Now that a new date for elections – 18 October – is irreversible, Bolivia has once again narrowly avoided civil war. Jeanine Áñez was installed as president in a coup last November with Brazilian, US and Bolivian military support, following the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS). Áñez promised new elections within ninety days. At the end of July, they were postponed for a third time.
Brazil has 2.8 per cent of the world’s population and (so far) 14 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. The country’s death toll topped 100,000 on 8 August. For the first time, the military took rhetorical distance from Bolsonaro, who commented on the football results rather than the gruesome pandemic landmark.
When Mateo Martínez Ruíz disappeared on 7 July in Bello, a deindustrialised suburb just north of Medellín, I assumed his body would never be found. But on 8 August, Mateo’s badly tortured corpse was discovered in Potrerito, a rural area of Bello. According to a trusted local source, Mateo was murdered by Los Chatas, an organised crime faction, because of his political activism.
In March, I described the way threats against my neighbour, Sara Fernández, a distinguished scholar of gender and sexuality at the Universidad de Antioquia, quickly escalated into an attempt to murder her because of her trade union leadership. I have not seen her since, and can only reach her via third parties. With luck, she will be heading into exile; she asked for official protection but was not given it. Mateo Martínez Ruíz has not been seen or heard from since 7 July. We have no evidence of his disappearance, and no witnesses, and that’s never a good sign. I know Mateo: he’s the brother of one student, and the cousin of another, at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín, where I work. We have had heated political debates of the sort that are needed in Colombia now more than ever, but have become too dangerous to sustain publicly – and would be even if the coronavirus disappeared tomorrow.
Although dozens of her own officials have been involved in corruption scandals, including a health minister caught price-gouging on respirators, Añez – like Bolsonaro and Trump – peddles conspiracy theories about enemies in the media, government and civil society. They allegedly follow Morales’s directives, and plot her overthrow through terrorism and drug trafficking in conjunction with Peruvians and Colombians (never mind that Colombian guerrillas are less than a shadow of their former selves).
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.