Bolsonaro's Colossal Negligence Sparks 'Genocide' Debate in Brazil  

Brazil’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the destruction of Amazon is being led by military men who are failing on both fronts. By associating itself too closely with the president, the Brazilian military loses public trust and tarnishes its image.

Sao Paolo: For 21 years, starting 1964, when Brazil was run by a military dictatorship, the men in uniform used propaganda to project an image of “Great Brazil” to the population. For those who refused to fall in line, the army had a grim message: “Brazil: love it or leave it”.

The military, which was forced to go back to the barracks in 1985 as the economy dived and people jammed the streets calling for democracy, has generally been above criticism. But now, as the biggest South American country faces a perfect storm of a healthcare disaster, economic collapse and social implosion, the most militarised government in the world, run by Jair Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, is feeling the heat. 

Last week, amid growing coronavirus infections and deaths, a judge of the Brazilian Supreme Court dropped a bombshell by saying that the army was associating itself with a “genocide”. “The army is associating with this genocide. It is not reasonable. It is necessary to put an end to this,” said Justice Gilmar Mendes as he blasted the government for packing the Ministry of Health with the military men at the cost of healthcare experts. 

For the past two months, the ministry is being run by General Eduardo Pazuello, a serving officer with no healthcare experience. Since Bolsonaro fired Luis Mandetta, a popular health minister and his successor in the matter of 30 days, the president has shown no inclination of appointing a full-time minister. After Justice Mendes blasted the military, Mandetta also criticised the “military occupation” of his former ministry at the time of a pandemic. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in late May. Photo: Reuters

All the president’s military men

Before becoming president, Jair Bolsonaro had been a federal Congressman for more than three decades. But he never gave up his fascination for guns and admiration for military dictatorship.

In January 2019, when Bolsonaro moved into the presidential palace, he appointed many retired and serving generals in his Cabinet (the Brazilian law allows armed forces personnel to hold civilian positions). Out of 23 ministers in the federal government, 10 are from the forces. According to the Federal Audit Bureau, there are 6,157 military personnel – in active duty or retired – holding civilian positions in Brazilian government. There are also 1,249 military personnel in health ministry. This data came out this week after another Supreme Court judge warned of the “risks of militarisation” of government.

Brazil’s civil society and media has been raising the issue of militarisation of the government in recent weeks. On Sunday, the country’s top newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo revealed that the presence of active-duty military personnel in government departments grew by 33% since Bolsonaro became president.

Also read: In Brazil, a Requiem for Democracy

From 1990s until 2016, the report said, the military people served only in the Ministry of Defence and Security Offices. But, in the Bolsonaro government, they hold important positions across the departments, ranging from education to health to culture. 

In his 18 months in office, Bolsonaro has often used the military’s name to threaten the country’s opposition and institutions like the Congress and Supreme Court and openly participated in far-right rallies demanding “military intervention”. Now, as he faced the biggest crisis of his term, the president turned to the military for support, choosing General Pazuello to lead Brazil’s response to coronavirus. He also appointed another 24 persons with military background in key positions in the Ministry of Health; and ordered the army to mass produce anti-malarial drugs – chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – for public distribution. 

In the past two months, the virus has overwhelmed this country of 210 million people. As of Sunday (July 19), Brazil has recorded 2,099.896 infections and 79,533 deaths. For more than a month now, the number of fatalities has averaged above 1,100 per day. 

Gravediggers wearing protective suits bury a coffin at Vila Formosa cemetery during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

In such a grim scenario, Brazil today stands like an international pariah, with its citizens allowed to enter few countries (Even Uruguay and Paraguay have closed their frontiers with Brazil). Bolsonaro, who has refused to even console the families of COVID-19 victims, is being blamed directly for this catastrophe. Last week, after Justice Mendes’ rebuke, Bolsonaro placed a call to the judge amid reports that the army wanted to “dissociate” itself from the Ministry of Health.

It has now emerged that in his chat with the president, Justice Mendes warned him about the possibility of the case of pandemic negligence being taken to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The judge reportedly told Bolsonaro that he had heard about this possibility in some conversations in Europe. 

