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COVID-19 in Latin America: Growing Challenges in the World’s Most Unequal Region

By Rafael R. Ioris. This article originally appeared at COHA and is republished with permission.

Confirming what scientists had been saying for the last several years, a new global pandemic has brought the entire world to a halt in the last three months. The rapid spreading of a new form of Coronavirus, called COVID-19, has stalled global commercial chains among countries and forced societies to find new ways to run business, educational systems, and even the very operations of political deliberation. Teleconferencing, online education, and zoom-based legislative sessions have become the new normal and no one is certain of when things can go back to the dynamic before the pandemic. Mirroring these events, Latin America has now become the epicenter of the spreading of the new virus, especially in its largest countries, Brazil[1] and Mexico,[2] where contagion rates and death tolls are on the rise.

A continent historically plagued by weak and non-democratic political institutions and entrenched huge socio-economic inequalities, Latin America’s experiences with COVID-19 have been largely defined, very much along the situation unfolding in the US, by political inability and ideological polarization. And even though there are notable exceptions, these factors have mired the region’s ability to cope with the new challenges brought up by the rapid spread of the new virus.

In a general sense, size has mattered in the ways COVID-19 infection rates have been manifested in Latin America. Several smaller countries, like Uruguay[3] and Paraguay,[4] have so far managed to almost stop contagion with rigid border controls, something which tragically hardened some nationalist feelings present across the region prior to the arrival of COVID-19. In addition to these strategies, Nicaragua[5] has had a different approach, keeping borders open so they could incentivize people to enter the country through legal points of entry and allow examinations by health authorities, something that seems to have been working well so far.

Counter-intuitively, larger countries, like Brazil, which usually possess better public health resources have fared more poorly though it is likely that things would have even been worse were it not for institutions such as its Unified System of Public Health (SUS[6]). In effect, conversely to what is happening in Argentina,[7] a country with the region’s fourth largest population and where rigid stay-at-home policies have been successfully implemented, and echoing events that also hindered the decision-making process in the US, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro at first denied the very threat posed by COVID-19 and then continued to undermine efforts promoted by their country’s important scientific, academic and public health professionals. Also in tandem with experiences of the United States, it is likely that Brazil’s federalist constitutional[8]framework helped minimize the impact of COVID-19 in some parts of the country. In particular, it has allowed some local governors to act more assertively in mandating stay-at-home policies, despite Bolsonaro’s efforts to maintain commercial activities open.

In any event, Brazil faces today its most challenging public health crisis. The country has recorded[9] at least 930,000 coronavirus cases, registered a death toll around 46,000, and displays the steepest curve of ascending cases in the world. Intensifying the regional challenges, a country where COVID-19 cases have taken a bit longer to gain momentum, Mexico now sees a rapid worsening of cases, having recorded[10] its worst week since the outbreak, both in confirmed cases (around 150,000) and deaths (around 18,000).

It should be noted that even though any nation with the social stratification existing in Latin America would equally face tremendous hurdles to attend to the many health crises accentuated by the new coronavirus, the lack of efficient, coherent leadership and inclusive decision-making processes present in Latin American has certainly made things much worse. For one, stay-at-home policies could not be put in place in efficient ways since significant portions of workers simply could not afford to stop working in the streets since their very livelihood would thus be denied.

Regionally the informal sector[11] employs from a third to half of each country’s workforce and, especially where government economic aid was not forthcoming or was otherwise insufficient, it became extremely challenging for many not to venture outside in search of some form of remuneration or gain. Much in the same way, the halting of in-classroom education and its replacement by online education, though present across the region, impacted people differently depending on their socio-economic position. To be sure, the manifestation and especially the impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America vary according to people’s zip codes and racial composition. In effect, facing COVID-19 has depended largely on one’s socio-economic reality,[12] i.e. one’s economic means, type of employment, educational background, place and type of residence.

