The threats are swirling around the president: Deaths from the virus in Brazil each day are now the highest in the world. Investors are fleeing the country. The president, his sons and his allies are under investigation. His election could even be overturned.
The crisis has grown so intense that some of the most powerful military figures in Brazil are warning of instability — sending shudders that they could take over and dismantle Latin America’s largest democracy.
But far from denouncing the idea, President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle seems to be clamoring for the military to step into the fray. In fact, one of the president’s sons, a congressman who has praised the country’s former military dictatorship, said a similar institutional break was inevitable.
“It’s no longer an opinion about if, but when this will happen,” the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, recently told a prominent Brazilian blogger, warning of what he called a looming “rupture” in Brazil’s democratic system.
The standoff traces an ominous arc for Brazil, a country that shook off military rule in the 1980s and built a thriving democracy in its wake. Within two decades, Brazil had come to represent the energy and promise of the developing world, with a booming economy and the right to host the World Cup and the Olympics.
Since then, its economy has faltered, corruption scandals have toppled or ensnared many of its leaders and an impeachment battle ousted its powerful leftist government.
Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, stepped into this tumult, celebrating the country’s military past and promising to restore order. But he has come under blistering criticism for downplaying the virus, sabotaging isolation measures and cavalierly presiding over one of the highest death tolls in the world, saying, “We are sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”
He, his family and his supporters are also being pursued on allegations like abuse of power, corruption and illegally spreading misinformation. Yet nearly half of his cabinet is made up of military figures, and now, critics contend, he is relying on the threat of military intervention to ward off challenges to his presidency.
A retired general in Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet, Augusto Heleno, the national security adviser, shook the nation in May when he warned of “unpredictable consequences for national stability” after the Supreme Court let an inquiry into Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters move forward.
Another general, the defense minister, swiftly endorsed the provocation, while Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out as well, suggesting that the police ignore the “absurd orders” of the court.
“This is destabilizing the country, right during a pandemic,” said Sergio Moro, the former justice minister who broke with Mr. Bolsonaro in April, of the threats of military intervention. “It is reprehensible. The country does not need to be living with this type of threat.”
Political leaders and analysts say that a military intervention remains unlikely. Even so, the possibility is hanging over the nation’s democratic institutions, which are scrutinizing Mr. Bolsonaro and his family on multiple fronts.
Two of the president’s sons are under investigation for the kind of disinformation and defamation campaigns that helped get their father elected in 2018, and late last month the federal police raided several properties tied to influential allies of Mr. Bolsonaro. The Superior Electoral Court, which oversees elections, has the authority to use evidence from the inquiry to annul the election and remove Mr. Bolsonaro from office.
Two of his sons are also under investigation for corruption, and the Supreme Court recently authorized an inquiry into allegations that Mr. Bolsonaro tried to replace the federal police chief in order to protect his family and friends.
Even the president’s handling of the pandemic is under legal threat: On Monday, a Supreme Court justice ordered the government to stop suppressing data on Brazil’s surging death toll.
The threats of military intervention have incited a broad backlash, even from some senior members of the armed forces. And General Heleno, the national security adviser, later said he that did not support a coup, contending he was misunderstood.
Still, military and civilian officials in Mr. Bolsonaro’s own administration — as well as allies of the president in Congress, evangelical megachurches and military associations — say the maneuvering is aimed at heading off any attempts by Brazil’s legislative and judicial institutions to oust the president.
Silas Malafaia, a right-wing televangelist close to Mr. Bolsonaro, insisted that the president had not told him of any plan for military intervention. Still, he argued that the armed forces had the right to prevent courts from overstepping or even ousting the president.
“That’s not a coup,” Mr. Malafaia said. “It’s instilling order where there is disorder.”
The pro-Bolsonaro officials issuing such threats are generally not referring to the way coups have often been carried out in Latin America, with the armed forces toppling a civilian leader to install one of their own.
