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Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s ‘Captain Corona’, like Trump, bets on virus denial

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The rightwing leader may emerge politically stronger from the pandemic

Disease has often stricken Brazilian leaders. In 1919, the Spanish flu killed president-elect Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves. Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 after the country was struck by cholera. Dilma Rousseff met the same fate in 2016 in the midst of the Zika epidemic. Now Covid-19 has infected President Jair Bolsonaro.

But unlike his predecessors — assuming the controversial rightwing leader recovers from the virus as UK prime minister Boris Johnson did — Mr Bolsonaro may emerge politically stronger from the pandemic. The former army captain announced at a press conference on Tuesday that he had tested positive, and in classic brazen style took off his mask and gave a thumbs-up to show he wasn’t worried. “Just look at my face: I’m fine,” the 65-year-old said.

Arguably, no other president in Brazil’s recent democratic history has been so reckless with himself or the country. “Not only did he not respect social distancing when giving the [press conference], he used the opportunity to repeat his denialist view of the pandemic and the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine,” said Mario Marconini, a risk consultant. “He claimed the drug had already taken effect overnight.”

Mr Bolsonaro was elected in a landslide victory in 2018, after surviving a near-fatal stabbing, by a country fed up with corruption and almost two decades of leftist rule. But “Captain Corona” — as critics call him — has long denied the pandemic’s seriousness. He has called the virus a “sniffle” to be faced “like a man, dammit”, even though Brazil has suffered 70,000 deaths and more than 1.7m infections, second only to the US.

Like his American counterpart Donald Trump, Mr Bolsonaro has attended numerous rallies without taking precautions, wearing a mask after a judge ordered him to, and has clashed with state governors who imposed lockdowns. Two health ministers have resigned over his laissez-faire approach. Yet, Mr Bolsonaro’s high-stakes gamble may pay off. If this Tropical Trump, as he is also known, only suffers mild symptoms, he would become a living example that Covid-19 is just a gripezinha, or little flu.

Blame for the country’s economic hardship could then be shifted on to political foes, who have pushed for social distancing measures. “Bolsonaro rose to power portraying the image of a lone ranger fighting a corrupt system and surviving adversity,” says Matías Spektor of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas think-tank. “This is what he is now trying to turn Covid-19 into, portraying himself as a messianic leader in the hands of God rather than science. It resonates with many Brazilians.” Mr Bolsonaro has always made a virtue of being a rank outsider.

Born in the interior of São Paulo state in 1955 to a modest family, he joined the army, rising to the rank of captain, and entered politics in the late 1980s, first as a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, then on to congress in Brasília. He went politically unnoticed for many years and found prominence thanks to his extreme opinions and the identity politics he still pursues. Married three times and with five children, Mr Bolsonaro was raised a Catholic but baptised in the river Jordan by an evangelical pastor four years ago.

He has continued to slam “cultural Marxism”, “gender ideology” and “environmental psychoses” since taking office. “Jair Bolsonaro’s strong personality is somewhat driven by the fact he was a one-man conservative army for a long time in Congress,” says Gerald Brant, a US financier and longtime friend who is also close to Steve Bannon, the former Trump aide. “He had to develop a unique communications style that was attention-grabbing. He created a persona that could get through all the noise.”

Maria do Rosário Nunes, a congresswoman who Mr Bolsonaro once said did not “deserve” to be raped, deplored how he continues this confrontational style as president. “He is someone, as they say, with genocidal standards,” she says.  His abrasive approach risks undermining the economic reforms he was elected to pursue. Although finance minister Paulo Guedes has pushed through some measures, the agenda has largely stalled, in part due to the president’s unerring ability to feud with lawmakers.

Latest coronavirus news Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here. His army career was similarly confrontational. According to court records reviewed by the Financial Times, he was accused of “irregular conduct” after spending a fortnight in military jail for insubordination in 1986.

Mr Bolsonaro has since joined rallies, once on horseback, to show support for protesters who wanted to close the Supreme Court and Congress, and bring back military rule. He is currently under investigation over allegations of influence peddling made by his former justice minister. Even so, his approval ratings remain at about 30 per cent. At that level, history suggests he would be able fend off efforts to eject him from office. Impeachment proceedings against Mr Collor de Mello and Ms Rousseff only advanced when their ratings fell to about 10 per cent. Covid-19 infection may also give Mr Bolsonaro further immunity. “If he manages to cure himself and come out of the quarantine relatively unscathed, the episode will make him politically stronger,” Mr Marconini says.

Source: FT

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