Bolsonaro and his quest to be an outsider

By Fernando Moura, MA’20, Former Researcher at the Department of Science and Technology Policies at UNICAMP

Brazil is having alarming numbers on coronavirus infections, recently becoming the 6th county to reach 10,000 deaths to COVID-19. Ian Bremmer briefly summarized what has been Bolsonaro’s approach to the pandemic:[1] “Trump would have to fire Fauci and his successor, attend anti-pandemic rallies, and expand chloroquine as COVID treatment to approach the level of crisis incompetence of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro”.[2] To unpack such a wild statement, one should understand what the Bolsonaro government is based on and what were the mistakes the Brazilian president made through the pandemic.

To understand the current government of Bolsonaro one must know that, according to Oliver Stuenkel,[3] there are three political factions on the government.[4] The first is called “bolsonaristas”, spearheaded by the Bolsonaro family and backed by self-proclaimed “philosopher” Olavo de Carvalho. It is also the most conservative of the three factions and has deep ties to the Trump administration. The second political faction is pioneered by the military, especially by high ranked officials such as General Augusto Heleno and Vice President General Hamilton Mourão. They are called the realists, a more pragmatic group that has managed to undo much of the foreign policy intended by the bolsonaristas (such as a military involvement in Venezuela and cutting ties with China, Brazil’s most important trade partner). The third faction are the “neoliberal” economists guided by the minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes (a University of Chicago alumni). This faction is linked to a more “free market” approach to the Economy. To note, the fourth political figure was the former Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro, the former Federal judge of the Car Wash (Lava Jato) operation. Moro resigned at the end of April while claiming political interference by President Jair Bolsonaro on ongoing investigations of the Federal Police.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Brazil was in February 26th. In early March, after visiting Donald Trump in Washington D.C., 23 people from Bolsonaro`s staff returned to Brazil with positive cases of coronavirus. The Brazilian president denied that he himself had the virus[5] and was seen in public events and rallies across Brazil (including rallies against lockdowns and antidemocratic rallies). Bolsonaro, since the beginning of the pandemic, has shown little to no cooperation with state governors and mayors, wrecking any kind of unity and leadership.  

The President minimized the pandemic as just a normal flu and stated that the economy shouldn’t stop because of the virus while deferring public attacks to governors of the major states of Brazil over decrees for shutdown of public spaces. Later, in an official statement, Bolsonaro said that even if he had the coronavirus, he wouldn’t be affected due to his history as an athlete.[6] In the same speech, he also recommended the use of a drug called hydroxychloroquine. This recommendation was later discredited by the Ministry of Health at the time, L.H. Mandetta, causing a public power struggle between Bolsonaro and Mandetta that led to the dismissal of the latter in April 16th. When Brazil surpassed 5,000 deaths, Bolsonaro replied to the press: “So what? What do you want me to do?”.[7] This combative behavior with the media is a key aspect of the “bolsonaristas”, borrowing from the playbook of Steve Bannon[8]. The basic intuition is to garner the enmity of the “mainstream media” to summon his most loyal supporters to propel his demands.

The “free market” faction of the government, with Paulo Guedes as the overseer, came with the agenda of reducing public debt and government intervention after 14 years of the leftist Labor Party at power. Hoping to fight the demand crisis, the government lowered interest rates to the lowest it is ever been in Brazilian history. Early indications, as Paul Krugman points out[9], is that Brazil is heading to a liquidity trap. Meanwhile, Sergio Moro, the head of Car Wash operation and appointed minister of Justice by Bolsonaro, accused the president of meddling in Federal Police efforts to fight corruption[10] and resigned of his position in the government. 

Lastly, the new minister of Health, Nelson Teich also submitted his resignation on May 15th because he was against chloroquine as an early treatment of coronavirus. Bolsonaro appointed an army general as the interim minister of Health (one of many military high ranked officials in the government), further cementing his position as an authoritarian president with roots in the military dictatorship that was established in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Nonetheless, the military faction haven`t sought to retrieve the power it once had, instead is still functioning as the “technocratic” part of the government. 

As soon as Teich left the government, chloroquine was included as a guideline for treatments of Coronavirus in Brazil by the Federal government as Bolsonaro continues to fight the press (and the common sense) in order to radicalize and establish his position as an outsider of the establishment (even though he was a Federal Deputy for 28 years). By pushing his former allies out of his circle of trust and by viciously attacking his opponents (either through public statements or fake news), Bolsonaro shows he wants to be the protagonist on a fight against corruption, globalism, communism, cultural Marxism and everything that will entice his most devoted (and self-proclaimed patriotic) supporters.

In his more than 30 of political experience, Bolsonaro have been part of 8 political parties (ranging from center-left to far-right) and currently is unaffiliated. In a country with 33 different political parties, the “bolsonaristas” are applying for a new political party, one that has a logo made of bullets and a name tied to the dominant political party from the military dictatorship era. Bolsonaro is not disguising his authoritarian figure in any way, but his commitment to radicalize has pushed the Federal government agenda to be against most “mainstream” recommendations to fight the pandemic. Bolsonaro has yet to acknowledge the damage he has done, as he continues to lash over restrictions. His latest demonstration comes from his Twitter feed: “Unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation”. (May 16th)[11]  

Amid the political crisis, the spread of the virus is not controlled and 315 of the 324 cities with a population over 100,000 have confirmed cases of COVID-19.[12] Furthermore, smaller cities fear to have inadequate provisions to fight the pandemic. As of today (May 17th), Brazil has more than 240,000 confirmed cases (along with speculations of under-reports) and more than 16,000 deaths. As the curve has yet to flatten, my country`s future is very grim.


[1] https://www.eurasiagroup.net/people/ibremmer

[2] https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/1261634955786027010?s=20

[3] Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV-SP)

[4] Based on: “Bolsonaro Fans the Flames: Brazil’s Government Still Has One Faction That Can Douse Them” at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/americas/2019-08-30/bolsonaro-fans-flames

[5] The supreme court in Brazil petitioned that his exams were made public and this week the exams were made public. The results were negative but made in the name of aliases, so it is still unclear if he did have Covid-19 or not.

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/03/31/brazils-bolsonaro-blasted-for-coronavirus-response-as-twitter-facebook-remove-post/#7ed91eee2255

[7] https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/brazil-s-coronavirus-crisis-bolsonaro-s-response-failure-authoritarian-populism-ncna1207341

[8] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6823921/Steve-Bannon-gives-Brazils-president-Bolsonaro-advice-lunch-day-White-House-meeting.html

[9] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-12/krugman-says-the-liquidity-trap-has-spread-to-emerging-markets

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-52423473

[11] https://twitter.com/jairbolsonaro/status/1261632430634602496?s=20

[12] https://noticias.uol.com.br/saude/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2020/04/15/brasil-ja-tem-mais-1000-cidades-com-casos-de-covid-19-confirmados.htm

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