By Ernesto Londoño*, Letícia Casado and Manuela Andreoni – The New York Times
A flailing leader has given Brazil’s generals an opening to insert themselves onto the front lines of politics.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Jair Bolsonaro ascended to Brazil’s presidency with a sweeping set of promises, like cutting out the rot of corruption, firing up the economy and doing away with the country’s notorious pork-barrel politics.
What a difference 16 months make.
Battered by a torrent of investigations into him and his family, an economy in free-fall and criticism of his cavalier handling of one of the world’s fastest growing coronavirus epidemics, Mr. Bolsonaro is fighting for political survival.
Now, with calls for his impeachment intensifying, he is being shored up by a narrowing band of leaders who are gaining outsize power as his troubles multiply.
Mr. Bolsonaro has become increasingly reliant on a cadre of military elders, entrusting them with the most power they have had since the military dictatorship ended in the 1980s.
And despite his early vows to clean up politics, he has become highly dependent on career politicians, including several marred by corruption allegations, who are eager to extract favors from a floundering leader. That could give them control over billions of dollars in public spending as the country enters a severe recession.
The pandemic has left Mr. Bolsonaro especially vulnerable. Brazil is quickly becoming a global hot spot, and this week surpassed the number of deaths reported by China. Yet the president has continued to resist calls for stricter quarantines and displayed little empathy for the more than 6,300 Brazilians who have died, setting off widespread criticism that he has been reckless and callous.
“So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?” he said this week of the mounting death toll, before making a joke about his middle name. “My name is Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.”
His troubles extend well beyond the virus. Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency had already been flailing for weeks — and then he set off an unexpected political crisis last week.
He fired the federal police chief, and the reaction was fierce. Justice Minister Sergio Moro, the most popular member of the cabinet, resigned in protest. In an extraordinary parting shot, Mr. Moro accused the president of seeking to obstruct justice by putting a subservient official at the helm of an agency investigating several of his allies, including one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons.
That led the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions and block his appointment of a new federal police chief. Mr. Bolsonaro reacted defiantly, saying he had not abandoned the “dream” of having a family friend at the helm of the police force, raising the prospect of an institutional clash.
Demands for the president’s resignation and impeachment are gaining traction in Congress, where a leaderless and disparate opposition lacks a clear plan to bring him down. Even so, lawmakers and the Supreme Court are leaving Mr. Bolsonaro with little room to maneuver.
“He’s delusional in thinking he’s unbound by the Constitution,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, a prominent opposition senator. “I hope he starts discovering that he’s subject to the rule of law.”
The president’s office declined interviews this week. But as Mr. Bolsonaro has become radioactive for much of the political establishment in the capital, Brasília, diplomats and political scientists have begun to game out how much upheaval the generals who serve in senior positions will tolerate.
The Bolsonaro era has given Brazil’s generals an opening to insert themselves back into the front lines of politics, a role they last played during the country’s 21-year military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.
Active and former military officials currently hold nine of the 22 cabinet positions, including three that operate out of the presidential palace. Those perches have given Brazil’s military broad authority over issues like fiscal policy, development in the Amazon and the response to the pandemic.
“I think this is the best government team we’ve had in the last 30 years, by far,” retired Gen. Paulo Chagas, who has run for office but is not in the government, said in an interview. “However, the vulnerability of the government is its own leader, who is perpetually giving ammunition to his adversaries.”
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As chaos engulfs Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency, speculation that his vice president, retired Gen. Hamilton Mourão, is readying to take over has been rife in memes and back door conversations. Mr. Mourão at times has appeared to relish the pandemonium.
Shortly after Mr. Bolsonaro fired his health minister on April 17 — after complaining about the minister’s strong endorsement of social distancing measures — the vice president smirked as he told journalists, “Everything is under control: We just don’t know whose.”
Amy Erica Smith, a political scientist at Iowa State University who specializes in Brazil, said the generals who have tied their lot to Mr. Bolsonaro must now be worried about their personal reputations and the military’s image as a guarantor of order.
“The crisis we’re entering raises the threat that the military might decide that civilian leadership isn’t effective and decide to take over,” she said. “It seems clear that the military continues to have this idea of itself as a tutelary force in politics.”
