Brazil Rallies Against Bolsonaro as He Faces Court-Ordered Criminal Probe in ‘CovaxinGate’

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa

In the city of Sao Paulo, the biggest parties of the left and right came together to demand removal of Bolsonaro. Photo: Cuca da UNE

Sao Paulo: A day after a judge of the Supreme Federal Court ordered a criminal investigation against Jair Bolsonaro in the Covaxin scandal, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in 350 cities and towns to protest against the government and demand that the president be impeached.

On Friday evening, Justice Rosa Weber ordered the prosecutor general’s office (PGR) to open an inquiry against Bolsonaro for the alleged crime of “prevarication” (malfeasance) in the case of the contract for 20 million doses of Bharat Biotech’s vaccine in a $300-million deal.

Though the Bolsonaro administration has been swamped with allegations of corruption in the deal, being called ‘CovaxinGate’, the opening of a criminal probe against him takes the seriousness of the case – and the threat to his government – to a higher level. The charge against Bolsonaro is that he was alerted about suspected irregularities in the contract but he did not inform the authorities concerned for action. Under Brazilian law, this is an impeachable offence for elected officials.

As already reported by The Wire, Justice Weber had asked the PGR on Tuesday to open a probe in the case, revealed by a health ministry official Ricardo Miranda and his brother Luis, a federal deputy, in their testimony at the parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI), but the prosecutor general asked for the senate probe to end before taking a decision. On Friday, the judge declined the request. “Since the allegation is backed by evidence, even if minimal, the criminal hypothesis must be put to the test, by the procedure legally conceived for this purpose,” said Justice Weber in her order.

The contract, which is under four different investigations, including two criminal probes, besides being the focus of the senate inquiry, was suspended by the Brazilian government on June 30. The scandal has been growing in size with every passing day, but an inquiry into the president, who is already under suspicion for taking personal interest in the deal for the most expensive vaccine – $ 15 a dose – will keep the country hooked to news in the coming days.

One of the worst countries, along with the US and India, in tackling the pandemic, Brazil has been suffering the impact of the virus since February 2020. Its economy has been in a tailspin, with rising joblessness and hunger. All this while, Bolsonaro has refused to lead the country. On the contrary, he seems to have sabotaged the efforts to control the virus – by talking against mask mandates to promoting chloroquine treatment to delaying the purchase of vaccines. The only vaccine for which the president acted – with great urgency – was Covaxin of Bharat Biotech, which is now the target of a corruption probe and people’s anger.

It has already made people take to the streets to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment.

Left and Right march together

After huge protests June 19, it was decided by unions and civil society groups to occupy the streets on July 24. But as CovaxinGate, playing 24×7 on television, created waves of anger, the protest was moved forward to Saturday (July 3). Called “3JForaBolsonaro” (3July Get out, Bolsonaro), it turned out to be one of biggest nationwide protests in the middle of the pandemic.

In a sign of how anger against Bolsonaro and the vaccine scandal is driving the country’s politics, the Saturday protest brought together leaders and supporters of parties from different political spectrums. On Avenida Paulista, the main avenue of the country’s financial capital, supporters of left-wing Workers Party (PT) and PSDB, the main right-wing party, jointly raised banners and posters demanding the president to leave office. Historical rivals, the two parties have clashed in the presidential elections for decades, with the leftist party defeating PSDB in four consecutive elections from 2002 to 2014.

Just a few months ago a joint protest by these two parties was unthinkable. “This means that the movement to remove Bolsonaro is growing,” said Gleisi Hoffmann, the national president of the Workers’ Party. “We’ve always been on this path and it’s great to see those who have joined now. We need everyone who wants democracy and get the country out of this crisis,” said Hoffmann, who is also a federal deputy.

For PSDB, which is a party of mostly middle- and high-income whites who are socially conservative, it was a big step to join rallies PT, workers unions, student organisation and civil society groups. The biggest cheerleader of former president Lula de Silva’s arrest in a corruption case and impeachment of his successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016, PSDB got decimated in the 2018 election as its supporter migrated in hordes to Bolsonaro. With Bolsonaro failing on all fronts, especially the economy and vaccination, a massive chunk of that group has now deserted Bolsonaro, though his far-right base of about 12% to 15% remains loyal to him. According to the Workers Party leader, the right-wing party is now in a correctional mode. “Analysing the mistakes they made and trying to recover the country’s path to democracy is good,” Hoffman said, speaking at the avenue.

Protests in Brazil are generally colourful and noisy. There was something sombre about Saturday protests as if a wave of anger was covered with a layer of sadness. With 5,22,000 Brazilians killed by the virus and new deaths still touching the figure of 2,000 every day, the country seems to be sitting on a tinder. “I voted for Bolsonaro in the last election with the hope that he will control corruption and make our lives better. He is done the exact opposite. We are worse off than before. Everybody has lost someone. Now, we know the pandemic was used by a few to make money through a corrupt deal,” said Alex Gomes, 38, who works as a manager in a software firm. “I never went to a protest in my life. I went today because the country is sinking and this government is responsible for the disaster.”

