Brazil’s official Covid-19 death toll has more than doubled since I last wrote, four weeks ago, with 51,407 deaths and more than a million confirmed cases. According to the first nationwide study, the real number of cases could be seven times that, but the research teams charged with investigating were harassed and detained, and 800 tests were destroyed. President Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still pushing hydroxychloroquine and making jokes about the ‘minor flu’. The federal court in Brasilia has ordered that Bolsonaro be fined every time he appears in public without a mask.
When my son, who’s 19, called from Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was watching the livestream of protesters defying curfew there for the second night in a row, and listening to young people dry heave, like my students in Colombia, from the tear gas. Because he has first-aid training for mountaineering, my son was volunteering in a medical tent clearly identified with a red cross, but the state police fired on them with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and he and his friends hoofed it home. The real medics told him to stay in for the night. It was going to get rough.
Bolsonaro’s cabinet meeting, which lasted several profanity-laced hours, was more like a mafia conclave than an affair of state. No reference was made to the thousands of dead and dying. The one reference to the virus came from the environment minister, who noted that with everyone distracted by the pandemic, the time was ripe to privatise and liberalise the Amazon further. Brazil now has to explain those remarks to the UN. The main issue in the meeting was that Bolsonaro had tried without success to change the head of the federal police in Rio so that no one would ‘fuck over’ his family or friends. He would therefore fire whomever he needed to, including the then justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and replace them with ‘people who belong to our structures’.
Last week a journalist asked Jair Bolsonaro how many people in Brazil would die from Covid-19. The president replied that he had no idea: ‘I’m not a gravedigger,’ he said. A few days earlier he had fired his health minister, Luiz Enrique Mandetta. Speaking scientifically in his daily press conferences and acting consequentially between them, Mandetta had eclipsed Bolsonaro. Working with state governors (the president’s chief political opponents), Mandetta had achieved an approval rating nearly double Bolsonaro’s and, more important, saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the only world leader widely believed not only to have Covid-19 and to have lied about it, but to have knowingly spread it to untold numbers of his followers. Time (or Veja, the country’s leading news magazine) will tell, but at the very least, the circumstantial evidence is curious. Bolsonaro called on his largely evangelical base to hit the streets on 15 March to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court. Under quarantine after his return from the US – 25 members of his entourage have been infected with coronavirus, making Bolsonaro the centre of the largest initial cluster in Brazil – the president broke out of his motorcade to shake hands and high five those calling for the government buildings to be burnt to the ground.
Medellín is a crucible of narco-paramilitarism and state-sponsored terror, and the time between death threats and violent attacks is often brief, especially for such preferred targets as trade unionists. At the beginning of March, on the day that President Duque was in Washington addressing AIPAC about the dangers of Hizbullah in Venezuela, a pamphlet claiming to be from the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – better known as the Clan del Golfo, the country’s leading narco-paramilitary organisation, with a presence in 22 of Colombia’s 32 departments – circulated at the University of Antioquia. The AGC immediately issued a denial.
One of my students, Alejandro Palacio Restrepo, is a Green Party activist and a leading spokesperson of Colombia’s student movement. Their strike in the second half of 2018 won $1.4 billion in additional government funding for public higher education. Alejo received threats from masked demonstrators in November 2018, from the head of the cattle ranchers’ association in October 2019, and is now getting them from far right paramilitaries: ‘There’s nothing in our organisational design which prevents us from taking you out. Snitch-ass sons of bitches, you call yourselves student leaders you sons of bitches … We’ll be looking for you.’
Many of my friends and colleagues who live in La Paz are in hiding. Some have received death threats, while others are afraid to communicate via WhatsApp. One is in exile after vandals burned her house down. Because of shortages, the price of eggs has risen from less than one boliviano (11 pence) to 2.50, chicken has gone up from 15 to 35 bolivianos a kilo, beef from 30-40 to 90-120 bolivianos. Queues to buy chicken are interminable, and uncollected garbage piles up. Protesters have cut the capital off from its supply lines, and fuel is running out. Bolivian friends and colleagues who live abroad say they’ve experienced some of the worst days of their lives.