Political analysts say a conventional military takeover is unthinkable in today’s Brazil, given the strength of Congress, the courts, civil society and the press. But Ms. Smith said the generals could turn an embattled Mr. Bolsonaro into a figurehead leader or tacitly support efforts to impeach him, which would leave Mr. Mourão in control.
The sudden prospect of a new presidential ouster four years after the tumultuous impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff has scrambled politics in Brasília, where lawmakers have submitted at least 29 impeachment petitions against Mr. Bolsonaro.
Mr. Bolsonaro is the rare president without a political party, having broken ranks with the one that brought him to power last November. Despite having spent nearly three decades in Congress, he has not made an effort to build a governing coalition in Brazil’s multiparty legislature.
That has led a cluster of center and center-right parties informally known as the centrão to demand lucrative and influential government posts in exchange for shielding him from impeachment.
Roberto Jefferson, a former member of Congress from the centrão who admitted to playing a leading role in a kickbacks scheme in 2005, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s political survival now depends on cutting deals with power brokers in the centrão, several of whom have also been tainted by corruption allegations.
“Every party has its sinners,” Mr. Jefferson said in an interview. “Who’s a saint in that realm?”
The jobs that centrão leaders are angling for would give their parties discretion over billions of dollars.
The centrão’s emerging alliance with Mr. Bolsonaro would also give its members significant sway over an enormous public infrastructure spending plan announced by a military member of the government in an effort to generate jobs. The economy is expected to contract by between 5 percent and 9 percent this year.
Political analysts see those plans as anathema to Mr. Bolsonaro’s austerity goals and his pledge to break with the kind of back-room horse-trading that spawned staggering levels of corruption in the past.
Mr. Moro, a former federal judge who became the most visible figure of a national crackdown on corruption that began in 2014, says he no longer believes the government is committed to rooting out graft.
“I agreed to join the Bolsonaro government to strengthen the fight against corruption,” he said in a text message to The New York Times. “I gave up when I concluded I would not have the ability to make headway in that area.”
The president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Mr. Moro’s departure has disappointed some of his wealthier and better-educated supporters. But a recent public opinion poll conducted by Datafolha, a leading Brazilian research company, showed 33 percent of respondents continued to support him, suggesting his overall approval rate has remained relatively steady.
Throughout his campaign and presidency, Mr. Bolsonaro has benefited from well-organized and nimble propaganda and disinformation campaigns that have bypassed the mainstream press by relying on social media platforms and text messaging apps.
“The political right in Brazil has the most sophisticated system to rely on supporters to spread misinformation to the public,” said Marco Ruediger, a researcher at Fundação Getulio Vargas University who studies political disinformation online.
But that strategic advantage has become a liability as the federal police and a congressional committee investigate the structure and workings of shadowy online communities that support the president. Among those under investigation are two of the president’s sons, Eduardo and Carlos Bolsonaro.
The president’s erratic handling of the coronavirus, which he has called a “measly cold,” has tested the resilience of his online supporters, Mr. Ruediger said.
But one base that appears to be steadfast is Evangelical Christians, who supported Mr. Bolsonaro staunchly during the campaign.
Mr. Bolsonaro in recent days has nodded to the issues that animate that constituency by reminding them of his opposition to abortion and by falsely claiming that the World Health Organization promotes homosexuality and encourages toddlers to masturbate.
“All the major leaders of Evangelical churches in Brazil, all of them continue supporting him in the same way,” Silas Malafaia, the leader of one of the country’s megachurches, said in an interview. “Bolsonaro will only lose our support if he ends up being personally embroiled in corruption.”
*Ernesto Londoño has been The Times’s Brazil bureau chief since July 2017. Based in Rio de Janeiro, he oversees coverage of the southern cone of South America. He joined The Times in 2014 as an editorial writer focusing on international affairs. Prior to that, Mr. Londoño worked for nine years at The Washington Post, where he started as a local news reporter, covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak
The coronavirus pandemic has sickened more than 3,421,100 people, according to official counts. As of Sunday morning, at least 243,800 people have died, and the virus has been detected in at least 177 countries, as these maps show: