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Facing Bolsonaro’s Attack on Science and Social Protection in the Pandemic
An Interview with Leonardo Avritzer

by Émilie Frenkiel & Alfredo Ramos , 9 July 2020

Bolsonaro’s policy focuses on the destruction of social protection, science and political pluralismo. A coalition of actors, comprising national and local leaders, has emerged to limit its disastrous results in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Leonardo Avritzer is professor at the department of political science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. He is the author of many books on democratic an institutional innovations, among them Democracy and the Public Space in Latin America (Princeton University Press, 2002), Participatory Institutions in Democratic Brazil (John Hopkins University Press, 2009) and The Two Faces of Institutional Innovation (Edward Elgar, 2017), and also on the Brazilian political system, like o Pêndulo da Democracia (Todavia, 2019). His current research is on democratic theory and political participation in Brazil.

He obtained his PhD at the New School for Social Research and his dissertation received the New School for Social Research Albert Salomon Dissertation Award. He has held visiting positions at Tulane University, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and MIT.

Professor Avritzer is one of the most renowned political scientists in Brazil and is the coordinator of the steering committee of the Instituto da Democracia e da Democratização da Comunicação. The Institute is part of the National Science and Technology Institutes Program (INCT) and is formed by research groups from four main institutions: UFMG, IESP / UERJ, Unicamp and UnB and researchers from USP, UFPR, UFPE, UNAMA, IPEA and, internationally, from CES / UC and UBA. This Institute is currently developing a special program around the Coronovirus crisis.

Books & Ideas: Can we say that Bolsonaro is like any “populist” leader? What do we learn from comparisons with Trump, Johnson, Modi or Orban? Or with Latin American “populist” leaders? What are the specificities of “Bolsonarism”?

Leonardo Avritzer: Jair Bolsonaro has both similarities and differences with other extreme-right populists. The main similarity is an attack on the very cherished elements of the left tradition: basically the idea of social protection, public universities, public health system... Those systems that were created after the 1988’s constitution and that improved the conditions for equal access to public services in Brazil. These elements, that still are very provisional, are or have been targets of the Bolsonaro administration. Bolsonaro, from the very beginning of his presidential bid, attacked political pluralism, human rights, social protection. He also sponsors policies and privileges for business. So, for instance, the change in the Brazilian labor law was initiated by president Temer [1] and, right now, he wants to introduce labor contract without any guaranties for social rights. So, these are the common elements that I would say that Bolsonaro and leaders like Trump share.

I think that one of the main characteristics or singularities of Bolsonaro is his attack on universities, science and the defense of a commonsense conception of knowledge, and perhaps this is what differentiates him from other right-wing leaders. Bolsonaro, since the very beginning of his government, has set up a straight attack on Brazilian universities, specially Brazilian public universities, but he also cut financing to science, he has almost extinguished CNPQ (which is the main research agency in Brazil) and, at one point, he was very much in favor of scaling down SUS (Sistema Unificado da Saude), which is the largest public health organization in the world. I think that the reason why Bolsonaro rejects every reaction against Coronavirus is because the struggle against the virus touches some of the central policies of his government: the attack against science, the attack against public health and the attack against universities. [2]

Books & Ideas: What do Bolsonaro’s management of the pandemics and the reaction of the Brazilian government tell us about the state of Brazil’s democracy? Can we speak of a governance crisis?

Leonardo Avritzer: I think that we can say that Bolsonaro, since the very first day of his administration, doesn’t have a concept of governance. Usually Presidents or Prime Ministers have a precise idea of what they want to change, targets about what they want to achieve. Bolsonaro is not an ordinary president in that sense. What he has are enemies in the left that he wants to destroy or policies that he thinks were created by the left and that he also wants to disassemble. Overall, the aim of Bolsonaro’s administration is an ideological attack against the left. So, for instance, when we see some of the ministers that he appointed to areas such as the environment, education, humans rights, we can even say that the criteria for choosing those ministers is “which area do you hate the most?”. So, the person who hates the environment the most, which is Salles, who is a lobbyist for large agricultural business in the Amazon, is the person who is nominated the Minister of Environment. Weintraub, who has always been a mediocre university professor in the public university in São Paulo (UNIFESP) was the person indicated to the Ministry of Education. So, I don’t think that up to the emergency of the Coronavirus situation that Bolsonaro has had a concept of governability, and the amazing thing is that he continues not having one because, as a matter of fact, he behaves exactly in the same way in the regard to the health policies against the Coronavirus.