In short, being able to have access to online education, managing social or physical distancing, and following stay-at-home policies, all depended on one’s place in the entrenched stratified societies of Latin America. These challenges have been intensified by both the political fragmentation and economic slowdown most countries in the region faced prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Latin America’s political fragmentation[13] is today at its highest degree since the dawn of the 21st century and most of the region’s domestic political arenas are largely defined by intense political polarization, which means that the anti-COVID-19 policies have been, in most places, mired in ideological disputes and conflicts. Coronavirus will also worsen the mediocre economic growth[14] most countries in the region have seen in the last five years, thus also intensifying existing regional economic disparities.

Adding to the many existing and growing challenges each country in the region faces, regional political coordination, such as the sharing of successful policies put in place in one country, has become a more difficult, though still a potentially important line of action. In fact, even though Latin America, particularly South America, has experienced its most promising period of regional cooperation in the first two decades of the 21st century, regional multilateralism has rapidly eroded in the last two years.

This erosion of multilateralism was a process involving the coordination of US policies in the region in order to undermine rising levels of autonomy created by new regional alliances, such as UNASUR. This process has involved once again to turning the Organization of American States[15] into a diplomatic instrument for the promotion of US interests in the region. The arrival to power of Jair Bolsonaro and his policy of direct alignment[16] with the US has consolidated these new trends. In effect, deepening his xenophobic isolationism, and mimicking Trump’s views and policies, the Brazilian president has recently accused the World Health Organization of being an ideologically driven organization, from which Brazil could possibly withdraw in the near future.[17]

All in all, Latin America’s landscape in the context of the regional spread of COVID-19 is one defined by growing economic, social, health, and political challenges. It is to be expected that heightened short-sighted nationalist views, deep political polarization, and entrenched economic inequalities will harden across the region, impacting more sharply and painfully historically marginalized social segments, such as afro-descendants and indigenous communities. Reversing these disheartening trends will take continued and asserted mobilization of broad sectors of all regional democratic forces. And it is very unfortunate therefore, that in such a challenging context, Latin America’s burgeoning experiences with regional cooperation in the last decade have been severely reversed in the last few years.[18]

Rafael R. Ioris is Associate Professor of Latin American History at the University of Denver.

Patricio Zamorano, Co-Director of COHA, contributed as Editor of this article.

[Main photo-credit: Pixabay, open license]


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Blood On Their Hands: The Human Cost Of Foreign Support For Bolsonaro

At the time of publication, June 23, 2020, Brazil has just passed the grim marker of 50 thousand confirmed Covid-19 deaths.

Estimates generated from the Notary Public system’s obituary reports suggest that real mortality figures are closer to 85,000, and a nationwide study in which a representative sample of 25,000 people in 90 counties was given Covid-19 tests, recently suggested the real infection rate is 7 times higher than official numbers.

Brazil’s response to the pandemic has been an unequivocal disaster, and it could yet become the country worst hit. When compared to the situation in neighbouring Argentina it is clear that policy and incompetence are much stronger causal factors than chance or the cruelty of nature.

That Bolsonaro came to power on a wave of foreign support, both from governments and the corporations they serve, cannot be ignored.

Those who supported his presidency, and the corrupted anti-democratic processes which put him there, have blood on their hands.

In a 1998 TV interview, Jair Bolsonaro infamously said that 30,000 needed to be killed for Brazil to function. He was speaking in reference to the 1964-85 dictatorship period, which he considers a golden age, but that he complained did not kill enough. He also lamented that his hero, Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet, likewise did not murder enough Chilean citizens. If he ever came to power, Bolsonaro said, he would put this right. These remarks, and others similarly disturbing, were public and already well known in 2018. The character of this man was very clear long before he took office.

Yet, with their eyes on Brazil’s riches, his foreign supporters did not care.

As Bolsonaro dog whistled encouragement to his fanatical supporters, murders of Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Peasant, and Afro-Brazilian community leaders accelerated, and lumber companies began hiring chainsaw crews in the Amazon even before he took office. Under the public cheerleading of a previously unknown former judge who rode to the governorship on Bolsonaro’s coat tails, Rio de Janeiro’s state military police alone surpassed the entire number of killings committed by police in the United States.

Bolsonaro once eulogised the United States cavalry for being more effective in their extermination of Indigenous peoples than their Brazilian counterparts. Upon coming to power he quickly initiated a process long threatened, one which will strip them, whom he compared to zoo animals, of their demarcated lands.

