In January, when carnival was cancelled and the beaches in Salvador da Bahia were partially closed, Brazil had just over 275,000 deaths due to Covid-19. On 19 June the figure surpassed 500,000. There were protests and marches calling for Bolsonaro’s ouster in more than four hundred cities and towns across the country. Two weeks later, on 3 July, with deaths at 522,000, there were similar scenes. In Salvador, the festival of São João on 24 June and Bahian Independence Day on 2 July were cancelled, with a curfew in place and the sale of alcohol banned.
For a regional economy so dependent on tourism and services – especially since the Ford plant in Camaçari closed early this year – the pandemic has been, and continues to be, devastating. Bars and restaurants have just opened again at night, until 11:30 p.m., and though death rates have dropped into triple digits nationwide for the first time in many months, hunger, poverty, disease and unemployment are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
In Salvador, the protest march on 19 June snaked in a wave of red T-shirts and banners from Campo Grande through Vitória and Graça to Porto da Barra in the south of the city, and from there to the white lighthouse of Farol da Barra, surrounded by the deep blue of the Baía de Todos os Santos. The march on 3 July took a different route, down Avenida Centenario and past the Morro de Cristo, to the same destination. Both were reasonably large, loud, diverse, young and festive, with several left-wing political parties and movements, as well as competing PA systems and drummers with chants, rants, music and dancing. Afro-Brazilians of all ages were well represented. There were no robocop riot police: hardly any police at all, in fact, except to direct traffic. Some older residents unfurled red PT flags from their windows. As the event headed towards closing, people sat on the hillside to watch the sun set in a marbled sky.
The protests were big in Rio and São Paulo: organisers estimated that some 750,000 came out nationwide on 19 June, with smaller numbers on 3 July. But they could have been bigger: in the days following 28 April, nearly one in ten Colombians were out on the streets. In Brazil, that would translate to more than 21 million people. If protest is to shape developments in Brasília it will need to scale up. More than a year into the disastrous and avoidable course of the pandemic, there is little sign of that happening. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Brazilian left is tiny and inconsequential. But it is united in support of Lula’s presidential bid next year, which has real legs. Lula now appeals to the centre and even the centre-right, and has peeled off much of Bolsonaro’s support among evangelical Christians. Several polls in a row have him winning the first round with almost half the vote (49 per cent), and a 25 per cent lead.
Bolsonaro is increasingly isolated, his rule ever weaker and more brittle, yet he claims that only God can remove him before his term is up, and he’s probably right. Soon after telling fans ‘I am a pile of your shit’, he was hospitalised yesterday with an intestinal obstruction, and moved from Brasilia to São Paulo, where he remains under observation.
The Supreme Court has authorised a criminal investigation into his activities by the Attorney General’s Office. Bolsonaro is suspected of the crime of ‘prevarication’ – using a public post for private enrichment – in a $320 million vaccine deal, which appears to have entailed kickbacks and over-billing. But any charges would have to go through Congress, so little is likely to come of it.
The president threatened to suspend next year’s elections but the military and the Supreme Court chastised him. Outside police and paramilitary circles his talk of staging a coup was met with derision. Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro insists that the 2022 elections will be fraudulent and he need not respect their outcome. Impeachment proceedings remain a pipe dream; in any case it isn’t clear that General Mourão, the vice-president, who comes from the pro-torture Ustra wing of the armed forces, would represent an improvement.
Late last week, Bolsonaro said he ‘shits on’ a parliamentary investigation that has uncovered corruption in the purchase five months ago, at gouged prices, of twenty million doses of the Covaxin vaccine from India, which had yet to be approved, when the Brazilian government had ignored a much cheaper offer from Pfizer. Bolsonaro and his wife are directly implicated.
Then the unthinkable happened: on Saturday night, in the finals of the Copa América, Brazilians rooted for Argentina. Whether spontaneous or a result of prior co-ordination on social media, it was an event of historical significance. No previous government has ever induced Brazilians to root for the opposing team in a football match, much less Argentina.
According to one epidemiologist, unless significant changes are made to vaccination, masking, social distancing and public awareness campaigns, Brazil could well reach a million dead from Covid-19. In Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico, case and death rates are also catastrophic. Latin America, with just 5 per cent of the world’s population, accounts for a quarter of all deaths and a third of new cases. Only 3 per cent of people are vaccinated. In the Caribbean, too, the situation is critical. The rest of the decade is likely to be spent trying to recover from this disaster even if it does not deepen further.
As ever, US foreign policy can be counted on to aggravate hemispheric problems rather than lead to solutions. William Burns, the head of the CIA, made a recent visit to strengthen co-operation with the Brazilian military. Meanwhile, a majority of Brazilians polled want the military out of politics. The next protest march is scheduled for 24 July.