Books and Ideas : What kind of conflicts has Bolsonaro had with municipal and state governments? And within his own government?

Leonardo Avritzer : Brazil has a very particular federal system because, unlike in the United States, the federal government can impose many policies upon the states. Bolsonaro and important state governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro clashed on the response to COVID-19. The president assumed that he would be able to impose his conceptions or his lack of response to COVID-19 to the states but he was defeated at the Supreme Court which gave governors and mayors full prerogatives on imposing quarantines and curfews. Still he managed to disassemble an organized response to COVID because he made public speeches against quarantine and fired his health minister who was organizing an inter-federative response to the pandemic.

Books and Ideas: Has Bolsonaro’s legitimacy fallen during these months? What kind of political strategies have he put in place to maintain it? Are we witnessing the end or the reconfiguration of Bolsonarism?

Leonardo Avritzer: Bolsonaro managed to maintain a 30% approval rate at the end of his first year as president despite a disastrous management of environmental, educational and foreign policies. He lost support in 2019 but mainly among the groups that had supported him reluctantly—namely women and the poor, mostly in the Northeast. Among groups such as highly educated whites of the South, he did not lose support in 2019. The pandemic changed this configuration as he started to lose a lot of support among the middle class in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It is not clear so far how much support he has, because polling in Brazil suffered important changes during quarantine and the results provided so far are varying and non-reliable. Still, it is important to point out that the demise of Bolsonarism among the educated middle class will have effects on his legitimacy. Yet, Bolsonaro is still holding significant support and we should rule out a fast overthrow of the president. Brazil will continue to see a sharp polarization between left and right but it would be a mistake to expect a well-behaved Bolsonaro. It is in the nature of Bolsonarism to attack democracy and public policies.

Books & Ideas: Is a differentiated impact of Covid-19 depending on states, race or income observable in Brazil?

Leonardo Avritzer: The Coronavirus arrived in Brazil through the elite: the very high-income groups of Rio and São Paulo were the ones who brought Coronavirus from the carnival in Italy, from Aspen in the United States and from some parts of Spain. The first two deaths in Brazil were a maid in Rio de Janeiro who was treating her boss without knowing she had contracted COVID-19 and a doorman in São Paulo who most likely was contaminated by one of the building’s apartment owners. Thus, these people from the Brazilian elites not only did not test but also irresponsibly spread the epidemic to other parts of Brazil, specially Rio, São Paulo and South of Bahia where there was a very high class marriage taking place in a resort in Itacaré, Bahia in which many of the participants were contaminated and knew it.

The data recently provided by the SUS, which is the national health agency, shows that there are social factors that determine the impact of COVID. The standard victim so far in Brazil is a man, poor and Brown or Black. Furthermore, compared to other countries, more poor young people have died. Why? First of all, because the Brazilian poor cannot really go into quarantine because they receive money on a weekly if not on a daily basis. Secondly, because most of the Brazilian favelas are very crowded and even if most of the people quarantine in one house, we are are speaking of 10, 12, 15 people on average. Thus, the chances of transmission are very high among the Brazilian poor. A second issue that has to be taken into account is that public social services are very unevenly distributed across the country and inside cities. We have already seen a very high incidence of the COVID-19 in the city of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon and the amount of public equipment to face the disease is very low in comparison to cities in the Southeast of Brazil.

Books & Ideas: Has the pandemics introduced new elements of reflection on the crisis of democracies, which was one of the most relevant debates in the social sciences before Covid-19 broke out?

