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Mon Mar 23, 2020, 08:19 PM

In Brazil, Bolsonaro Gambles on a Coronavirus Culture War

Vincent Bevins

On Thursday March 12, President Jair Bolsonaro addressed the Brazilian nation. Just two days earlier, he had called coronavirus a “fantasy,” but now he was wearing a mask. Using his preferred method of communication, Facebook Live, he confirmed that Communications Secretary Fabio Wajngarten had tested positive after they had both had dinner with Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Bolsonaro said that because of the pandemic, nationwide demonstrations planned for Sunday, March 15, organized to support the president and attack Congress and the Supreme Court for getting in the way of his autocratic instincts, should be suspended. After all, he said “a tremendous message has already been delivered” to the other branches of government.

This was true. Without needing to fill the streets with his supporters, the Bolsonarista movement had demonstrated its willingness to intimidate Brazil’s existing democratic institutions. It is not clear, however, what Jair Bolsonaro wants to do with them. His son Eduardo, now probably the chief ideologue in the family, has made sure that threats are not just subtext. “If someone dropped an H-bomb on Congress, do you really think the people would cry?” he tweeted last month.

During his father’s 2018 campaign, Eduardo Bolsonaro boasted that all it would take is “one soldier and one corporal” to shut down the Supreme Court. Jair Bolsonaro has always defended authoritarianism, but as president he has not exactly put forward a coherent plan for Brazil that those more moderate bodies have even needed to block. Does the president really plan to shut down these institutions, or does he just want to fight with them constantly? And if the conflict worsens, might it be Bolsonaro who loses? These are the questions hanging over Latin America’s largest country as it begins to be rocked by Covid-19.

. . .

Bolsonarismo is an explicitly violent movement that holds democracy in contempt. It has made use of the niceties of representative government, but it also believes they can be discarded in service of the movement’s real goals: the affirmation of the traditional family, the maintenance of Brazil’s existing social order, and, most importantly, the eternal crusade to crush the left. Before an anti-corruption investigation destroyed the political establishment and allowed him to take center stage, the effective sum of Jair Bolsonaro’s political life, over twenty-seven years as a congressman from Rio, had been praise for the military dictatorship and support for the most violent police in the country.


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