ONE DAY in April, as Brazilian hospitals ran out of oxygen and 3,000 people a day died from covid-19, Jair Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Luiz Eduardo Ramos, 64, was stung. It was his turn but he was going in secret. Her boss is anti-vaccine. When asked why Brazil is blocking approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the president joked that jabs turn people into crocodiles.

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The fact that Mr. Ramos, a four-star general who once commanded peacekeeping troops in Haiti, had to escape reveals how much Brazil has fallen under Mr. Bolsonaro, whose career as captain army only stood out when he was jailed for insubordination. Mr Ramos confessed his blow in a meeting he was unaware of was being broadcast. “Like any human being, I want to live,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Brazil suffered from a decade of political and economic ills. With Mr. Bolsonaro as his doctor, he is now in a coma. More than 87,000 Brazilians died from covid-19 in April, the world’s worst monthly death toll at the time. Vaccines are so rare that those under 60 will not receive them until September. And a record 14.4% of workers are unemployed.

Yet on May 1 bolsonarists draped in Brazilian flags took to the streets. Unperturbed by a parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI) in the president’s handling of covid-19, they applauded his refusal to wear a mask, his support for hydroxychloroquine and his wish to send the military to obstruct stay-at-home orders. São Paulo supporters pleaded for “military intervention”. A woman told a visitor that Brazil has never had a civil war. “It was about time,” she said.

Swap Portuguese for English and green and yellow for red, white and blue, and the rally could have been held in the United States last year. Mr. Bolsonaro borrowed heavily from Donald Trump’s tactics to win the 2018 election: populism, nationalism, chauvinism and fake news. Brazil has been traumatized by corruption, recession, deteriorating public services and violent crime. Brazilians are fed up with politicians who have failed to resolve these issues. Mr. Bolsonaro channeled their frustration.

He presented himself as an outsider even though he had spent 27 years as a backbench congressman, only making the news when he said something offensive about women, people natives or homosexuals. A follower of the military dictatorship of 1964-85, he often put his thumbs and forefingers outstretched as if he were firing a machine gun. Once in power, he directly targeted Brazil’s democratic institutions.

Good times bad times

Ten years ago, the election of Mr. Bolsonaro would have been unthinkable. After the dictatorship, Brazil reformed. A constitution signed in 1988 created independent institutions. A new currency in 1994 brought inflation under control. A commodity boom in the 2000s created jobs. With money in their wallets, Brazilians have seen their lives improve. Under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil joined Russia, India and China in the BRIC block of rapidly growing emerging economies. He has led climate talks and won both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Then the commodity boom ended. The 2013 protests against the increase in bus fares turned into protests to overthrow the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) government. An anti-corruption investigation launched in 2014, known as Lava Jato (Car Wash), found that dozens of companies had paid bribes to politicians in exchange for contracts with Petrobras, the oil company of state. The economy collapsed after the irresponsible spending of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Larger and angrier protests led to Ms Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. Her replacement, Michel Temer, was accused of corruption and narrowly escaped impeachment in 2017.

The election of Mr. Bolsonaro followed these traumas. He had little funding or airtime, but was boosted when he was stabbed during his campaign. Posing as the savior of Brazil, he won 55% of the vote. His support was highest in the south and southeast, the wealthiest and whitest areas, and among conservatives like farmers and evangelicals. Millions of people supported him in anger at the TP. Mr Bolsonaro seemed to many voters to be the lesser of two evils.

Many experts have said that Brazilian institutions will resist his authoritarian instincts. So far, they have been right. Although Mr Bolsonaro says it would be easy to carry out a coup, he did not. But in a broader sense, the experts were wrong. His first 29 months in power showed that Brazilian institutions are not as strong as we thought and that they have weakened under his blows. Cláudio Couto, a political scientist at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university in São Paulo, compares them to the brakes of a car rolling down a hill. “If you push them too hard, they can fail,” he says.

Take justice. Lava Jato seemed like the triumph of the decade. Brazilians hoped that anti-corruption reforms would usher in cleaner lawmakers who act for the people, not themselves. But some prosecutors and judges in Lava Jato had a political agenda. This paved the way for Mr Bolsonaro, in the face of the allegations against his sons, to close the investigation. Its closure has helped not only corrupt politicians, but organized crime groups as well.

The economy is in dire need of reform to curb the growth of public spending, boost competitiveness and tackle inequalities. As a candidate, Mr. Bolsonaro briefly professed his belief in liberal economics. He hired Paulo Guedes, a free market educated at the University of Chicago, as Minister of the Economy. Then he abandoned both, refusing to support changes that could cost votes. After an overhaul of pensions in 2019, Mr. Guedes’ reform program has stalled. Six of the ten members of its economic “dream team” have resigned or been made redundant.

The pandemic has wiped out all net jobs created since the 2014-16 recession, pushing millions back into poverty. None of Mr Bolsonaro’s four education ministers have created a viable distance education system. One of them only lasted five days before it was discovered that he had filled his curriculum vitae with fake diplomas from Argentina and Germany. Some 35 million children have not been in school for 15 months, a barrier to social mobility for years to come.

In politics, “the promise of renewal was a big lie,” says Couto. In 2018, voters kicked out much of the mainstream political class. For the first time, the Congress has more novices than regulars. A small group engaged in fiscal responsibility and other reforms offers hope for the future. But most politicians remain gluttonous for pork and patronage. After denouncing the system, Mr. Bolsonaro joined him to save himself from more than 100 impeachment requests.

It has caused the most damage to the Amazon rainforest, which in Brazil now emits more carbon than it stores due to climate change and deforestation. The president does not believe in the first and sympathizes with those who do the second: loggers, miners and breeders. He took a chainsaw to the Ministry of the Environment, slashing his budget and ousting relevant staff. Reducing deforestation requires stronger policing and investments in economic alternatives. Neither seems likely.

At first, Covid-19 helped Mr. Bolsonaro. Huge spending on business and the poor distracted it from its failure to pass tax reforms. His approval ratings briefly peaked since taking office. Last July, he contracted covid-19 and recovered quickly, as he had promised. It looked like the economy could do the same, paving the way for his re-election in 2022.

Then, in early 2021, Brazil was hit by a second wave with a more contagious variant of the Amazon city of Manaus. As social media filled with images of people from neighboring Chile lining up for beatings, gravediggers in Brazil were busy. Mr. Bolsonaro continued to denounce the blockages and vaccines. In a cabinet reshuffle, he sacked the defense minister, who reportedly refused to take an oath of loyalty. The heads of the three armed forces resigned in protest, briefly fueling rumors of a coup.

This does not happen. Yet this special report argues that Brazil is facing its biggest crisis since returning to democracy in 1985. Its challenges are daunting: economic stagnation, political polarization, environmental ruin, social regression, and a covid-19 nightmare. And he had to endure a president who undermines the government himself. His acolytes replaced the career officials. Its decrees have tightened the checks and balances everywhere. Consider Diário Oficial da União, where every legal change is published, explains historian Lilia Schwarcz. “There is a bang every day.

Full content of this special report
* Brazil: The captain and his country
The economy: a deferred dream
Corruption and crime: step back
Amazonia: silver trees
Politics: need for reform
Evangelicals: Bibles and ballots
Perspectives: Here we go

This article appeared in the Special Feature section of the print edition under the title “The Captain and His Country”

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