Coming from a top judge, the term “genocide” became a front-page headline in Brazil but the word has been in discussion for some time. Just last week, Global Justice activist Monique Cruz denounced Brazil at the UN Human Rights Council. “Brazilian prisons are a fundamental part of the State’s genocidal project,” she said, condemning the government for not releasing the prisoners as the virus spreads in its over-crowded jails. In April, a group of Brazilian parliamentarians sent a letter to the WHO director-general, accusing the President of “flirting with the risk of genocide”. 

Also, in recent months, several human rights groups have filed a complaint at the ICC against Bolsonaro for causing a “risk of genocide” of indigenous people in the Amazon region. This too puts the Bolsonaro – and Brazilian military – in a tight spot. 

The flag and the order 

The Brazilian flag is one of the few flags with a slogan on it. The green and yellow flag has “Order and Progress” written on it, inspired by Auguste Comte’s motto of positivism. It is a much-loved slogan of the Brazilian army which proclaims itself to be a force which brings order when the country is in trouble. Though Brazil became a republic in 1889 with an uprising against the Portuguese empire, the military continued to play an important role even when power was in civilian hands.

In a book on Brazilian armed forces (1975), American political scientist Alfred Stepan traced the formation of the “guardianship character” that the Brazilian military has assumed throughout history. Establishing itself as a “moderating power” with the fall of the empire, Stepan argued, the military “assumed full control of the country in 1964, when they were the supreme power”. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro observes a ceremony to remove the Brazilian National flag, as he walks outside the Alvorada Palace, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brasilia, Brazil, July 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

During the dictatorship, argued the American academic, for the Brazilian army, “security and development were linked” and the “conquest and vivification of the Amazon region and its uninhabited borders was a matter of national security”. After the country returned to democracy in 1985, the army has been focused more on the world’s biggest rainforest amid claims that foreign powers wanted to take away the Amazon from Brazil. The men in uniform appointed themselves as the guardian of Amazon

The script went awry with the election of Bolsonaro, who repeatedly showed contempt for the forests and its inhabitants during his election campaign. Since his election, the destruction of the Amazon has gained speed. According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the deforestation in the Amazon reached the highest level in five years last month, with an area equivalent to 1,00,000 football fields – almost 1,034 square km, cut down in just one month.  

Also read: A COVID Miracle: Brazil’s Bolsonaro Loves to Deny the Virus but Pushes a Cure

The ground situation in the Amazon is chilling. Thousands of illegal miners –an estimated 20,000 just in the Yanomami Territory—are bringing destruction and death to the rainforest. According to the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (ABIP), 517 indigenous people have so far died from COVID-19 infections. Since the virus hit the region, there have been 15,180 cases spread over 129 ethnic groups – many of them from uncontacted tribes. A new study has shown COVID-19 could infect up to 40% of the Yanomami people.  

Even amid fears that the coronavirus could wipe out indigenous groups, the Bolsonaro government has only added to their misery. Last month, the Congress passed a bill that recommended actions to combat the advance of the disease in the indigenous population, but Bolsonaro vetoed the clauses which guaranteed access to drinking water, disinfectants, hospital and ventilators machines to these groups. 

With such crucial services blocked, the death rate among the tribes – already up by 14% as compared to 2019 – could spike in an uncontrolled manner. In such a tragic scenario, indigenous leaders have often used the term “genocide” to describe what is happening to them. 

Call it a genocide 

The Amazon fires made global headlines last year. Now, the situation has become worse. In May this year, Bolsonaro sent troops to fight outbreaks of fire and illegal deforestation in the region. This has backfired, with the environmental inspectors calling the armed forces’ performance as “clumsy, inexperienced and even malicious”. A recent report in Intercept Brasil described how the “militariSation of the fight against deforestation in the Amazon has not prevented records of fires and deforestation” despite having a budget of 1 billion reals, which is 10 times the amount given to the country’s main environmental inspection agency, Ibama.

