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Will Bolsonaro Pay the Price for a Botched Pandemic Response?

Brazil now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases globally, and the president’s approval rating keeps slipping.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters upon arrival at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 24, 2020, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters upon arrival at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 24, 2020, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Evaristo Sa/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Brazil now has the world’s highest daily coronavirus death toll, British government advisor Dominic Cummings defies calls to resign, and the first of five Iranian fuel tankers arrives in Venezuela.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Brazil now has the world’s highest daily coronavirus death toll, British government advisor Dominic Cummings defies calls to resign, and the first of five Iranian fuel tankers arrives in Venezuela.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Brazil’s Death Toll Increases As Public Support For Bolsonaro Sours

“After being stabbed, no little flu is going to take me down,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on March 29, referencing both the stabbing he suffered on the campaign trail almost two years ago and his resistance to the coronavirus. At the time of Bolsonaro’s comment, Brazil was neck and neck with Australia and Israel with approximately 3,900 coronavirus cases. Today, only the United States claims more coronavirus cases, as Brazil now has the second highest worldwide with 376,669—almost a hundred times more than it had when Bolsonaro made his macho boast.

Whether the pandemic will take Bolsonaro down is unclear, but polling is not in his favor. A recent poll found that 58 percent of Brazilians rated his response as “bad” or “terrible.” Only 21 percent called it “good” or “excellent.”

Two Brazilian health ministers have resigned over the course of the pandemic, and a disconnect in leadership between federal and state governments is reflected in the grim numbers. On Monday—for the second successive day—Brazil had the highest daily death toll of any nation, with over 800 new deaths reported. Like many countries, the official numbers may hide higher counts due to shortages in testing and stretched medical facilities.

Also on Monday, the United States announced it would move up the implementation of travel restrictions from Brazil to midnight tonight. Bolsonaro’s foreign policy advisor Filipe Martins played down the restrictions, comparing them to similar travel bans on Chinese and European visitors. “There isn’t anything specifically against Brazil. Ignore the hysteria from the press,” he said.

Bolsonaro’s more immediate problem. While Bolsonaro can claim the coronavirus pandemic was a problem he never instigated, a pending federal corruption investigation is closer to home. Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported on Monday that prosecutors in the office of the attorney general have gathered enough evidence to charge Bolsonaro with a crime. The lawyers say that a video from a cabinet meeting on April 22—released to the public last Friday—shows the president committing the crime of “administrative advocacy,” or using his public position to advance a private agenda: In this case, it was Bolsonaro allegedly pressuring then-Justice Minister Sergio Moro to fire the chief of the federal police in order to shield his sons from investigation. The punishment for such a crime is relatively light: Up to one year in prison and a fine.

Is he likely to go to trial? For that to happen, Bolsonaro would have to be impeached. As Bloomberg reported on May 21, the president has recently created an alliance with the centrist bloc, Centrao, obtaining their backing in return for political favors. Centrao, who hold 40 percent of seats in the lower house of congress, could protect him from impeachment in the same way it did Michel Temer, Bolsonaro’s predecessor. However, that same support could evaporate if it runs too far afoul of public opinion. A recent poll showed gave Bolsonaro a 39.2 percent approval, the lowest of his presidency.

What We’re Following Today

Scandal-plagued U.K. government advisor staying put. While the United Kingdom is still reporting over a thousand new coronavirus cases per day, the British government may have an unwelcome distraction. Dominic Cummings, the alleged mastermind of the 2016 Brexit referendum and current adviser to Prime Minister Johnson, held an hourlong press conference yesterday to defend himself after it emerged he had broken lockdown rules to travel to Durham, 260 miles north of London, to visit his parents. He is also reported to have taken a day trip to a local castle, a trip he defended on the grounds that he was testing his eyesight for the longer journey back to London.

Amid public outcry and calls from politicians within his own party to step down, Boris Johnson has defended his advisor and not asked for Cummings’ resignation. But the Cummings affair has already led to one resignation: Douglas Ross, the junior minister for Scotland, stepped down Tuesday over the scandal. Previous breaches of lockdown from senior officials in the U.K. have led to other resignations; a lead epidemiologist on the government’s coronavirus advisory group, Neil Ferguson, stepped down after he allowed a visitor to his home during the country’s strictest lockdown period. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood resigned in April after reports surfaced of two trips she had taken to her second home.

Fortune comes to Venezuela. The first of five Iranian fuel tankers has arrived in Venezuelan waters after setting out from Iran in mid-March. The ship, Fortune, is loaded with approximately 270,000 barrels of gasoline destined for the Venezuelan market. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro praised his country’s relationship with Iran, describing the two countries as “two revolutionary peoples who will never kneel down before North American imperialism”.

Iran has warned the United States not to interfere with the shipment, and so far the U.S. reaction has been merely rhetorical. “Venezuelans need free and fair presidential elections leading to democracy and economic recovery, not Maduro’s expensive deals with another pariah state,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.

Embassy defuses U.S.-Australia flare up. U.S. diplomats entered damage control mode after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the possibility that Australia might be cut off from U.S. intelligence sharing if its infrastructure relationship with China got any closer. Pompeo made the comments as a guest of a conservative Australian Sunday morning television show, saying the United States would “simply disconnect” if future telecommunications deals would have an “adverse impact” on U.S. citizens or security networks.

The Australian state of Victoria has recently proposed cooperating with China’s Belt and Road initiative but the Australian government has also previously blocked the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from the country’s 5G network. The U.S. embassy in Australia clarified that the United States has the “absolute confidence in the Australian government’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners.”

Keep an Eye On

Kim Jong Un back in the spotlight. North Korean leader Kim Jong UN made his first televised public appearance in three weeks when he chaired a meeting on the country’s nuclear capabilities on Sunday. The meeting discussed “increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation,” adopting “crucial measures for considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the artillery pieces,” according to state news agency KCNA.

Scandal in Spain. A political scandal is brewing in Spain after the Interior Minister removed the head of Madrid’s Civil Guard, Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos. His dismissal is reportedly linked to a critical report the colonel had delivered to a Madrid court investigating the Spanish government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The government approved rallies on March 8 that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, potentially leading to an explosion in coronavirus infections. The country belatedly shut down a week later.

Odds and Ends

As Denmark eases border restrictions with its Nordic neighbors and Germany, couples who were separated by national borders can now visit the country—once they prove their love has passed the test of time. Under new rules, only relationships that have last six months or longer will be recognized by authorities, and travelers must provide proof. “They can bring along a photo or a love letter,” deputy police chief Allan Dalager Clausen told Danish broadcaster DR. “I realize these are very intimate things, but the decision to let in the partner ultimately rests on the judgment of the individual police officer.”

Under current restrictions, relationships that blossomed online during lockdown will not be allowed to reunite in person as evidence “solely of written or telephone correspondence” is not sufficient. Danish lawmakers are rushing to revise the rules, citing privacy concerns, and want to reduce the burden of proof to a written declaration. “If you say, you are in a relationship and put it in writing, that is enough,” Justice Minister Nick Haekkerup said.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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