Brazil’s Senate Accuses Bolsonaro of Crimes Against Humanity
It’s a new low for his government’s catastrophic pandemic response.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Brazil’s Senate catalogues Bolsonaro’s alleged crimes against humanity, a samba composer plans to sue Adele, and a U.S. Treasury sanctions review could have big implications for Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
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Big Charges Against Bolsonaro
Ever since the far-right, dictatorship-admiring Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2018, political observers have returned over and over again to the same question: Are the country’s checks and balances that were designed to rein in potential executive abuse working?
The answer has often been: “feebly.” Bolsonaro has successfully used his executive power to defund and politically undermine environmental agencies and push through permissions for civilian gun purchases that contradict an arms control law. But political allies and the Supreme Federal Court have rebuked Bolsonaro at critical moments, including when he suggested he might not accept the results of next year’s election and alluded to staging a military coup.
And when it came to the final word on Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Brazil’s Federal Senate did not hold back. On Wednesday, a group of senators submitted the final report from a six-month investigation—explosive portions of which were aired on live television—that identified dozens of alleged wrongdoings in the Bolsonaro government’s pandemic response.
Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has rejected the advice of public health experts, railing against masks, physical distancing measures, and vaccines in addition to pushing unproven remedies such as hydroxychloroquine. In the past year and a half, three different health ministers resigned or were fired from their posts. And more than 600,000 Brazilians have now died of COVID-19, the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States.
The Senate’s COVID-19 probe found that Brazilian government officials ignored warnings that the Amazon city of Manaus would run out of medical oxygen, abetted misinformation networks, and irregularly inflated vaccine contracts using murky shell companies to make purchases—a hallmark of embezzlement.
The 1,179-page report recommends that Bolsonaro be charged with nine crimes. They include crimes against humanity (due to what the senators identified as intentional “extermination”), malfeasance, and misuse of public funds. It also urges charges for 65 other people, including Bolsonaro’s three lawmaker sons, several top government officials, and two companies accused of involvement in artificially inflated vaccine contracts.
Whether such charges can be made official in the justice system is another question. Doing so would require the approval of Attorney General Augusto Aras, whom Bolsonaro appointed. This appears unlikely, as does Bolsonaro’s impeachment, the political analyst Celso Rocha de Barros wrote in Folha de São Paulo. More than one hundred impeachment requests have been made to Brazil’s National Congress already, but lawmakers have signaled the bids would not receive the required two-thirds support in its lower chamber, the Chamber of Deputies, to move forward.
But the Senate probe has helped do what Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll alone did not: contribute to a popularity slump from which Bolsonaro may not recover before the presidential election next year.
The severity of the pandemic in Brazil did not dent Bolsonaro’s popularity for many months. In December 2020, when almost 200,000 Brazilians had died of COVID-19, Bolsonaro was more popular than when he took office. But in more recent months, joblessness, inflation, the end to pandemic unemployment payments, and the Senate probe’s explosive revelations combined to sour many previous supporters’ opinions of the president.
Polling by Datafolha in July found that 52 percent of Brazilians viewed the president as “dishonest” versus 40 percent who believed he was “honest.” That’s a reversal from June 2020, when 48 percent viewed him as honest and 38 percent as dishonest.
Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro denied all wrongdoing alleged in the Senate report. When his son Flávio, a senator, was asked how his father might respond to the allegations, he merely laughed in reporters’ faces.
The most consequential result of the Senate probe may be the ammunition it provides to Bolsonaro’s opponents in next year’s presidential election. In addition, “the proof [contained in the Senate report] can also be used in future judicial cases when Bolsonaro leaves the presidency. It’s no small thing,” wrote Rocha de Barros in Folha.
As part of its probe, the Senate questioned many big fish in Brazil—but not all that it could have. Notably, Bolsonaro’s former chief of staff, retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto, was not subpoenaed for testimony. The journalist Bernardo Mello Franco reported that the hesitancy to call Braga Netto in for questioning was due to concerns that antagonizing military leaders might tempt them to go along with Bolsonaro’s hopes for a coup. The final report recommended Braga Netto be charged with one crime, that of causing an epidemic.
Nevertheless, if Mello Franco’s report is true, this would certainly be evidence that Brazil’s democratic institutions—despite their strong showing in the report—are running up against new limits.
Sunday, Nov. 7: Nicaragua holds general elections, including for president.
Sunday, Nov. 14: Argentina holds midterm elections.
What We’re Following
Blinken in South America. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ecuador and Colombia this week on his first trip to South America, where he delivered a speech on the importance of shoring up democracy in the Western hemisphere. While the nations are two of Latin America’s more democratic countries, recent events in both have spurred criticism from human rights advocates.
Two days before Blinken’s arrival, the Ecuadorian government declared a national state of emergency and deployed troops to the streets of several provinces to fight a crime wave. Colombian security forces, for their part, are under international public scrutiny for killing several anti-government protesters this year. On a visit to Colombia this month, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat, suggested conditioning financial support to the country based on its human rights record.
Blinken acknowledged the recent turbulence in both countries, stressing the importance of oversight and accountability. In Ecuador, Blinken said the United States would work with Latin American countries to show that democracies deliver economic well-being, good governance, and security. In Colombia, he steered a virtual meeting on migration with officials from countries including Mexico, Canada, Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador, pledging to work together to address heightened levels of migration in the Americas. One concrete step Blinken called for was more stringent visa requirements. At Washington’s urging, Mexico announced last week that it would require visas for Brazilian visitors for the first time since 2004.