This was not only an act of racist revanchism; it would of course also open their territory to exploitation by the same foreign extractive corporations and investors who enthusiastically supported the Neofascist’s sham election.

Now there are miners and loggers, working on behalf of foreign capital, who are not only ripping down protected rainforest at record rates and poisoning rivers with mercury but are intentionally carrying Covid-19 into the heart of protected Indigenous communities. Kayapó Leader Paiakan was one its recent victims, among 332 Indigenous who have officially died from the coronavirus, and 7,208 cases, across 110 tribes with a total population of around 800,000.

In the most resource rich nation on Earth, the mining sector particularly, was in rapture, with the Amazon region a new frontier.

To the international mining, beef, lumber and soy industries, and their puppet in the Brazilian presidency, genocide is just another externality to be ignored in their business models, like climate change.

 

Anglo Support

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to congratulate Jair Bolsonaro upon his election. The UK’s Conservative Government was in its own words looking forward to working closely with his administration, in particular with Economy Minister, “Chicago Boy” Paulo Guedes.

Johnson’s former adversary, Jeremy Corbyn, recently acknowledged the covert support British Government was giving Bolsonaro:

“It was also recently discovered that various Conservative ministers were meeting Bolsonaro, his family and allies well before he was elected.

Specifically, Freedom of Information requests have revealed details of previously undisclosed meetings and correspondence between British officials and Bolsonaro before, during and after the election campaign, including when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary.” Corbyn told inews.

While the UK Government was meeting Bolsonaro, its main media platform the BBC was promoting his supporters, some of them actual neo-nazis, as “a rising tide of young conservatives” who ” seek change”.

Bolsonaro went on to thank Boris Johnson for resisting tough European Union response to the Amazon fires of 2019. Johnson had told Parliament: “Mr Speaker I would be reluctant to encourage any measure now that did anything to reduce trade, and free trade around the world and it’s much much better to support the re-forestation of Brazil in the way that we are.”

The President elect’s idealogical ally, Donald Trump gave Bolsonaro his most enthusiastic congratulations, “the U.S.A. is with you!” he proclaimed. The Brazilian neofascist was quite obviously the Republican Party backed candidate at the 2018 election, but Bolsonaro’s support spread far deeper into the bipartisan corporate world, long excited by the liberalisation of Brazil’s economy that he promised, in particular the prospect of the protected areas of the Brazilian Amazon opened up to exploitation.

In January 2019, Wall Street lobby and think tank Council of the Americas was breathless in its praise of Paulo Guedes and the economic policy of the incoming Bolsonaro regime:  “To the attendees of the World Economic Forum: This week in Davos, you will meet a man who seems destined to change Brazil for the better. Brilliant and disciplined, he has put together a truly first-rate team. In just three weeks in office, he seems to have correctly diagnosed what ails the world’s most disappointing large economy of recent years. There in the Swiss Alps, he will present his plan for fixing it; you will likely be dazzled. This man’s name is Paulo Guedes.” enthused Americas Quarterly Editor in Chief, Brian Winter.

Guedes responded to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic by claiming that his ultra-liberal reforms were the solution. His colleague, environment minister Ricardo Salles, saw the pandemic as an opportunity for accelerated abandonment of regulations protecting the Amazon, while the public was distracted.

With Bolsonaro in barely in office, Council of the Americas member Cargill announced explicit support for deforestation in an open letter to soybean producers in Brazil, and its opposition to environmental protection projects in the irreplaceable Cerrado Savanna biome.

Disregarding any human rights concerns, fellow Council of the Americas member, Barings Bank, could not contain their enthusiasm for the election of Bolsonaro, calling it “a new frontier”. “Jair Bolsonaro’s election as Brazil’s president in October 2018 was momentous: this was the first time since the establishment of the country’s 1988 constitution that a clear right-leaning mandate had won a national vote. Many market commentators have recognized that his appointment has the potential for positive economic transformation,” it proclaimed.

The propaganda-laden statement paid gushing tributes to Paulo Guedes and Bolsonaro Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, even lauding his politically-motivated imprisonment of former President Lula da Silva, which enabled Bolsonaro’s victory.

