Illustration credit: Carlos Latuff
This past weekend, following a series of revelatory Senate hearings investigating the government of President Jair Bolsonaro’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in over 200 cities, condemning the Bolsonaro administration and demanding his impeachment or resignation. The Senate inquiry—or CPI (Comissão parlamentar de inquérito)—has scrutinized some of the more glaring flaws in Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, including a failure to successfully procure vaccines (during the Senate hearings, it emerged that last autumn, Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Health declined an offer from Pfizer to supply Brazil with millions of doses); and his government’s promotion of unproven therapies, such as hydroxychloroquine. Saturday’s protests—which erupted nationwide, from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to Salvador da Bahia, Belém do Pará, Porto Alegre, and Belo Horizonte—represented the largest anti-Bolsonaro mobilizations since the pandemic began last year, and perhaps the biggest protests to emerge in Brazil since millions demonstrated in 2016 in support of the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff. While demonstrations have been largely peaceful in the country’s capital city, Brasília, and its largest cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, other cities—including Recife, capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco—have been plagued by violence, as police have deployed rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray to disperse crowds of protestors.
Indicating a possible “third wave” of the pandemic, government data reported almost 100,000 new COVID-19 cases and 2,507 related deaths on Wednesday. Despite the once-stellar reputation of its public healthcare system and vaunted immunization infrastructure, Brazil’s population of over 210 million has suffered a languorously slow vaccination roll-out. Increasing pressure on Brazil’s embattled right-wing president, polls have indicated plummeting support for Bolsonaro and increasing appetite for his removal from office—a recent Datafolha public opinion poll found that Bolsonaro’s popular approval slipped to 24 percent in May from 30 percent in March. Additionally, the return of former President—and prospective challenger to the incumbent Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election—Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva to the political arena, enabled by a judge’s dismissal of corruption convictions that had ensnared the PT (Workers’ Party, or Partido dos Trabalhadores) icon, has only further strained Bolsonaro’s tenuous grip on power. Recent surveys—which remain hypothetical, given that the 77-year-old Lula has yet to officially announce his candidacy for 2022, despite the overwhelming expectation that he fully intends to do so—show Lula handily defeating Bolsonaro 41 percent to 23 percent in a theoretical first-round matchup, and 55 percent to 32 percent in a hypothetical second-round runoff. In a televised speech on Wednesday, however, Bolsonaro exhibited defiance rather than resignation, defending his government’s accomplishments and his decision to avoid a nationwide lockdown, arguing that his policies would eventually result in high economic growth and a stronger economic comeback. “Our government did not force anyone to stay at home, did not close stores, did not close churches or schools, and did not take away the livelihood of millions of informal workers,” he said.
Last weekend’s protests came just a week after Bolsonaro, in the face of immense criticism from public health authorities, joined thousands of his supporters in a motorcycle rally in Rio de Janeiro, during which he reiterated his refusal to impose a national lockdown, while encouraging his supporters’ calls for the overthrow of Brazil’s Supreme Court (which has given local governors and mayors the ability to enact and enforce social distancing measures despite the federal government’s inaction). Political observers have argued that the anti-Bolsonaro protests signal that Brazil is entering a new phase of political dysfunction, as the country’s polarized electorate prepares for next year’s presidential election. Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy at the University of São Paulo, suggested that “these demonstrations, given the number of people and their turnout throughout the nation, have put impeachment back on the horizon. It doesn’t mean an impeachment will happen, but the possibility has gained traction.” Meanwhile, Guilherme Boulos—the paulistano social activist and former mayoral and presidential candidate who has been described as Lula’s political heir—has called for another round of protests demanding Bolsonaro’s impeachment on June 19.