Instead, they seem to be urging something similar to what happened in Peru in 1992, when Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing leader, used the armed forces to dissolve Congress, reorganize the judiciary and hunt down political opponents.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who still draws support from about 30 percent of Brazilians, already casts himself as the embodiment of Brazilian military culture, and portrays the armed forces as ethical and efficient managers.
Brazil’s armed forces already exercise exceptional influence in his government. Military figures, including retired four-star generals, account for 10 of 22 ministers in the cabinet. The government has named nearly 2,900 other active-duty members of the military to administration posts.
The clout of Brazil’s armed forces was on display when congressional leaders mostly exempted them from a 2019 pensions overhaul, allowing members of the military to avoid the deeper benefits cuts endured by other parts of society.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s pandemic response showcased the military’s rising profile in his government — as well the risks for leaders of the armed forces when Brazilians start ascribing blame as things go badly awry.
Building on Brazil’s public health successes in fighting previous epidemics, the Health Ministry pushed early on in the crisis for social distancing measures to slow the virus’s spread.
Even Mr. Bolsonaro seemed on board with the approach, dissuading followers from attending street rallies. Then he abruptly changed his stance, fist-bumping supporters outside his palace.
Mr. Bolsonaro also shifted leadership of the pandemic response to another general, Walter Souza Braga Netto, his chief of staff.
Sidelined and balking at expanding the use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by Mr. Bolsonaro that has not been proven effective against the virus, the health minister was replaced. His successor lasted only a few weeks until he resigned, replaced by an army general, Eduardo Pazuello.
One former official in the health ministry said the abrupt changes created a sense of chaos within the agency, resulting in weeks of dysfunction and paralysis at the most crucial time — when the country should have been fighting the uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 5, 2020
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Separately, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the health minister at the start of the pandemic, said that Mr. Bolsonaro prized economic stability over health priorities, preferring a military figure at the ministry’s helm.
“He needed someone like a general or a colonel who saw the ministry as a steppingstone, a way to get a promotion for bravery,” Mr. Mandetta said.
Brazil now has more than 700,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, second only to the United States. At least 37,000 people have died from the virus in Brazil as of Tuesday, with the death count often climbing by more than 1,000 a day.
Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies the Brazilian military, said the growing power of the armed forces carried the risk of revealing their incompetence in crucial areas.
“They think that bombastic declarations will make things happen as in the military realm, where an order is given and those of lower rank obey,” Mr. Fico said.
But with the military now guiding the pandemic response, Mr. Fico added, “They’re running the risk of being blamed by society for what happens next.”
Top allies of Mr. Bolsonaro insist that the armed forces have no plans for a coup. “Not one four-star general is in favor of military intervention,” said Sostenes Cavalcante, a right-wing congressman.
But in the same breath, Mr. Cavalcante argued that something must be done to curb the power of the Supreme Court. He contended that the talk of a coup by Mr. Bolsonaro’s son was merely a way of pressuring the judiciary.
“You could interpret that as the Supreme Court having overstepped its authority,” Mr. Cavalcante said.
At the same time, some officials within Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration are actively examining scenarios in which the military might intervene. One military official in the government who was not authorized to speak publicly said an intervention remained off the radar for now, but that certain moves by the judiciary, such as ordering a search of Mr. Bolsonaro’s palace as part of an investigation, could change that.
Similarly, the official added, any potential annulment of the 2018 election by a judge would also be considered unacceptable, because it would remove not only Mr. Bolsonaro, but also his running mate and vice president, Hamilton Mourão, a retired general.
Mr. Mourão has repeatedly asserted that no kind of military takeover is under consideration. But even the debate over military intervention is raising concern about the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions and a return to chronic political instability, with constant military meddling.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former civilian president who was exiled during the military dictatorship, said he didn’t think a coup was imminent. But he worried that Mr. Bolsonaro’s intimidation tactics could intensify.
“How do democracies die? You don’t need a military coup,” Mr. Cardoso, 88, who has already urged Mr. Bolsonaro to resign, told reporters. “The president himself can seek extraordinary powers, and he can take them.”