Canadian national public broadcaster CBC responded to Bolsonaro’s election with an article headlined ‘What a far-right Presidency in Brazil means for Canadian Business’: “Brazil’s new president elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is a right-winger who leans towards more open markets. This could mean fresh opportunities for Canadian companies looking to invest in the resource-rich country,” it announced on social media.

In 2013, Canadian Intelligence agencies were found to have spied on Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry.

The new goldrush in the Brazilian Amazon, and its political context, were entirely foreseeable. In December 2012, Wall Street Journal ran a piece headlined “Mining Giants Head to Amazon Rain Forest. In Next Five Years, About $24 Billion Will Be Invested to Boost Production in Remote, Environmentally Sensitive Region.”

The Wall Street Journal was unapologetically supportive of Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidency. More recently it even urged an end to quarantine measures in Brazil, further endangering the population.

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer wrote in Time Magazine that Bolsonaro was a “sharp break with a decade of high-level corruption, and Brazil’s best chance in a generation to enact economic reforms”, while clarion of  capital, The Economist, emphasised the Neofascist’s “good ideas“. NATO-adjunct think-tank the Atlantic Council also enthused about economic direction of the Bolsonaro regime, excited by the prospects of a free-trade agreement with Brazil under his extreme-right government, and continued their strange fixation with Brazilian pension reform.

As Brazil sinks further into the darkest episode of its recent history, there can be no forgiveness for the foreign state, corporate and media actors who helped enable a human catastrophe, in the name of “free trade”.

Nor should they be listened to about who should govern Brazil once the Bolsonaro nightmare is over.


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Sergio Moro’s Catch 22: Miami or the Presidency

Will backstabbing opportunists turn the spell against the witch who cast it?

By Brian Mier

On June 20th, Brazil’s right-wing extremist Education Minister Abraham Weintraub abruptly resigned and fled the country fleeing probable arrest. His destination was Miami, the purgatory of corrupt Latin American politicians and organized crime figures.

Although both the Brazilian and international media seem to be trying to rebuild his damaged reputation, I believe that former Lava Jato judge/Justice Minister Sergio Moro will eventually follow his fellow former Bolsonaro cabinet member up to the “land of Disney” as well. Media outlets like Folha de São Paulo and Bloomberg may be heralding the “tantalizing idea of a Moro presidency“, but they are downplaying the fact that his recent public, self incrimination makes him vulnerable to political enemies who can use all of the same lawfare tactics that were legalized during his US DOJ partnership in the Lava Jato operation to politically annihilate the PT party and elect Jair Bolsonaro.

I do not mean to imply here that Moro is at risk of losing a fair trial and that Brazil has recuperated the rule of law that was mortally wounded during the illegal ouster of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, as documented in award winning films like “Edge of Democracy” and “the Process”. Whether Moro is granted the right to fair trial he worked so hard to deny to former President Lula is not the point here. Frustrated at failure to negotiate the internal politics in Brazil’s complicated executive branch as Justice Minister, Moro had repeated crises of authoritarianism with powerful people over his incompetence at getting anything significant accomplished and this bruised egos. One example was allegedly calling up Congressional President Rodrigo Maia (DEM) in the middle of the night to unsuccessfully threaten him into passing an unpopular crime bill which would have protected organized crime militias connected to the Bolsonaro family.

The coalition of opportunistic hate clowns, crime groups, crooked celebrity cops, right wing political parties and media oligarchies that joined together to prevent PT from retaking the presidency at all costs was always tenuous at best. As Brazil slips into the dual crisis of record unemployment and the world’s worst Covid 19 pandemic, many of its key figures have broke from Bolsonaro and are stabbing each other in the back. In the last year Bolsonaro lost support of: the major media companies that aided in Lula’s arrest and their preferred 2022 presidential candidate Luciano Huck; the PSL political party which he rode into office on; the Koch-Brothers supported MBL group and its young cadre of libertarian youtubers turned lawmakers; the largest traditional right wing party in Brazil, DEM; key evangelical church allies like São Paulo lawmaker Janaina Paschoal; popular former B-actor and porn star turned bearded alt-right Congressman Alexandre Frotta; and Health Minister Loius Mandetta, who regularly stood up to Bolsonaro on issues like chloroquine and resigned with a 72% popularity rating. Although there are new alliances cropping up, most of these former supporters are now attacking each other as well. Meanwhile Bolsonaro is still polling at around 30% with approximately half of that group following him with quasi-religious fervor as he attacks all his former allies daily on Twitter as “communists”.

