Brazil's Bolsonaro won't be charged with murder. But is he getting away with it?
COMMENTARY The idea of charging Jair Bolsonaro with pandemic homicide speaks to all the demagogues who've helped make the Americas COVID's killing field.
This week a Brazilian Senate panel was set to recommend homicide charges against President Jair Bolsonaro — blaming his brazen pandemic denialism for most of Brazil’s more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths. It called instead for crimes against humanity charges.
Either way, there seems little likelihood Brazilian prosecutors would indict Bolsonaro — even if his sneeringly dismissive pandemic policy, or the criminal lack of one, can indeed be labeled lethal.
But the Americas, which accounts for more than a third of the world’s 242 million COVID cases and half its 5 million deaths — even though it has only an eighth of the world’s population — should be glad the Brazilian politicos seriously floated the idea. It speaks to a larger cancer in the western hemisphere that’s as culpable as Bolsonaro is. Or fellow right-wingers like U.S. President Donald Trump. Or left-wingers like Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Or any populist clown who’s helped turn the New World into COVID’s killing field.
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That tumor’s motto is: political heft matters more than public health. Its core doctrine: nothing — no pandemic, no threat to communal well-being — shall weaken the strength of demagogues and their movements. Tell left-wing Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega to stop the super-spreader political street rallies he holds? You’re a fascist. Suggest that the explosion of COVID cases and deaths in Paraguay stems from a corrupt, cavalier handling of pandemic funds by right-wing President Mario Abdo Benítez’s government? You’re a commie.
That psychosis has metastasized most fatally in this hemisphere’s two largest countries — the United States and Brazil. Respectively they’ve registered the world’s first- and third-highest number of COVID cases and the top two death tallies. And keep in mind: much more populous India may have the second-largest case count, but its infection rate is way below the virus’ pace in Brazil.
So the group whose perspective I find most intriguing right now are the half million Brazilian expats living in the U.S. The largest share call Florida home — and most here are considered rabidly loyal fans of Bolsonaro and Trump, the two biggest and brashest leaders of the political heft-over-public health madness.
I spoke with some of them in South Florida this week. Each voted for Bolsonaro in 2018; one who has dual citizenship went for Trump in 2016 — but not in 2020. That last revelation is actually indicative of a general vibe I picked up from these brasileiros.
Brazilians in Florida have had to watch friends and family in Brazil live as if being stalked by a 14th-century plague — because the presidency is occupied by a man with a 14th-century mind.
None spoke on the record since this is a hair-trigger topic among Florida’s mostly conservative Brazilians. Nor, unsurprisingly, did any of them think Bolsonaro should be tried for homicide. But, surprisingly, most agreed with at least the indignant spirit behind the Brazilian senators’ message this week: that Bolsonaro and his cult of hyper-macho individualism and absolute personal freedom — their vicious, “anti-socialista” attacks on mask-wearing, social distancing, pandemic science and vaccines — have done deadly harm to Brazil that will take years to heal.
That while Brazil’s always called “the country of the future,” Bolsonaro’s used the pandemic to throw it into a distant past.
TORCHING THE AMAZON
Some I spoke with feel the same way about Bolsonaro allowing the Amazon rainforest to be torched for development — the sort of abuse that almost led the Senate panel to call for charging Bolsonaro with genocide against Brazil’s Indigenous.
But the big reason they’ve soured so significantly on the Brazilian president — and why the U.S. citizen dumped Trump — is that they’re in a unique position to connect the hemispheric dots during this pandemic.
They’ve seen here, especially recently in Florida, how a slavish devotion to Trumpist QAnon-think on masks, vaccines and COVID “treatments” like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin keep filling ICU beds and cemeteries. And they’ve watched helplessly as friends and family in Brazil walk the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Manaus as if stalked by a 14th-century plague, because the Planalto presidential palace in Brasília is occupied by a 14th-century mind.
“My dad made a point of going to work without a mask,” one Broward Brazilian told me about her Bolsonarist father in Rio who almost died of COVID last year.
“He thought it made him look strong.”
It helped strengthen this hemisphere’s social cancer instead. Which is why, even though Bolsonaro won't be charged with murder, he’s probably getting away with it.