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 April 28, 2020
The coronavirus crisis in Bolsonaro's Brazil

 No world leader has been more vocal in downplaying the threat of the coronavirus than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. A former military officer and defender of Brazil's military dictatorship, Bolsonaro took office, in 2019, after a flagrantly racist and sexist campaign, and has encouraged the rapid deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. When faced with the coronavirus outbreak, Bolsonaro responded that Brazilians are immune from diseases and won't "catch a thing," adding that "God is Brazilian." He has also harshly criticized governors who have shut down their states despite his opposition. In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for supporting social-distancing policies and, according to Bolsonaro, endangering the economy. Although testing remains limited, Brazil has had about fifty thousand confirmed covid-19 cases and thirty-three hundred deaths, and the disease has reached every one of Brazil's twenty-seven states.

To talk about the situation in Brazil, I spoke by phone last Thursday with Sergio Davila, the editor-in-chief of Folha de S.Paulo, one of the leading newspapers in the country, which Bolsonaro has decried as "fake news" throughout his tenure. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Bolsonaro makes decisions, whether the political opposition can use his handling of the coronavirus crisis against him, and how Bolsonaro has been able to continue his war on the rain forest despite the pandemic.

Do you have some sense of how much the coronavirus has spread in Brazil, both geographically and in terms of people?

We have a bad case of undertesting. We don't know all the numbers yet, and there are thousands and thousands of tests with no result. But the last twenty-four hours were a record---over four hundred deaths. The total number of deaths in Brazil is over three thousand, and we have about fifty thousand confirmed cases. But my guess is that it is a lot more. We don't test enough.

We have cases in all twenty-seven states, but the main problem is in São Paulo, which is the largest state, and in Rio de Janeiro, but it is starting to get to states like Amazonas, where the rain forest is, and where the public-health system has collapsed. The number of patients in intensive care there is already over capacity. It is starting to spread to other poorer states, which means fewer hospitals and support and less of a presence from government. It is going to be bad.

How do you understand Bolsonaro's behavior since the coronavirus hit? What is he trying to accomplish, if that isn't too rational a question to ask about him?

He said himself, and I am paraphrasing, that, if this crisis lasts long enough, then the economy is done and he is done. He said that publicly. It is no secret that he wants this thing to end soon. His concern is for the economy to get back on its feet soon enough so that it doesn't hurt when he is running for reëlection, in 2022.

So he doesn't see a health crisis as hurting him and the economy? Instead it is just a trade-off?

The main point he has been defending---not at the start of the crisis but in the last couple of weeks---is that we have to do partial isolation so we don't hurt the economy too much. He wants to determine who is at risk, and then isolate them, and the rest of the population can work and go about their business. It's hard to tell you what his main strategy is because it changes very often. If you had asked me last week, for instance, I would have said he was putting all his bets on hydroxychloroquine, the drug that supposedly helps when you get the disease. But he isn't talking about that anymore. He is now talking about partial social isolation. So it's hard to be sure.

To be honest with you, I don't know if he knows in his mind what the best strategy is. He goes with the flow. He has a lot of family counsel, run by his three sons, and he listens a lot to his military ministers in his cabinet, and he reads a lot of social media. He is a social-media addict. And my impression is that he wakes up every day and says, "My strategy today is this one." But it can change in the next days. He spent fifteen days publicly undermining his health minister, who was at the time the most coherent member of his government. He said something like, "I don't have stars on my team. Nobody is above being fired."

What social media is he reading?

He tries to get the temperature of the country by reading social media. He thinks that he has his thumb on the pulse of the public by reading Twitter. He is a Twitter fanatic. He reads a lot of Facebook, and, this is less known, but he is in a lot of WhatsApp groups---I think Brazil is one of the-largest WhatsApp-using countries---with businessmen, truck drivers, and others. And he gets the temperature through these groups.

Are you implying that these are right-wing groups?

Yeah, that is what I am saying.

The health minister he fired was enormously popular. Has that firing or any of his actions dented his popularity?

We have a polling institute that did a poll just after the firing. Sixty-four per cent thought Bolsonaro did the wrong thing by firing the minister of health. So, yes, it has dented his popularity. I would say he has twenty to twenty-five per cent of the electorate with him no matter what, and sometimes it seems he is talking and running the country thinking of this core base only. It wasn't logical to fire the health minister in the midst of this pandemic, and it has dented his popularity, but he is going about business as usual.

How much of the Brazilian establishment is opposed to Bolsonaro right now? Is he at risk of losing insider support?

What do you call "establishment"? Businessmen and captains of industry and bankers are supporting him, and especially his economic program. His minister of the economy, the equivalent of the Treasury Secretary in the United States, is a man named Paulo Guedes, who is a man of the market and is very well liked by the economic establishment. As long as he keeps Guedes, he will have great support from some bankers and businessmen. At the same time, he invited a lot of military or former military ministers to be in his government. Military support is a big thing in Brazil, and at least for now he has the support of the main armed forces.

