Leadership in Viral Times

Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta.
Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR (CC BY 2.0).

“Today, the World Health Organization officially announced that this is a global pandemic,” Donald Trump said in his March 11 speech from the Oval Office, adding that his administration had “been in frequent contact with our allies.” He announced a 30-day suspension on all travel from Europe: “…these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval.  Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.”

European allies quickly complained that there had been no contact prior to the announcement. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” said a statement by EU leaders.

Shortly after Trump concluded the speech, administration officials had to clarify that the suspension did not apply to goods and cargo. Confidence in Trump’s leadership appeared to be low. The stock market tanked, despite promises by the New York Fed to assist lending markets with substantial sums of money to keep the economy alive. With one of his favorite arguments for reelection in November – the stock market – in danger, Trump left more room for the experts and (arguably) refrained from diminishing the gravity of the situation. 

President Bolsonaro has chosen another way: all or nothing.

Bolsonaro’s way

Bolsonaro took office promising an improved economy through reforms and trade openings, in a country that historically has been closed to global trade. The crowning achievement of his policy agenda so far has been the pension reform, highly anticipated by investors. 

The achievement is, however, widely seen as having been attained despite the President, thanks to a radically reconfigured Congress after the 2018 election that favored reform. The final bill was watered down by the President himself, largely exempting the military in which he once served.

Bolsonaro also concluded the 20-year long negotiation for a trade deal between the European Union and Mercosul (Mercosur in Spanish), the regional trade bloc consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay (Venezuela remains suspended). European and South American parliaments still have to sign off on the agreement, a political process which Bolsonaro has not facilitated.

When the election of Argentine president Alberto Fernández was becoming increasingly certain, Bolsonaro began to criticize him starkly. Politically it appealed to many of his voters, but it would not make it easier convincing the incoming Fernández government to approve the trade deal. 

Further putting the deal at risk, Bolsonaro began attacking principal EU members after receiving criticism regarding his handling of the Amazon fires. He skipped a meeting with France’s foreign minister who was in Brazil, preferring to stream a live video of himself getting a haircut. It was a clear message to Emmanuel Macron. The EU-Mercosul trade agreement is still pending.

Domestically, internal disputes between former allies have limited his political hold. Bolsonaro left the party through which he was elected, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), after making derogatory comments about the party’s founder who stood accused of corruption. Many of the President’s allies broke with him and decided to stay in PSL instead of emigrating to the party Bolsonaro is creating, Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil).

Recent struggles

The domestic struggles have intensified in recent weeks. Bolsonaro’s foremost national security adviser, General Augusto Heleno, was caught on camera saying that Congress was “blackmailing” the Executive branch. The comment referred to the distribution of the R$80 billion (close to $16 bn) forecasted to remain of the 2020 budget. Congress had called for as much as R$30 billion to leave federal hands.

Followers of Bolsonaro seized the opportunity and used Heleno’s expression in calling for protests against congressional representatives. The President had been elected by popular vote and Congress should not stand in the way, the message went. Politicians that criticized the movement were accused of being “afraid of the people” by President Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro shared a video on WhatsApp that called for protests on March 15 to show support for the government. The action was widely compared by the political establishment and media to the Institutional Act Number 5  of 1968, the decree that closed down Congress during the military regime. 

The Brazilian stock exchange plummeted on March 9, a 12% fall — the biggest since 1998 — caused by the oil price war and growing fears about the coronavirus’s economic impact. The finance minister, Paulo Guedes, said that his ministry was “completely calm and confident that the Brazilian democracy will react by transforming this crisis into a reform advance.”  The administrative reform his ministry was working on, touching on aspects of the economy like Brazil’s complex tax system, risked being harmed by Bolsonaro’s increasingly fragile relationship with congressional lawmakers.

The March 15 protests took place despite Bolsonaro telling supporters to postpone it due to the coronavirus. And despite urging a postponement, Bolsonaro went to greet protesters outside the Palácio do Planalto, the President’s workplace, touching hands and taking selfies with admirers. He posted videos on Twitter of protests in other parts of Brazil.

