After one year of a pandemic, Brazil is experiencing the worse moment of its democratic history with a crisis that is spreading to all spheres of power. On one hand, the health and economic sectors find themselves in a state of disaster, aggravated by uncertainty and government abandonment and gravely affecting the black community, women, LGBTI+ persons, indigenous people, and quilombolas. On the other hand, there is a political crisis orchestrated by the current government, which through the dissemination of false information, has found in the COVID-19 pandemic a strategic opportunity to increase its power through institutional means. Along with more than 322,000 lives lost, government ministries are succumbing to an authoritarian increase of orders and counter-orders from the Bolsonaro government, culminating in a wave of poverty and unprecedented violence.
The world needs to look at what is happening in Brazil. Latin America must look at what is happening in Brazil. This editorial letter is a call for help from the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights (Race and Equality) for the international community to take a look at Brazil and to hear that, while world leaders are planning how to end the pandemic in order to rebuild their countries, President Bolsonaro in Brazil has turned his population into a guinea pig and has made them hostage to a project to spread the virus in view of pursuing his own interests camouflaged in the salvationist rhetoric of “economic recovery”. What Bolsonaro did not include in his policy of death is that the political polarization aroused by his ruling base could collide with his plans for power. Since wherever there are extreme crises, there are human rights violations, we describe below some events caused by Bolsonaro’s governance and the tragedies affecting the country in an unprecedented manner.
Health crisis and pandemic – During the month of March 2021, the country for five consecutive days recorded a record high average of COVID-19 deaths reaching 3,950 deaths in 24 hours on the last day of the month. Even with a free public healthcare system that is a world reference, the hospital system collapsed due to presidential vetoes on protective measures which resulted in the absence of basic hospital and respiratory kits. Furthermore, government negligence concerning the pandemic continued on in the form of failed social distancing measures, encouraging mass gatherings, spreading of the virus in indigenous villages and quilombo, and encouraging the use medications without proven efficacy. Due to the absence of an effective vaccination plan, the country did not join the international pact against COVID-19 encouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO), remaining more and more isolated from the rest of the world. It must be remembered that the health crisis is the tip of the iceberg for generalized political instability.
Political and ministerial crisis – During the pandemic alone, the Bolsonaro government welcomed four different Health ministers: Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Nelson Teich, Eduardo Pazuello e, o atual, Marcelo Queiroga. Even those most in line with proposals from the ruling faction did not succeed making progress with the pandemic and, in the midst of constant conflict with a lack of public policy and a framework for a vaccination plan, all of them were criticized for their submission to the President and for lacking autonomy in the exercise of their duties. The current crisis leads Bolsonaro to having to negotiate with political parties in the center over positions important to the country’s public life so that his political plan is prioritized, leaving aside the social policies necessary for recovering from the social crisis that has exponentially struck the most vulnerable populations such as black and Indigenous people and quilombo residents.
Crisis in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Last week, the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs resigned after intense political pressure from the National Congress and from his own ministry. Ernesto Araujo’s management is seen as a tragic period of Brazilian diplomacy. In the UN he was responsible for Brazil’s veto of the term “gender” in resolutions and for stances contrary to sexual education, which was seen as confrontational with women and the trans community. Moreover, Araujo accused the coronavirus of being an ideological virus that was working for the construction of a “communist nightmare” through encouraging countries to transfer their power to the World Health Organization. His conflictual attitude was accused of delaying Brazil’s purchase of vaccines and of not having established a diplomatic relationship with countries that could be important partners at a time when the pandemic is worsening in Brazil and when there is a shortage of vaccines and raw materials.
Military crisis and allusion to the dictatorship – In recent days, the Brazilian population has been gripped by a profound feeling of political uncertainty upon encountering a true military crisis characterized by a meeting of the Armed Forces. For the first time in the history of the country, the three chiefs of the Armed Forces tendered their resignations due to disagreements with the President of the Republic. According to experts, Bolsonaro was pressuring the Armed Forces to engage in political defense of the government and in support of measures against social distancing – a flagrant attempt at turning the Armed Forces into his personal institutions in order to defend his interests, demonstrating a crisis that generated collective fear for the country’s political future. This episode occurred the same week that marks the 57th anniversary of the beginning of the military dictatorship of business in Brazil, which was a bloody, antidemocratic period in which there were at least 434 people killed or disappeared and in which triumphed censorship, the repeal of civil rights, and the serious violation of human rights. Fifty-seven years later, the Ministry of Defense emphasized that the military regime period is a part of the trajectory of Brazilian history and should be celebrated. This attitude as well as Bolsonaro’s attempts to incite the Armed Forces to his defense should be rejected as harmful to process of redemocratizing Brazil.