It seemed early on that elements of the military were disappointed that he wasn't handling this crisis more seriously. Did nothing come of that?

Yeah, but after that he changed a couple of names in his cabinet and put more former generals and military men on his team, and I would say that now he has their support once again. Since the democratization of Brazil, in 1985, it is by far the most military or former military ministers in a cabinet.

A lot of the opposition has come from state governors. How much has that kept up, and what does it tell you about the state of political opposition to Bolsonaro?

Twenty of the twenty-seven states are in opposition to Bolsonaro right now, and especially in terms of what he is doing with the coronavirus. Among the twenty, you have governors of two of the largest states in Brazil, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I would say that the federation in Brazil is under a big stress test right now, because you have the governors in open opposition.

And Bolsonaro's power to force them to open back up is limited, as it is with Trump here?

Yes, it's similar. He tried to do that through an executive order, and overrule the states, but the Supreme Court threw that out, saying the governors of the states have the final word on what will be open or closed during this crisis. That was a major loss for Bolsonaro.

What about the state of the Workers' Party (P.T.), which has been the main opposition?

All the states in the northeastern region are governed by members of the opposition, and most of them are from the P.T. or are at least in the coalition that supports the P.T. So that is where the political opposition comes from. But I have to say that this crisis changed that, too, because the P.T. is still the largest opposition party in Brazil, and the second-largest force in Congress, but people like João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, who was elected saying Bolsonaro was the solution for Brazil, and even had a tagline called Bolsodoria, are now in opposition to Bolsonaro. Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, if you go look at his political campaign in 2018, he, too, was in the same mold as Bolsonaro---he was the law-and-order candidate saying you had to put bad guys in jail and have order. And now he is in opposition to Bolsonaro as well.

So Bolsonaro is facing opposition from the P.T., as always, but he is also facing political opposition from former allies---who, by the way, are not even remotely close to the P.T. They ran campaigns saying the P.T. was evil and we have to vanish the P.T. from the face of the earth. It is a big change.

Your paper just had a scoop today about Sergio Moro, who was once seen as an anti-corruption figure and led the campaign to send a bunch of politicians in Brazil to jail. But then he shocked people by joining Bolsonaro's government. What is his status?

Sergio Moro is, for a big part of the population, a superstar to this day. He is the minister of justice and the so-called father of Operation Car Wash, which was the biggest political scandal in the country's history. In the way that the government works here, the federal police answer to the minister of justice. The federal police is the equivalent of the F.B.I. And Moro responds to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro called Sergio Moro earlier on Thursday and told him to fire the head of the federal police, and Moro said he would resign if Bolsonaro fired this man. This was our scoop. We are in the midst of this crisis, and we don't know if Moro will resign. Remember, it took two weeks for the minister of health to be fired. [Hours after we spoke, Moro resigned, and gave a blistering speech in which he accused Bolsonaro of corruption.]

Has Bolsonaro's war on the rain forest and on indigenous populations continued throughout this crisis?

Yeah. That's the worst part. All of the media attention is about the coronavirus crisis, but the thing is that the rain forest is still suffering, and we still have a record amount of of deforestation. No one is paying attention, but it is still happening. The deforestation in the rain forest is up fifty-one per cent in the first trimester of 2020 compared to the first trimester of 2019, which was the first year of Bolsonaro's government. We don't have the resources to be on this story, but things are bad in the rain forest and in the indigenous communities. And, a couple weeks ago, we had the first case of covid-19 in one of the indigenous communities.

What is the state of Brazilian democracy after more than a year of Bolsonaro? Is it weaker or stronger than you thought it would be?

I think it is under stress, and probably the worst stress since the end of the dictatorship, but I also think it is doing well and more resilient. The system of checks and balances is working. The Supreme Court is doing its job. The Congress is doing its job. It is turning down a lot of exotic propositions from the executive. The Supreme Court is doing the same. It is knocking down executive orders that are not democratic, such as the one I mentioned about overturning the power of the states. So the system of checks and balances is working. But you have to know that Brazil is a relatively new democracy, not like the United States. It's under stress, but it is doing well so far. So I am optimistic. The press is doing a great job as well.

I hate to ask this question, because I don't want to view everything through an American prism, but the number of things you said about Bolsonaro that are reminiscent of Trump was striking. Is Bolsonaro modelling himself on Trump, or is that too American-centric?

No, I think it is conscious. He is modelling himself after Trump, and even said "I love you" to Trump. His political model is Donald Trump. That is very clear to us. He even uses the term, in English, "fake news," which he called the newspaper I run. (Laughs.) Trump is his political model, no doubt.