As the number of COVID-19 cases surges in Brazil, the country is also facing a major crisis on the political front. The heads of Brazil’s Army, Navy and Air Force all quit in an unprecedented move, a day after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ousted his defense minister as part of a broader Cabinet shake-up. The developments have alarmed many in Brazil who believe Bolsonaro, who is a former Army captain, will install ultra-loyalists to the military posts to consolidate his power ahead of next year’s election, when he is expected to be challenged by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro is trying to “show his authority” as his popularity dwindles, says Celso Amorim, former Brazilian foreign minister. “As he becomes smaller in terms of support … he becomes more dangerous.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show in Brazil, where the death toll from COVID-19 has topped 325,000, with over 66,000 deaths in the month of March. On Wednesday, Brazil reported nearly 3,900 new COVID deaths, breaking the record set one day earlier. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, gravediggers have been speeding up efforts to empty old graves to make room for the soaring number of COVID-19 deaths.
As the number of COVID cases soar, Brazil is also facing a major crisis on the political front. Earlier this week, the heads of Brazil’s Army, Navy and Air Force all quit in an unprecedented move, a day after Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ousted his defense minister as part of a broader Cabinet shake-up. The developments have alarmed many in Brazil who believe Bolsonaro, who is a former Army captain, will install ultra-loyalists to the military posts to consolidate his power ahead of next year’s election, when he’s expected to be challenged by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers’ Party.
Lula had been expected to defeat Bolsonaro back in 2018, but during the campaign he was arrested and jailed for nearly 600 days under disputed charges filed by a judge, Sérgio Moro, who later became Bolsonaro’s justice minister. Well, last month, a Brazilian judge annulled all convictions against Lula, paving the way for him to run again. Brazil’s Supreme Court has also ruled that Sérgio Moro was biased in convicting Lula.
We go now to Rio de Janeiro, where we’re joined by the longtime Brazilian diplomat Celso Amorim. He served as Brazil’s foreign minister under Lula, as well as defense minister under Dilma Rousseff.
We welcome you back to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for being with us. If you can start off by talking about these twin — the turmoil in Brazil right now, the ouster of the various heads of the Army, of the Air Force, and the pandemic that is raging through Brazil right now?
CELSO AMORIM: Well, I think you described very well. The pandemic is the biggest tragedy Brazil has ever faced. As you know, we never were involved in big wars. I mean, we sent troops to Europe against Nazism, but that was toward the end of the war. And we had — the last war we had was more than 150 years ago here in the region. So this is really the biggest tragedy Brazil has ever faced.
That, of course, has affected the popularity of Bolsonaro. On the same day that he was — that he sacked the minister of defense, which led to the dismissal of the Army chiefs, at that same day, he had already been forced, in a way, to dismiss the foreign minister, because the Senate revolted against the foreign minister and his actions that were detrimental to the search for vaccines and things like that. So, we are facing an enormous crisis. Bolsonaro’s popularity is sinking, although he has some sort of fanatical support, not very unlike what happened to Trump, in a way.
So, I think he did that because, of course, these military top brass were not willing to follow on some authoritarian measures, like declaring a state of emergency or a state of siege, which could be, let us say, the preamble to some sort of dictatorship, to some sort of coup d’état. Well, I think — I mean, in a word, I think Bolsonaro wished to show his authority. He did that. But he increased the tension with the military.
So, in a way, although he gained some time, in terms of the opposition of public opinion, which might even lead to his impeachment — we don’t know — but although he gained some time, I think he’s smaller. He’s ever smaller. But at the same time, as he becomes smaller in terms of support of broad classes — of course, he was very much linked to Trump, as well, so that makes a difference — at the same time, he becomes more dangerous.
So, that’s the situation we are living. And in contrast with that, as it was pointed out, we have the good news that the Supreme Court annulled, canceled all the charges against President Lula, who is appearing as a role not only nationally, but internationally, and he is, of course, normally a great figure that will either be a candidate himself or have a big influence in the elections next year. So, this is the situation we are living now, in the midst of some hope in the political field and, of course, some fears, some very big tragedy in the health area and some fear also because of this turmoil, as you described it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have — what? — the fourth health minister that Bolsonaro has appointed during the pandemic, and also, of course, Bolsonaro, as you said, very much seen as the “Trump of the Tropics,” really pushing [hydroxychloriquine], really denigrating face masks and calling the COVID a “little flu.”