It’s hard to believe that Sérgio Moro, who does not have much personal charisma and was never widely loved inside government or the judiciary, would be able to galvanize these forces to mount a serious presidential run even if there was no dirt on him.

However, in 2019 a series of leaked Telegram conversations revealed in the Intercept proved what many analysts in Brazil had been saying all along: that the Lava Jato investigation, widely hailed in the media as a ground breaking measure in the battle against corruption, was in fact a US supported lawfare attack which repeatedly used illegal tactics such as active coaching from judge to prosecution team to remove Lula  from the 2018 presidential elections and usher in Bolsonaro’s victory.

In 2016 the TRF4 regional court in Porto Alegre issued a ruling of exception which enabled Moro and the prosecution team to operate outside of the margins of the law. If it weren’t for that, Moro would have been debarred and imprisoned even before the Telegram leaks for committing crimes such as: 1) ordering the wiretapping of Lula’s defense lawyers law firm for over a month in order to chart out possible moves in advance, apparently to prevent transferring the case into a jurisdiction that actually had legal authority to rule on it; and 2) illegally ordering the wiretapping of a standing president, editing the audio to make it look incriminating, and leaking it to the nations largest TV network during the lead up to an impeachment trial.

For these and other crimes, Moro was given an election-season slap on the wrist from higher courts, but he is now a civilian with no more immunity.

The day that Moro resigned from the neofascist Bolsonaro administration he helped normalize as it encouraged genocide against indigenous tribes, butchered human rights and decimated the economy, he announced that he had evidence that the President had tried to interfere in the Federal Police to protect his family. After praising the Lula administration for granting autonomy to the federal police, he announced that he had a video tape that would prove Bolsonaro’s guilt.

As a result, the Supreme Court initiated an inquiry that may actually end up leading to Bolsonaro’s downfall but  is also looking into possible crimes committed by Moro. He may have been arrogant due to years of impunity breaking the law as a judge, or he may have just been careless or stupid, but he appears to have publicly incriminated himself. Furthermore, unlike the conviction that resulted in Lula’s political imprisonment and removal from the 2018 elections, there is actual evidence at play here. He is now stuck in a catch 22 in which one of two crimes must stick.

The video of the cabinet meeting he delivered to the Supreme Court after accusing Bolsonaro of replacing the Federal Police director to protect his family from criminal investigations appears to show no such thing. To the contrary, it shows Bolsonaro swearing and complaining that he was unable to do it because it was illegal. If Bolsonaro’s defense can prove this, Moro has violated article 399 of the Brazilian Criminal Code and is guilty of Malicious Prosecution, a felony which comes with a 2-8 year prison sentence.

On the other hand if there is something in that tape which has slipped by the millions of people who watched it when it was transmitted on Globo that proves that Bolsonaro really is guilty, Moro has violated article 319 of the Brazilian Criminal Code by failing to act on this knowledge while serving as a public official and committed Official Misconduct.

As more and more rats jump ship, as Bolsonaro’s followers spread anti-Moro memes, and as the corporate funded Partido Novo flounders, it does not look like the Right will be able to mount a viable candidate for the 2022 elections. The only alternative will be to fight for a continuing dismantling of the electoral process. If the choice becomes an arbitrary decision of the military, for example, Sérgio Moro may end up as a puppet President despite his past criminal behavior. Even for this to work, however, the Right would have to unite behind him. In the meantime, any rival conservative who also wants to make a run for the presidency, from Luciano Huck to Louis Mandetta, can forum shop for a sympathetic prosecution team and judge and use lawfare externalities such as trial by media to, as they say in Brazil, turn the spell back against the witch. At this point that Miami sunshine might start looking pretty good.

Cover drawing by Sama


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