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Brazil currently faces a confluence of at least three grave crises — one of public health, another economic, and other political and corruption-related — that has left the largest country in Latin America and the world’s sixth-most populous nation in greater turmoil and danger than at any time since its 1985 redemocratization. Our newest episode of SYSTEM UPDATE, which is roughly 30 minutes long and debuts on The Intercept’s YouTube channel at 10 a.m. ET, examines how one man — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — has single-handedly caused and then radically escalated each of these crises.
While several major world leaders minimized or even mocked the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic in January and into February — U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson among the most prominent — all of them have changed course in how they talk about and manage the pandemic (Johnson ended up in Intensive Care after contracting the virus). But not Bolsonaro.
Virtually alone among heads of major governments, he has not only maintained his original posture but encouraged Brazilians to do the same, most notoriously by leaving his own quarantine after being suspected of having been infected to greet crowds of supporters by shaking hands and taking selfies and, more recently, deliberately going into crowds gathered outside supermarkets and shopping malls. When his health minister began raising rapidly in approval ratings because of his daily briefings that followed the scientific consensus and often contradicted Bolsonaro’s own statements by encouraging isolation and debunking unproven cures, Bolsonaro fired him.
All of this led the Washington Post to declare him the “worst” of all world leaders, while The Atlantic crowned him leader of the coronavirus denial movement. And this has culminated in an exploding pandemic that has placed Brazil — a country which even prior to this pandemic was plagued by a barely functional public health system, extreme urban density, and massive wealth inequality — on an epidemiological curve at least as bad as, and likely worse, than Italy, Spain, and other nations who were so tragically devastated by the virus early on.
While all that is happening, the Brazilian economy is in virtual freefall, with the Brazilian real plummeting to all-time lows, the stock market tumblings, and economic growth nonexistent. But perhaps the most serious crisis of all is the one precipitated last weekend by the very dramatic resignation from Bolsonaro’s government of his once-beloved Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who used the occasion of his resignation to hurl extremely serious accusations of corruption and criminality at the president. The most serious of those is that he interfered in ongoing criminal investigations by the Federal Police, at least two of which — as we have extensively reported in the past — have as their targets Bolsonaro’s own sons as well as the family’s connections to the country’s most violent and dangerous paramilitary gangs, one of whom was at the center of the March 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro City Council Member Marielle Franco. Impeachment has entered, and is growing in, mainstream discourse.
The episode covers not only the fascinating and horrifying specifics of these crises and their consequences for Brazilians and Brazilian democracy, but also the recent political and cultural history of Brazil — including its U.S.-supported 1964 military coup and resulting 21-year brutal dictatorship that followed — in order to understand the unique threats Bolsonaro poses. Brazil is a country filled with vital resources (including the Amazon), a rich history and culture, and 220 million people long prevented by inequality, repression, and corruption from fulfilling their potential. These crises makes the fulfillment of that potential appear further away than ever, as a dark trinity of a public health disaster, economic collapse, and severe political instability are combining into a toxic brew, led by a president who seems to crave disorder and civil strife as a pretext for ushering in the dictatorship-era climate he has spent decades praising.
You can watch the program at its 10 a.m. ET debut here, with a transcript posted later, or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.