 The next day, the Financial Times published a scathing editorial against Bolsonaro and his support for the protests:

“The financial and political costs of the president’s bashing of congress are piling up. Politicians last week blocked a presidential veto on an increase in welfare benefits at a potential cost of up to $4bn a year. A fight over another $6bn of discretionary spending continues. The reform package has been halted. The political fate of Paulo Guedes, the finance minister, hangs in the balance: his recent remark that ‘we only have 15 weeks to save Brazil’ could be read as an intimation of his own political mortality.”

The “15 weeks to save Brazil” referred to a statement made by Paulo Guedes on March 3 that actually said “15 weeks to change Brazil.” After those weeks, Congress will recess and thereafter campaigns will begin for the municipal and mayoral elections taking place later in the year (a postponement due to COVID-19 is now being considered), during which politicians are usually reluctant to make commitments.

On the same day that the Financial Times published the editorial, assemblywoman Janaina Paschoal stood up in São Paulo’s state legislature calling for the President to renounce. Paschoal came to office with 2 million votes, the most ever for a state deputy. Her critique of the President focused on his actions in the midst of a worldwide health crisis, seeing as his press secretary tested positive for the virus after he returned with Bolsonaro from a state visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Janaina Paschoal in 2016, a few days before President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office. Paschoal was one of the authors of the impeachment request.
Photo: Roque de Sá/Agência Senado (CC BY 2.0).

“How can a man that is possibly infected go into the middle of the crowd?” she asked, questioning how he had first told supporters to stay home, to then go out to greet them and support the gatherings. Paschoal, a former ally of Bolsonaro, said that she regretted having voted for him. She called the President’s actions indefensible, adding that the vice-president, the reserv general Hamilton Mourão, “who is trained to defend,” should take over. “This man has to leave the presidency!”

Vortex Media, an online magazine covering politics and law, wrote two days later that congressional support for the President was next to nothing. The Brazilian Bar Association had already begun to formulate an impeachment request, but the President of the lower chamber of Congress (equivalent to the US Speaker of the House), Rodrigo Maia, said he refused to accept any such requests. The strategy was to isolate the President, not to depose him.


The first death caused by COVID-19 was announced two days after the protests, on March 17. Throughout the week, state governors have imposed measures to curb the spread of the virus. Bolsonaro has tried to block such measures, arguing that they hurt the economy and saying that the virus is just “a little flu,” while classifying much of the response to it as “hysteria.”

While his close ally Donald Trump has acknowledged the situation as serious, Bolsonaro decided on the opposite. In his view, it is the response to the virus that is causing the problems. Contrary to statements by his officials, including the health minister, Bolsonaro has continued to urge people to not stay home as this will hurt the economy.

R$179.6 billion ($35.5 bn) have been set aside throughout the week to help the economy, according to the Ministry of Finance’s website. An additional R$55 billion (about $10.9 bn) were released on Sunday via the Brazilian Development Bank. Some of the foremost sectors to have received financial aid so far are airlines and agriculture, the latter being Brazil’s main export.

The government lowered its growth forecast on Friday from 2.1 percent to 0.02 – a grim outlook for the rest of year. According to the Ministry of Health, Brazil’s healthcare system is expected to collapse in the coming weeks, with the number of infected people growing at an increasing speed. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro claimed that Brazil has faced worse challenges in the past.

True or not, it has never faced a similar challenge before. As Bolsonaro’s political isolation is growing, he is ever more focused on appealing to his core group of supporters. But as the situation progresses, his support is weakening. Every night people are protesting from their homes through panelaço, the act of banging pots and pans, and shouting “Fora Bolsonaro” — “Out with Bolsonaro!” The President’s approval ratings have fallen drastically and his leadership is beeing widely questioned, even by former allies, which begs the question if he will be able to see this one through.

Published on March 23, 2020.