by free and universal vote, two of which were impeached. The latest case was the ousting of Dilma Rousseff after a complex process denounced by the Brazilian progressive forces as a coup. Fair or not, this event represented the closing act of a unique cycle in Brazilian political history.

After the fall of Ms Rousseff, a new political cycle was imposed. A ruling majority was forged by the social forces that spearheaded the ousting of the Workers Party and led to Jair Bolsonaro’s contested electoral victory. Broadly, his government received support from five major groups. First the traditional elite. These are descendants of European colonizers, land-owners, industrialists and bankers that historically profit from the country’s dependent peripheral capitalism. They hegemonized Brazilian politics before the ascension of the Workers Party, and their main interest is advancing radical neoliberal reforms. Since the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, social spending was constitutionally limited, labour rights and guarantees were cut, privatization was accelerated and social programs were reduced. All this well before the pandemic, resulting in rising poverty, unemployment and increasing informality.

The second component of the government’s social/political base are evangelical Christians. This alliance guaranteed a massive number of votes from poor Brazilians.  They are focused on a conservative agenda and the imposition of their moral values on a diverse Brazilian society. They oppose LGBT rights and secular education as threats to their fundamentalist beliefs.

Another part of Bolsonaro’s support comes from the radicalized middle class, divided into two main factions, anti-corruption crusaders and the ideological extreme-right. The first group, symbolized by ex-justice minister Sergio Moro, responsible for the “car-wash” anti-corruption task force that was instrumental to Bolsonaro’s victory and denounced by the Brazilian left as political persecution. The second fraction is formed by ideological right-wing social movements to which Bolsonaro himself is connected. Their agenda is composed of paranoid anti-Communism, systematic disregard for human rights, and a morbid desire for authoritarian rule. Anti-democracy banners, demanding the return of military dictatorship, can be seen in all pro-Bolsonaro rallies.

The last component of the federal government’s support are the security forces. Local, state and federal police, and, of course, the military. This, of course, is a broad view and these groups have intersections, internal divisions and smaller fractions.

The fight against the Worker’s Party unified the heterogeneous Brazilian right and “created” conditions for their return to power after years of electoral defeats. But they didn’t rally around the country’s traditional political elite. Instead, there was a shift towards the most extreme, loud and radical faction of the right. This heterogeneous composition of right-wing forces achieved a major victory in the 2018 national elections that led Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency and a large majority in parliament. Jair Bolsonaro before his accession to the country’s highest post was a fringe politician, whose career was marked by connections with paramilitary groups (Milícias), the return of military dictatorship, and attacks on LGBT communities and human-rights. He and his close allies openly support torture and assassinations based on their profound hatred of the left.

Since the beginning, direct and violent confrontation is the modus-operandi of Bolsonaro’s messianic right-wing government. To impose their neoliberal-fundamentalist-authoritarian realignment on Brazilian society, multiple confrontations fronts were established resulting in constant instability. But this not clumsy or chaotic, a military rationale drives the government actions and has been named by his vice-president as a strategy of “successive approaches”, marked by direct attacks and strategic retreats until it breaks opposition.

The government’s push towards a radical right-agenda is driven by this tactic, and is always backed by a vigorous propaganda machine that uses fake news and social media as instruments of political violence and intimidation. The governments core ideological advisers are obsessed with concepts such as the “Theory of Revolutionary War”, “Cultural Marxism”, and war against the “politically correct”, that for them encompasses the contemporary and international communist agenda. They represent the Brazilian chapter of a growing international movement inspired by the radical right in the US.

Despite the majority obtained in 2018, the government has been surprisingly turbulent and inefficient. In-fighting, public disputes with allies, accusations of crime and corruption, and quarrels with the parliament and judiciary have become routine, signalling significant fractures within the new ruling majority. Bolsonaro and his close allies’ main focus is a profoundly ideological agenda, sanctioning the transfer of the economy to the traditional elite. The unstable alliance between the new right and historical elite is a marriage between radical neoliberalism and a neo-fascist populist agenda. But there is a catch, to succeed with the plan the economy must work.

When the pandemic kicked-in, menacing their economic and societal objectives, Bolsonaro went, as always, to the attack in order to maintain the economy up and running at any cost. Using executive power, their massive propaganda structure and street demonstrations, pressure was put on institutions and opponents. Resignations from office and purges have escalated to open threats to the national parliament. There are intensified attacks towards the press and even threats to close the supreme court. The supporters of this movement know that Bolsonaro’s government is a unique historical opportunity to advance their ideological agenda and they will fight for it to their last breath.

This power dispute happens with absolute disregard for the humanitarian crisis that has already caused so many deaths. It is a clear case of Necropolitics in which death is seen as a necessary step towards societal objectives. They make no secret of this. These actions prompted reactions from Parliament and the Supreme Court, historically colonized by the traditional right. The efforts against the pandemic were transferred to state governors and investigations of the president’s connections with organized crime and fake news schemes were accelerated.

As expected, Bolsonaro reacted violently. Using the federally controlled national budget, he acted to delay and bloc local efforts to confront the pandemic, ignited a massive campaign to restart the economy and declared open war against the supreme court. The most decisive sabotage was directed against Brazilian workers. Cash transfer initiatives, that would allow the poor majority of Brazilian to stay home and protect themselves, were mostly blocked. The result is a radical class driven social distancing model, in which the upper and middle class can stay home while the poor majority is subjected to the perils of the pandemic and relegated to an underfunded public health system. A nefarious sum of inequality and necropolitics.

This perfect storm is mounting in the horizon, fuelled by the political dispute and the deadly Pandemic. Most Brazilians live in crowded homes and cities, and do not have resources to protect themselves. The result is that the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths are happening within the country’s impoverished working class. Unemployment is soaring, hunger is back and those who still have a job are obliged to continue life in the crowded streets of Brazil’s daily life. This scenario in a country like Brazil, marked by inequality and super-exploitation, relegates the larger part of the population to a tragic condition, and the result is unpredictable.

As Bolsonaro’s government pushes its agenda, a double movement is occurring. On the one hand, the government is losing popularity and gaining powerful enemies. On the other, the extreme-right tries to force social and institutional conflict in order to profit from chaos and impose some form of authoritarian rule. Although the ruling majority is crumbling, time to avert the worst is almost gone.


Rogério Gimenes Giugliano is Professor at the Federal University for Latin American Integration, Brazil. He is founder of the Critical Cartographies of Development research group and member of Critical Spatiality in Latin American Social and Political Thought: new power grammars and territorial tensions international work group.

Image Credit: Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília