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July 16, 2020

BRAZIL: Private alerts, public narratives

BY Mario Marconini

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( 5 mins)
  • The Bolsonaro government has had to face challenges from foreign private sector actors that may produce a significant change in policy.
  • As the president recovers from Covid-19, VP Hamilton Mourao has regained notoriety by leading the discussion on the environment.
  • Facebook’s decision to remove fake-and-hate posts that can be linked to the president, his family, and allies may further complicate Bolsonaro’s situation vis-à-vis the Supreme Court.

President Jair Bolsonaro has been unusually discreet since before he tested positive for Covid-19 on 7 July. During his first week of quarantine, a couple of developments driven by foreign actors have served to drive national policy, effectively forcing the government to reevaluate radical aspects of its political platform. The first such development took place on 9 July when foreign investors from eight major investment companies and five OECD countries met with Vice President Hamilton Mourao to discuss Brazil’s handling of fires in the Amazon and the future of sustainability in the country. The second occurred on 10 July when Facebook took down 73 fake-and-hate accounts linked to the president, his family, and supporters. Both developments have been influencing decisions since, and the VP has regained notoriety in the process.

The VP is back (I)

Even before the 9 July meeting, Mourao was facing a lot of pressure from business and civil society groups to align environmental policy with international agreements and practices – such as the Paris Climate Accord. Mourao heads the National Amazon Council, a high-level collegiate body that was transferred from the environmental ministry to the vice presidency last February following widespread global criticism of the government’s handling of Amazon fires. He has since been considered the main protagonist in Brazil’s recent environmental policy and may accumulate the functions of VP and environmental minister in replacement of current Minister Ricardo Salles, who has become the embodiment of Bolsonaro’s anti-sustainability environmental policy.

Proof of the pudding

Salles’ dismissal goes some of the way in restoring credibility, but the proof of the pudding will be in what the VP manages to deliver effectively. At the meeting with foreign investors, he committed to a 120-day moratorium on forest fires. Still, on 13 July, the coordinator in charge of monitoring the Amazon at the National Institute of Spatial Research (Inpe) was fired, days after revealing an 11% year-on-year increase in deforestation in June. Mourao then announced on 15 July that the Armed Forces might remain in the Amazon until the end of the government’s current mandate on 31 December 2022. Given the importance of the Amazon environmental policy for the restoration of business confidence in Brazil, it is safe to assume the VP will continue to push forward with a reversal of the government’s existing approach to sustainability.

Meanwhile, the taking down by Facebook of accounts and profiles linked to members of the president’s office, family, and allies for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on 10 July could not have come at a worse time. Facebook has inadvertently hit the president front and center, by providing evidence that fake news accounts were indeed operated directly from the president’s office by at least one specific employee who is a former staffer of another suspect in the case – his youngest son and Rio Alderman Carlos Bolsonaro. Facebook claims to have acted on the basis of its own rules of conduct, which prohibit fake accounts, the falsification of identity, and artificial boosts to the popularity of contents. The evidence uncovered could ravage the president’s defense arguments on a number of fronts, including the Supreme Court (STF), the electoral court (TSE), and a joint congressional inquiry commission on fake news.

The VP is back (II)

Mourao also raised his profile this week by responding to provocation from supreme court justice Gilmar Mendes. In a live broadcast on 11 July, Mendes said that current health policy in Brazil was “terrible” for the image of the Armed Forces since, by having a four-star General as an acting minister, the army was associating itself with the (Covid-19) “genocide.” Mourao reacted by saying that if Mendes “had moral greatness, he should retract his remarks.” Mendes never did so, but the government decided to play down the evolving crisis in an evident recognition that picking a fight with the SFT did not make any sense for a government whose president has gone from belligerent to cordial in his overall approach to other branches of government in an effort to fend off an impeachment trial in Congress. In his zeal to defend his military branch of origin, Mourao ventured into dangerous territory.

Double talk?

Bolsonaro has been absent and peace-loving in his Covid-19 quarantine, but his government has suddenly had to face issues that reveal great ineptitude in dealing with the real world outside Brazilian borders. This may result in greater compliance with international commitments on sustainability and a lesser recourse to fake-and-hate schemes on social media. The signpost to watch is whether the government will resort to double talk or effect real change in its policies and strategies. Considering how much the president needs to shun negative attention in the hope of preserving his mandate, change may indeed be in the making.

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