CELSO AMORIM: Yes, that’s true. And, of course, in the beginning, maybe some people were hesitating to be sure whether that was — what that would work. But now it’s absolutely clear what happened. He denied science, as Trump did. But I think he did it in a more militant way, confronting governors, confronting — actually, one of the possible reasons for the displeasure of Bolsonaro with his military chiefs was precisely their resistance to some actions that related to the governors, because some governors had declared curfew and taken other measures of social distancing, including some form of lockdown. And Bolsonaro, he even spoke publicly about the possibility of having a state of siege, as if you were in an external war, to face — to confront the authority of the state governors. And that, of course, is a very serious problem in Brazil from every point of view, not only left-wing. I mean, some of them are center, center-right. But he’s obsessed with the possibility of his impeachment, on the one hand, and with the declining popularity in relation to the possible election, on the other hand. So, I think that’s how he [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: Celso Amorim, I wanted to turn to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who you served under, speaking last month about Bolsonaro’s response to COVID-19.
LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] Many of the COVID deaths could have been avoided, if there were a government who did their job. This country is disorganized and falling apart because it has no government. … There was a president who invented chloroquine, a president who said that those who are scared of COVID are sissies, that COVID was just a little flu, that COVID was something for cowards, that he was a former athlete and it would not affect him. That is not the role of a president of the republic in a civilized country.
AMY GOODMAN: Lula went on to say Brazil is “falling apart” under Bolsonaro’s government.
LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] This country is disorganized and falling apart because it has no government. I will repeat: This country has no government. … And with fake news, the world elected former President Donald Trump. And with fake news, the world elected Bolsonaro.
AMY GOODMAN: We interviewed Lula just before he went to prison. Now a judge has cleared the convictions against him. He served hundreds of days in prison. Talk about the significance of Lula now out. Will he be running for president? And what this means, where you see Brazil needs to go right now?
CELSO AMORIM: Well, you know, even Lula himself is concentrating his attention in the present situation, that you described, from the health point of view. But it’s also big unemployment. Brazil is a poor country, much poorer than the United States. So you can imagine what happens to people that don’t have jobs, that don’t know where to go. So, the need for emergency help for poor workers, for informal workers, is one of the main points that Lula has been insisting. I think if we — 2022 is still a bit far away, in some respects, not in terms — not chronologically maybe, but, I mean, the hurdles that we have to surmount this year in terms of the health tragedy that we are going through, in terms of the unemployment, in terms of the lack of income for the poor people, all these are the priorities for Lula now.
Of course, it’s impossible to escape from the realities of politics. And I think, from our point of view, I would say, from the point of view of the more progressive forces in Brazil, the fact that we have this election and we have that horizon gives us energy. But I have to say also that I was worried, as I said, with this. It’s very uncommon in Brazil. I think it never happened to have the defense minister and the three chiefs of the Army sacked in the same day, in the same day that the foreign minister was also sacked. You mentioned it was a Cabinet reform. But it was a Cabinet reform of sorts, because, really, his intention — he was forced to take away. The foreign minister was a fanatic of the extreme right. And he decided to dismiss the Army chiefs, I mean, the three chiefs of the Armed Forces. So, I think this is, in itself, a crisis.
But, apparently, what I think is his main objective was to gain time, to show authority, to continue on the race. What will be his next step, we never know, because Bolsonaro is really totally unpredictable. One day he says, “Well, no, I don’t want to fight anything.” The other day, he’s asking his top general to criticize the decision of the Supreme Court you referred to before. And so we never know. We never know how much — I mean, he has said, “We are on the verge of chaos.” Which president in the world says that we are on the verge of chaos, except if he himself wants to create chaos?
So, I think this is really the situation we are living. It’s a very difficult situation. But there is a broader consciousness in society, including the economic sectors, bankers and financial sectors, who supported Bolsonaro, or at least some of them support him, but some tolerated Bolsonaro. And they are now more critical. And he feels that, of course. And under this pressure, we never know what kind of action he can take.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Celso Amorim, you’re the former foreign secretary under Lula of Brazil. Can you talk about the Biden administration, Joe Biden’s approach to foreign policy in Latin America? Already, he seems to be following, when it comes to Brazil, very much, though he is different in many ways, the same track as Trump, promoting heavy U.S. intervention in the region. His government has asked — has also backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela, rather than the democratically elected Nicolás Maduro. What is your response to that?
