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In Brazil, a President Under Fire Lashes Out at Investigators

2020-05-29 22:29:01

RIO DE JANEIRO — The embattled president of Brazil stood outside his mansion on Thursday, indignant and angry, wearing a necktie patterned with assault rifles.

The day before, the police had raided properties linked to several of his most die-hard supporters as part of an investigation into an online network distributing disinformation, one of an array of criminal and legislative inquests focused on him, family members and close allies.

“We won’t have another day like yesterday. Enough!” the president, Jair Bolsonaro, said of Wednesday’s raid during a news conference outside his official residence. “We have reached the limit!”

As the investigators encircling him and his associates draw closer, Mr. Bolsonaro has lashed out and even raised the specter of a constitutional crisis by suggesting that the federal police should not carry out “absurd orders” of the Supreme Court.

The increasingly belligerent stance adopted by the president and his allies toward the investigations has led to rising political turmoil at a time of national crisis, with the fast-spreading coronavirus sending the economy into a tailspin and causing the deaths of more than 27,000 people.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic has come under intensifying criticism, amplifying the sense that he is a leader under siege, who is finding it increasingly difficult to govern.

Brazil now has the world’s second-highest number of confirmed virus cases, after the United States, job losses are mounting and analysts are warning that the country could plunge into a deep recession.

While there are a number of open investigations into the president and his circle, the raids this week seemed to particularly enrage him and his supporters.

The Supreme Court has been investigating the spread of what it calls fake news and the orchestration of defamation campaigns against its justices, and on Wednesday, the federal police raided properties in six states, seizing computers, phones and documents. Some of the properties were linked to activists, businessmen and politicians closely aligned with Mr. Bolsonaro and his right-wing views.

The raids were applauded by the president’s critics.

“The Supreme Court is playing an important and historical role to safeguard democracy,” said José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister.

But Mr. Bolsonaro said the raids were interfering with his ability to lead.

“We have to draw limits,” he told reporters on Thursday. “I ask, for the last time, let the government work.”

The president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker, warned that the country was approaching what he called a “moment of rupture.”

“It’s no longer an opinion about if, but when this will happen,” he warned, without being more specific about what sort of rupture he envisioned.

Critics say his supporters continued to use these tools after Mr. Bolsonaro took office in order to spread fake news and attack state institutions, including insulting Supreme Court justices who have opposed his policies.

Eloísa Machado, a law professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas University in São Paulo, said the investigation has revealed “an organized scheme” involving members of Congress, political advisers, bloggers and financiers “to spread threats to the Supreme Court and against democracy.”

These online communities are also the subject of investigations by a congressional committee, the nation’s electoral court and the Federal Court of Accounts, an auditing body tied to Brazil’s Congress.

Adding to the pressure on Mr. Bolsonaro, the Supreme Court recently opened a probe into allegations that Mr. Bolsonaro had attempted to assert improper control over the federal police for political gain.

Last week, Celso de Mello, a Supreme Court justice who is overseeing the investigation, released a video of an April cabinet meeting that has been offered as evidence that Mr. Bolsonaro was trying to meddle with the federal police to shield his friends and family.

In the video, Mr. Bolsonaro suggested, using coarse language, that it was his right to replace security officials rather than see his “whole family — for fun — or a friend of mine” face problems.

“If you can’t replace the official, change his boss,” he said. “You can’t change the boss? Change the minister. End of story. We’re not kidding around.”

Mr. Bolsonaro said later that he was talking about his family’s personal security detail, not the federal police.

Investigators have revealed little about the inner workings and coordination of the online disinformation networks they have been scrutinizing. But the congressional inquiry has found evidence that a staff member in the office of Mr. Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, had helped to coordinate a Facebook page that ran negative campaigns against the president’s political enemies.

Former allies of the president also testified that he maintained what they referred to as a “bureau of hate” where his aides helped to coordinate an online network that manufactured and disseminated false, damaging news about public figures. Mr. Bolsonaro has denied this allegation.

Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, says there is much Brazil has yet to understand about the group that supports Mr. Bolsonaro.

“Brazil has created a minority extreme-right group, which now has a national expression,” she said. “They are not giving up.”

The president has said the investigations into the online networks are an effort to muzzle his supporters and a transparent attack on their freedom to criticize political opponents and mock policies they disagree with, like the social distancing measures intended to curb the coronavirus.

“The goal of this proceeding is to target those who support me,” he told reporters on Thursday. “They want to remove the media that I have in my favor.”

Brazil’s prosecutor general, Augusto Aras, a key ally of the president, filed a request on Wednesday with the Supreme Court to block the investigation. He said that even though some of the evidence the court has gathered is “cutting,” it represents “the dissemination of opinions and world views, protected by freedom of expression.”

In the ruling in which Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court judge, ordered the raids, he said the networks had engaged in activities ranging from the promotion of hashtags like #NationalShameSupremeCourt to making calls for a military coup.

The political tumult around Mr. Bolsonaro has exhausted political resources that could be used to save people’s lives during the current health crisis, said Vitor Lourenço, a community activist in Duque de Caxias, one of the cities that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus.

“In the middle of this pandemic, with 1,000 people dying a day, the government is holding cabinet meetings to discuss their own political crisis,” he said. “The neglect continues.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has been dismissive of the disease, defying social distancing guidelines, resisting calls for stricter quarantine measures and relentlessly pushing for a quick reopening of the economy even as the outbreak has shown little sign of relenting.

Calls for Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment and ouster have been growing as the public health, political and economic crises all seem to spin further out of the president’s control.

But even though Mr. Bolsonaro’s disapproval rating hit new highs this week, according to a poll by Datafolha, his support base has remained stalwart, with about a third of respondents saying he has done a “good” or “great” job.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s economy minister, Paulo Guedes, acknowledged the seriousness of the country’s situation on Friday, appealing for unity across the political spectrum.

“We need cooperation,” Mr. Guedes said during an online seminar. “If there is a fight on board, the boat will sink.”

Manuela Andreoni reported from Rio de Janeiro, Letícia Casado from Brasília and Kirk Semple from Mexico City.


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