This article first appeared in El País on June 30, 2021.
The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is facing a storm of corruption allegations and impeachment petitions in one of the moments of lowest popularity for his strategy against the pandemic. The denounced scheme includes suspicions of bribery in the purchase of vaccines against covid-19, in a maneuver that splashes deputies who support the government.
The accusations come from a Parliamentary Commission in the Brazilian Senate (CPI) which for two months has been investigating the possible responsibilities of the president in the erratic management of the pandemic, which has already caused more than half a million deaths. Criticism flared up last Friday, when a deputy from the center-right Democrats party (an ally of the president), Luis Miranda, and his brother Luis Ricardo Miranda, a Health Ministry official, took aim at Bolsonaro before the parliamentary commission. The brothers said that there was pressure for the purchase of the Covaxin vaccine, from the Indian laboratory Bharat Biotech, despite the fact that the contracts presented errors that could cause losses of millions of dollars for the Ministry of Health. The import of the Indian vaccine was in charge of the company Precisa Medicamentos, which is already suspected of corruption in other episodes of official purchases of medicines.
Luis Ricardo Miranda is head of importation at the Ministry of Health and responsible for overseeing the contracts. His bosses’ insistence that he bless the Covaxin contract included calls in the wee hours of the morning and on weekends. Miranda, however, sensed that something was wrong, especially after the Pfizer vaccine purchase episode. The government kept the U.S. laboratory executives, who had offered to sell its vaccine at competitive prices to Brazil, waiting for months. More than 50 e-mails sent by Pfizer to the ministry went unanswered, as Carlos Murillo, head of Pfizer in Latin America, told the commission last May. The first e-mail from the company dated from August last year and the contract with the government was not closed until March this year.
The suspicions surrounding the president’s administration grew after the Miranda brothers told that they were with Bolsonaro on March 20 to tell him that there was an attempt to divert money in the purchase of the Covaxin vaccine. Bolsonaro assured them that he would investigate the case and allegedly told them that he knew it was the work of a congressman from his parliamentary base, Ricardo Barros, from the Progressive Party, who was health minister during the presidency of Michel Temer (2016-2018). Congressman Barros is under investigation for benefiting another company, Global Gestão, a partner of Precisa Medicamentos, involved in the negotiations for the Covaxin vaccine.
Since last week, Brazil has been following the diffusion of the allegations against the president as if they were part of a soap opera. A day before the Miranda brothers appeared before the parliamentary commission, a Bolsonaro minister threatened to denounce them for slander. The next day, the Miranda brothers showed the parliamentarians copies of documents suggesting, for example, advance payments in relation to the vaccine in a tax haven.
Bolsonaro has tried to publicly disqualify the accusations, but has felt the blow in the wake of new suspicions. On Tuesday night, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo published an interview with Luiz Paulo Dominguetti Pereira, a representative of a vaccine distributor, who was at the ministry in February to offer 400 million doses of Astra Zeneca. According to him, the Ministry’s Logistics Director, Roberto Ferreira Dias, asked him for a bribe as a “toll”. Ferreira Dias is one of the bosses who also allegedly pressured Luis Ricardo Miranda for the purchase of Covaxin. The government could not ignore the facts and Dias lost his position shortly after Folha’s report. This Thursday, Dominguetti Pereira repeated the accusations in the parliamentary committee about the bribe offer: one dollar per dose.
Brazil is counting the number of lives that could have been saved if the pandemic strategy had been different. The Bolsonaro government opposed the scientists’ recommendations from the beginning and insisted on treatments not supported by studies, such as the use of chloroquine. Now, Brazilians wonder if the president’s radical positions during covid were not a smokescreen to distract from other objectives. “In the end, it wasn’t about denialism, nor was it an ideological issue; it was about corruption,” said Eliziane Gama, of the Citizenship party, on Wednesday.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, repeats that his government has put an end to corruption. “They can’t reach me. It is not with lies or with a Commission made up of bandits that they are going to remove me from here,” the president reacted on Wednesday. But the pressure for him to leave office is gaining momentum. The impeachment petition has been filed again in the Chamber of Deputies. There are already more than 100 requests against the president, now for suspicions of corruption in the provision of vaccines against covid-19.
The latest request bears the signature of a majority of left-wing parties, but also has that of some right-wing deputies who were elected with bolsonarista votes. The big absentee is the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
The Government, for now, is trying to keep the financial market happy with a tax reform proposal sent to Congress shortly after gaining support for the privatization of Eletrobras. It has also paid three months of emergency aid to the most needy, between US$30 and US$75 per month. The problem is that inflation continues to rise, aggravated by a drought that has lowered water reserves and caused the price of electricity to rise sharply. Employment has not reacted either, as evidenced by data released on Wednesday. Between February and April, unemployment rose by 0.5% and there are already 14.8 million Brazilians out of work, and another 33.3 million in underemployment. Bolsonaro is going through the worst moment since he came to power.