Political violence – The 2020 electoral process was recorded as one of the most violent in recent years. It is not by accident that we organized together with other Brazilian black organizations and state council members (cis and trans) a thematic hearing at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) to report the worsening of political violence against these organizations and to demand their lives be protected. Victims of physical threats and/or online attacks, these State Council members faced daily racist and transphobic hate speech without being afforded government protection. Uncoincidentally, 2020 was also marked by a considerable increase in the murder of trans people with 175 murders – 41.12% more than in 2019. The Brazilian government’s failure to act in the face of political and electoral violence directed at these groups exposes the fragility of Brazilian democracy, which due to the impunity of crimes spanning gender and racial violence, deprives black and trans women from exercising their political rights, threatening democracy in Brazil and covering up intersectional debate in institutions of power. Thus, the silencing of these women is reinforced in spheres of power.
Economic crisis: impoverishment of the population and unemployment – Brazil was removed from the UN Hunger Map in 2014. Nevertheless, due to the crisis’ exponential growth in the country, the estimate for the end of 2020 was that 14.7 million people or 7% of the population fell into extreme poverty because of the pandemic. The Brazilian population is living through a moment of extreme poverty due to the political and economic crisis that, because of disinterest in political coordination, deprives the population of assistance and fails to provide the means necessary for social distancing protocols to be respected through financial subsidies. Emergency assistance, which was around $600 Brazilian reals in the beginning of the pandemic, has not run out solely due to the fight led by civil society. Even so, after a significant decrease in 2021, the assistance now varies from $150 to $375 reals – an amount that does not take into account the price spike of basic staples and the minimum wage, much less the cost of gas cylinders which serves as the nutritional basis for thousands of families in the country. Even the financial speculation fostered by the Bolsonaro government, which spans from damaging large state corporations aiming for privatization to abandoning large multinational businesses in the country, is facing a permanent rollercoaster with the President’s changes in important offices in the land. The high unemployment rate witnessed a leap from 45% to 53% during the pandemic, causing latent growth of informal jobs without any guarantee of rights and protections for workers who are primarily black. Analyzing the economic crisis in Brazil is to directly look at the country’s historical racial problems.
Police violence – Despite the decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to suspend police raids in communities of Rio de Janeiro unless absolutely necessary while the state of disaster stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic is in effect, this is not the reality in Rio’s favelas according to the judgement of Claim 635 Violation of a Fundamental Principle (ADPF) since police violence in these areas still remains. Additionally, during the first two months of 2021, were reported nine massacres in police operations in the state. For this reason, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rio de Janeiro along with human rights defense entities petitioned that the STF speak up concerning the continuation of those police actions. It must be highlighted that such instability affects the pace of vaccination, which has had to be interrupted in the favelas because of shootouts. In Rio de Janeiro alone, from January to June 2020, 99 children and adolescents were killed by police, 27% in the capital and 73% in other municipalities. The report “The Color of Violence: the Bullet Does Not Miss its Target”, written by the Rede de Observatórios da Segurança (Network of Security Observatories), points to the data on racist violence in 2019. In Bahia, a state with a mostly black population, 97% of people murdered by police were black. In Rio de Janeiro, which has 51% of the black population, 86% of people killed by police were black people, the highest number in decades.
Environmental crisis – Even in his speech at the opening session of the 75th UN General Assembly, President Bolsonaro spread fake news about the government’s stance on the loosening of environmental guidelines during the pandemic. As a consequence, the Indigenous population and residents of quilombos suffer the most from deforestation and land-grabbing, in addition to the spread of the virus in their communities. Beyond not fulfilling any signed environmental agreement, the country will have to redo its climate goals in order to meet the Paris Agreement. If the Bolsonaro government does indeed have any environmental policy, it is compromised by political parties that seek to exploit protected natural reserves just as environment minister, Ricardo Salles, pointed out during a ministerial meeting when referring to “pushing through” simplifications of environmental rules and norms. Nevertheless, in 2020, between the deaths of various Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders in the fight against the pandemic and for the forest, an enormous increase was recorded in the deforestation of the Amazonian forest.
As part of Race and Equality’s commitment to the fight for human rights and racial and gender equity from an intersectional perspective, this editorial is more than a report before the international community on what is happening in Brazil. It is also a call for international actors who defend human rights to exhort the Brazilian State in its federal, state, and municipal jurisdictions to adopt distinct public policies that meet the specificities of black and Indigenous populations that are the most affected by hunger, poverty, and the domino effect of neglect, which is the political project that has become the pandemic in the country. It is also crucial that the racial problem be recognized as an aggravating factor of the inequalities that finds in policies and meritocratic projects, beyond the State’s failure to address police violence, the violent death and mass incarceration of the country’s black population. Furthermore, the government should adopt the WHO protocols to tackle the pandemic and, finally, it should urge the Armed Forces to respect the country’s civil and democratic order.