Green transit in Chile. Chile announced that by 2035, all light- and medium-weight cars, public buses, and mining vehicles must be zero-emission. The requirement will extend to cargo transport starting in 2045. Chile is the first Latin American country to make such a sweeping announcement and has a track record of spearheading some of the region’s most ambitious climate policies.
Dial here for calm. The city of Bogotá in Colombia has launched an innovative anti-sexism hotline for men, detailed in a recent New York Times report. Men are encouraged to dial in when they are struggling with anger, jealousy, or fear. It’s part of a new suite of programs aimed at combating gender-based violence that also includes classes in caregiving and housekeeping. All are designed around the idea that women should not bear the burden of bringing about a cultural shift. According to Colombian government statistics, 149 women were killed for reasons related to their gender in 2020. A civil society network estimates the number may be as high as 569.
Water not under the bridge. Brazilian composer Toninho Geraes plans to sue British singer-songwriter Adele on claims that her 2015 hit “Million Years Ago” is a rip-off of his famous samba song “Mulheres.” As part of the evidence to be presented to British authorities, he will present a recording with both tracks laid on top of each other.
Adele has been represented by both Sony Music and British label XL Recordings in the past. On Monday, El País reported that Sony Music said the matter is in the hands of Adele and XL Recordings, which had not commented. If Geraes is successful, it won’t be the first time traditional Brazilian pop music was plagiarized; British rocker Rod Stewart settled such a claim by Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor in 1979.
Question of the Week
Bogotá’s anti-sexism programs were inspired by a recent wave of Latin American feminist activism. Since 2019, tens of thousands of feminist demonstrators across the region have chanted the anthem “A Rapist in Your Path,” which holds men responsible for sexist violence.
In which country was it written?
The song was written by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis and has since been performed in dozens of countries around the world.
In Focus: U.S. Sanctions Under Scrutiny
On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department published the conclusions of a nine-month review of its own policies on economic sanctions.
The findings are particularly relevant to Latin America, where sanctions are one of the primary tools Washington uses against Cuba and Venezuela. The Biden administration has increasingly brandished sanctions as a threat in response to democratic backsliding and corruption in Central America.
Critics have long contended that Latin America offers important examples of the downsides of U.S. sanctions: namely, that they can cause significant human suffering without leading foreign governments to change their behavior. A 2019 study by the economists Antonis Adam and Sofia Tsarsitalidou found that civil liberties worsened in U.S.-sanctioned countries around the world after sanctions were imposed, and a 2020 paper by the researchers Jerg Gutmann, Matthias Neuenkirch, and Florian Neumeier showed that U.S. and U.N. sanctions lead to lower life expectancy in the counties they afflict. Sanctions can also push countries closer to U.S. adversaries for economic survival, the political scientist Daniel W. Drezner has written.
All of these consequences are on display in Cuba and Venezuela, where U.S. sanctions have failed to bring about regime changes and democratic openings. Instead, leaders have embraced Russian and Chinese financial support, among other countries.
U.S. trade restrictions have cost the Cuban economy an estimated $130 billion over the last six decades, and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela since 2017 have cost the country an estimated $17 billion to $31 billion in government revenue. Humanitarian organizations have seen legitimate bank transactions denied or frozen for long periods of time, according to a report by the economist Luis Oliveros for the Washington Office on Latin America. In the meantime, more than 5 million migrants have streamed out of Venezuela in the last six years, adding to a migration crisis in the hemisphere that Washington is now scrambling to address.
The Treasury review recommends that, going forward, sanctions should be “modernized” so that their use “supports a clear policy objective,” is “calibrated to mitigate unintended impacts,” and is “easily understood, enforceable, and, where possible, reversible.” This stands in contrast to the status quo: A 2019 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found that officials at the Treasury, State, and Commerce departments “stated they do not conduct agency assessments of the effectiveness of sanctions in achieving broader U.S. policy goals.”
The Treasury Department did not announce how it plans to implement the new framework and emphasized in the review that the report’s conclusions were recommendations rather than official rules.
Thus, Latin America offers several tests of how quickly, and to what extent, these new guidelines will be applied. U.S. President Joe Biden has faced criticism for not following through on campaign promises to loosen harsh sanctions on Cuba imposed under his predecessor, Donald Trump. Ricardo Herrero of the Cuba Study Group, a coalition of U.S.-based business and community leaders of Cuban descent, tweeted that “the U.S. embargo on #Cuba, as codified under Helm[s]-Burton and other laws, doesn’t meet ANY of @USTreasury’s new criteria for sanctions effectiveness. Not even close.”
Washington has already hinted at a refined and less hawkish sanctions approach toward Venezuela, part of an effort to get Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government to negotiate with the country’s opposition. But Maduro suspended talks on Sunday, and it’s unclear whether the possibility of some sanctions relief will be enough of an incentive for him to return to the table.
The policy review may prove timely in Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega has jailed a string of opposition presidential candidates in the upcoming Nov. 7 elections, and Washington has signaled it will sanction those close to Ortega in the likely case that the elections are not free and fair. A refined approach would make clear to Ortega the steps he could take to remove such sanctions and fine-tune them to avoid human suffering as much as possible.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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