CELSO AMORIM: Well, let me say one thing. We took Biden’s election, Joe Biden’s election, with a sigh of relief. That was very important in many respects. And I still think, in many respects, that I’m — it’s not your question, but I must say that, because the United States has a kind of influence that goes beyond what actually they do in foreign policy. I mean, in the moves in internal — in the society in the United States in relation to economic relief, in relation to combating racism, in relation — I mean, to many of these questions, inequality, it’s very much what we would like to see happening in Brazil. So, this is a very positive sign, in a way, because the United States does have influence beyond what it actually does in terms of foreign policy.
But in terms of foreign policy — I’m not speaking of Russia, Europe; that’s another matter — or China, I might speak, but that’s another question. But in relation to Latin America, I must say I’m a bit disappointed. Of course, the United States has other things — the Biden administration has maybe other things to concentrate on. But, for instance, I was particularly disappointed with the declaration of the foreign secretary in relation to Bolivia, because he, in a way, questioned the Bolivian judicial system to defend a lady who was an impostor, actually, who violated human rights in the bluntest possible way. So it gives the impression that it’s the same kind of policy. And this obsession with the influence of China and Russia obscures the view of what is democracy and what is — I’m not saying that he should favor Venezuela or Cuba, but at least take some humanitarian action, something that shows that they are not pursuing the same line of sanctions or threats of military intervention would be good. And this statement, that was only a statement, but a statement of the United States secretary of state, takes a lot of weight in Latin America. The statement about Bolivia was really regrettable. So, I think change which came to the United States, in many respects, didn’t come yet to the diplomacy in relation to Latin America.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to see him doing, whether it comes to Cuba, to Bolivia, to Brazil, your own country?
CELSO AMORIM: Well, Brazil is a very special case now. It’s very difficult. I think I would hope that he can support human rights in Brazil, support sustainable development in Brazil. But the way he does that, of course, we don’t want foreign intervention, either. But I think it’s important that they show that if Brazil was to have a good and constructive dialogue with the United States, it also has to behave according to civilization norms that are applied everywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: And Blinken recognizing Juan Guaidó as the president, who wasn’t elected?
CELSO AMORIM: This is regrettable. This is totally regrettable. If you might say, it’s silly, too, because it has no future. It has no future. If it didn’t have any future with Trump, with all the support that it had, it won’t have any future now. Some kind of dialogue must be open with Maduro. I don’t know. You don’t need to support Maduro. But you have to dialogue to — that’s what we did, actually, back in 2003, with full support of the Republicans, with Colin Powell, who used to talk to me about the group of friends of Venezuela, who interact that way.
And in relation to Cuba, the sanctions are something totally obscure. It’s still the Cold War mentality, which has nothing to do. It doesn’t need to be friends with Cuba. But, I mean, just to respect international law and not have unilateral sanctions and embargoes would be very positive.
And this declaration on Bolivia was really very, very much worrying, because it points into the wrong direction.
Instead of — so, what should he do in relation to Latin America? Well, Obama in some respects, tried to work in a better way in relation to Cuba. Even with Venezuela, they had indirect dialogues. And certainly, for instance, he asked for a dialogue with the organization that we have of South American countries. I participated in that, so I know. So, I think, more respect. I think what the United States has to understand, that there is diversity in Latin America, and diversity and plurality and, of course, a desire to work independently, to cooperate with the United States, of course.
For instance, one thing he should do is change the president of the — or the chairman or president of the Inter-American Bank, who is someone who is a hawk, a hawkish figure, put there by Trump. I don’t know for what. He’s an extreme right-wing. We’ve never had. It has always been a Latin American. But more important than being a Latin American or being a U.S. citizen is the question of understanding Latin America, not making Latin America the stage for a new cold war that we don’t want to be involved with. So, I think that —
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, your comment on the U.S. and other wealthy members of the World Trade Organization blocking a push by developing countries to waive patent rights in an effort to boost the ability to get vaccines out to the world?
CELSO AMORIM: Well, I was very much involved in a similar situation some 15 years ago. That was a Republican government. And we were able to discuss the — it’s very famous, the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and health, which is part even of the agenda of 2030 of the United Nations, and so on and so forth. So, I really —
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds.
CELSO AMORIM: I really regret this position of the United States. I think it’s not — I mean, you can’t be — look for social justice internally and play egoistically in the international scenario. I think the pandemic is a world problem. And I think you have to facilitate the access to medicines and to vaccines, above all, in an equitable way. And this position on corona —
AMY GOODMAN: Celso Amorim, I want to thank you so much for being with us.
CELSO AMORIM: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry we’ve run out of time. Brazil’s former foreign minister and defense minister.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a senior news producer to join our news team here in New York City. Check it out at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.