In cities across the country, people wearing red, black and the national colours of yellow and green carried placards and banners with slogans which had words like “genocide”, “corrupt” and “Get out” written on them along the name of the Brazilian president. For the majority of the population, suffering the pandemic and its effects, Bolsonaro is to be blamed personally. In Brasilia, a group of protesters installed a 10-metre-tall inflatable doll with the face of Bolsonaro, wearing a toothbrush moustache, and blood dripping from its claws; and many across the country carried a placard with the image of $ 1 dollar, with the slogan that read “The value of your life”, a reference to allegations that officials asked for the cut of $1 per dose in the purchase of AstraZeneca vaccine.

Dining with the CIA

In recent days many allegations have been made in other vaccine deals. But the parliamentary committee hearings in the coming week, starting Tuesday, are all set to focus on the Covaxin deal as some of the principal characters in the scandal appear before the senate. With a probe ordered against the president in the Covaxin contract by a supreme court judge, the investigation into the multi-million deal has now assumed a sense of urgency. The prosecutor general’s office has asked for 90 days to investigate the charge against Bolsonaro. After their investigation, the PGR may file a complaint against Bolsonaro with the supreme court. If the complaint is made, the court will need an approval from two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies to make the president a defendant in the case. He would then be removed from office.

Given his grip over the government at the moment, it is a matter of speculation how this probe will proceed. A lot also depends on the findings of the senate committee, which is going after the Indian deal with full force. A “super petition”, with 120 charges for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, was submitted to the Speaker of chamber this week by a group of parties from the left and right. The Speaker is sitting over the plea. As the protests swell on the streets and the CPI builds pressure, the Speaker may initiate an action he has declined to take so far.

No doubt, Bolsonaro is under siege. But he can’t be written off yet. There is a lot of guessing game – and fear – about how he will react if shoved further into the corner. Having already declared that only “God can remove me from power”, the Brazilian leader is unlikely to quit and walk away. In recent weeks, there have been reports that suggest that the president is mobilising his supporters in the armed forces and military police (heavily-armed units of state police). Bolsonaro has threatened to use the military to keep power a number of times. As the vaccine scandal grows, there is also a growing concern that Bolsonaro may stage something dramatic if he faces impeachment.

Those fears got amplified this week as it was revealed that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, made a quiet trip to Brasilia on Thursday. Landing here from Colombia, Burns met Bolsonaro and had dinner with his chief of staff and the cabinet chief of security – both former army generals. The meeting was not confirmed by the government but Bolsonaro told a group of supporters that he met Burns and hinted that their discussion centred around China and Venezuela.

“Some countries depend on us, on what we produce here. And these countries think 50 and 100 years ahead. And here, unfortunately, at best, we think a few weeks or a few days later,” Bolsonaro said, in a clear reference to China and its dependent on commodities from Brazil. “I am not going to say what was discussed with by him [Burns], but we analysed how things are in South America. I don’t want to talk about Venezuela. Look at Argentina. Where is Chile going? What happened in Bolivia? The Evo Morales gang returned to power. And the president who was there during the interim term [Jeanine Anez] is in prison. Are you feeling any similarity with Brazil?” said Bolsonaro in a chat with his supporters which was recorded and shared on social media.

Observers believe Bolsonaro spoke about the meeting to show to his supporters that he was not isolated internationally and he had the support of Americans. The Americans, say experts, may use a weakened leader to play their game in the region. In an article, titled “The CIA, Brazil and The New Cold War with China” in Brasil Wire, an independent media outlet here, political commentator Nathalia Urban wrote that imperative behind the CIA director “classified trip to Brazil appears to be part of an effort to contain and prevent ascendence of South American governments allied with, or sympathetic” to China.

“It started with Trump and the tariff wars and this is intensifying in the political-diplomatic sphere under Biden, through the attempt to create a network of alliances around China to contain it and diplomatically isolate the country,” wrote Urban in a sharp analysis in which she also mentioned Lula’s recent statements about the importance of good relations with both China and Russia.

In recent months, the South American leftist parties are on the rise again. Already back in power in Argentina and Bolivia, the leftists almost won in Ecuador a few months ago. In Peru, their victory is certain; in Chile, they are leading the polls for elections; and in Brazil, if elections are held today, Lula will beat Bolsonaro in the first round itself.

It is not a scenario Washington would like to have in the region they have always seen and regarded as their backyard, but a lot depends on the mood on the Brazilian streets which is getting angry with a growing scandal.

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