With the army failing to control the fires and not able to protect the indigenous tribes from the killer virus brought to them by illegal loggers, the forest communities are facing an onslaught they have little protection from. In an open letter to Jair Bolsonaro last month, global activists, intellectuals and celebrities warned the indigenous communities in the Amazon were facing a “genocide”. “Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were decimated by diseases brought by European colonisers … Now, with this new scourge spreading rapidly across Brazil … [they] may disappear completely since they have no means of combating COVID-19,” they wrote. 

A woman wearing a protective mask and a face shield talks on the phone as people walk at a popular shopping street amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 15, 2020. Picture taken July 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

This talk of “genocide” has again brought into picture the country’s supreme court, which has in recent months shot down many of Bolsonaro’s decrees against social distancing and rapped him on the knuckles several times for his “anti-democracy discourse”.  A supreme court judge, Luís Barroso, last week instructed the government to form a “Situation Room” to combat the pandemic among the indigenous people.

At the first meeting of the Situation Room on Friday (July 17), tensions between the indigenous associations and federal government came to the fore as they “became targets of attacks and offences by members of the (Jair Bolsonaro) government”. According to reports in the local media, the Secretary of Indigenous Health of the Ministry of Health, Robson Santos da Silva, made an aggressive speech, dismissing the accusations of “indigenous genocide” as “cynical” and “frivolous”.

Just like its response to mass deaths caused by coronavirus, the Bolsonaro regime remains in denial about the charges of genocide. But the pandemic and the Amazon destruction have cast a shadow over the Brazilian military for its failure on both the fronts. On the healthcare front, Gen. Pauzello, who brought in 26 men from the barracks to replace renowned specialists in the Ministry of Health, has been an unmitigated disaster.

Also read: Fake News, Hiding Data and Profits: How COVID-19 Spun Out of Control in Brazil

On the Amazon frontier, being managed by Brazilian vice president, Hamilton Mourao, a retired general, the government has failed to make any improvement in the ground situation. “These two negative examples do not prove that the military are worse managers than civilians. But they prove that they are not better, as most of them imagine. This belief that they are above other Brazilians is very bad for the armed forces,” wrote Chico Alves, a top columnist, in an article this week. “They pride themselves on not rejecting missions given by their superiors. In a battlefield, where any disobedience can cause great damage, this quality is worth gold. In civilian life, however, it is not enough to accept the tasks, it is necessary to handle them efficiently.”

In its entire history, the Brazilian army has not fought a single war on its soil. Unlike the militaries of Chile and Argentina, the Brazilian forces did not pay any price for the dictatorship-era atrocities. But now, by closely associating themselves with a president, whose popularity is declining as the country goes into a free fall, there has been a rupture between the people and the militarized government. When he began his term, Bolsonaro had the approval rating of 46%; a survey last week shows him at 26%. He has lost the support of 45% of people who backed him in the 2018 election. 

Cabofriense players are temperature checked as they arrive before a match, following the resumption of play behind closed doors after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Photo: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

But Bolsonaro is not sinking alone. He is dragging the men in uniform with him. According to a survey by Valor Economico, the top business newspaper in Brazil, there has been an increase in negative references to the military on the social media. In April, as the virus gained speed, 54% of the posts about the military were negative. In 2018, as per the survey, 55% people believed that in a situation of an increase in crime, a military coup would be justified. In 2020, it has dropped to 25%. If the reason for a military intervention was high unemployment, in 2018, 25.4% people believed that a coup was justified. Now, when the joblessness is at a historic high, the number is down to 15%. 

Bolsonaro government’s complete negligence of the two crises have shattered the military’s image of being a “guardian” of Brazil. Now, questions are being asked about their role in running the government.

In a hard-hitting piece, titled “What will be left of the Brazilian Army?”, published in Epoca magazine this week, columnist Denis Russo Burgierman raised serious questions about the army’s legitimacy.

“If during such a threat to the nation’s security, the action of the armed forces is so pathetic, it is not illegitimate to ask the question: after all, what is the Brazilian Army for? What is it even protecting us from? With a budget of $15 billion and with no war in sight (the plague is good enough), is it not time the country discusses the assignment of its military more seriously?” Burgierman wrote. 

Brazil’s crisis it too serious to be left to its military. 

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.