Leonardo Avritzer: The crisis of democracy in Brazil is a little different from the crisis of democracy in other parts of the world because it is strongly related to the politicization of the anticorruption operation that started singling out left-wing sectors in Brazil, until it was broadened and the whole political system has been targeted. Jair Bolsonaro became President because he was the only outsider who was not involved in what is known in Brazil as the Odebrecht Kickbacks or the Petrobras Kickbacks. But, as a matter of fact, Jair Bolsonaro has never been a political outsider: before becoming Brazil’s President, he was a MP for twenty years. What he has been is a politician who thwarted democracy from within, who established tensions between himself and leadership of the political system, who openly attacked human rights and defended torture.

Two conceptions have oriented Jair Bolsonaro attacks against democracy. The first one is a general attack on political institutions, the idea that political institutions are corrupt. By political institutions we can understand the executive power, legislative power and also the judicial system—and even the electoral system has been attacked by Jair Bolsonaro after he was elected president. And the second kind of attack is an attack on the way Brazil has been governed from 1994 to 2014 that was known as a coalition presidential system.

The idea behind the two attacks is that once you break with the political system and as long as you don’t make deals with Congress and you don’t receive kickbacks, you can govern Brazil. It is an automatic and anti-political conception of governability. The interesting thing is that for Bolsonaro, attacking science was nothing new, just as attacking politicians was nothing new. What Bolsonaro did in the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis was to broaden his attack against science, against medical personal, against the public health system, against political institutions, and he added the state governors to his list of enemies. What has happened, however, is that the greatest part of the Brazilian political system, media institutions, science, international organizations and civil society organizations have created a new coalition against the president. At this point, the President seems to be blocked in his actions both against democracy and against the Coronavirus by this new coalition of political forces in Brazil.

Books & Ideas: In a situation which brings health issues to the fore, what are the challenges social sciences are now facing and what type of initiatives do you develop at the Democracy Institute?

Leonardo Avritzer: Social sciences in Brazil are under heavy attack since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration. Bolsonaro cut out resources for sciences and for universities but, within these cuts, he is making even stronger cuts to the area of social sciences. He is also attacking freedom of expression and the freedom to teach within public universities. So the social sciences in Brazil will have to reorganize for two reasons. First, to show their relevance, and I think that they are already beginning to show their relevance in areas of public health, showing that the Coronavirus is going to hit harder on the poor, in the favelas, and also doing very important ethnographic work about how these badly hit groups are going to organize themselves during the pandemic. But I think that social sciences would have to do much more than that and there is, perhaps, a specific area of research that could be developed in Brazil that is how the middle class and elite groups will be reorganizing themselves, and their political discourse after the Bolsonaro administration that, we hope, will come up soon and the decrease in the cases of Coronavirus.

I think that Brazil is a laboratory for the crisis of democracy right now because the different sectors of the country changed the way they see democracy right after the start of the pandemic. For instance, important public personalities distanced themselves from Bolsonarismo after the pandemic because his attack on the left became an attack against life in general. It is also very interesting to note how they see the state and the market, and how they are going to change their views about both institutions. SUS has been a key institution in controlling the pandemic even with all the flaws and cuts in financing that the system has suffered in the last years. The level of interstate coordination and transference of resources and experience that are being applied in the attempt to curb the coronavirus epidemic are unimaginable without the SUS. So, I think that there is a long path ahead for the social sciences. They will have to employ new methods, pose new research questions and particularly be able to make new contributions to understanding the crisis of democracy.

Dossier(s) :
Faces of the Pandemic

by Émilie Frenkiel & Alfredo Ramos, 9 July 2020

To quote this article :

Émilie Frenkiel & Alfredo Ramos, « Facing Bolsonaro’s Attack on Science and Social Protection in the Pandemic. An Interview with Leonardo Avritzer », Books and Ideas , 9 July 2020. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Brazil has a labor legislation that´s still from the Vargas period, its call CLT. The CLT created a certain level of security for the labor market. Its also responsible for the creation of labor courts, that are important in Brazil. What Temer did was diminish the role of labor courts in the Brazilian labor system. Bolsonaro went one step ahead because he wants to create what he calls Carteira de Trabalho Verde-Amarela. According to these new labor card, what he wants is for people to work without having access to any social rights (ex. time off, job security, …)

[2Due to controversies related to coronavirus crisis management, Bolsonaro dismissed the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. On May 15, Nelson Teich, the second minister of health also resigned.

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