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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with journalists as he arrives at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. Photo: Reuters

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro under fire as court releases profanity-laced video of cabinet meeting

  • The video was released as part of a probe into allegations that the Brazilian president was trying to improperly meddle in the federal police
  • Bolsonaro’s popularity has been sagging due to his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic, which was barely discussed in the meeting
A profanity-laced video showing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expressing frustration at his inability to get information from police and vowing to change cabinet ministers if needed to protect his family was released on Friday at the order of a Supreme Court justice, a potential new blow for a leader whose popularity has been sagging.

The two-hour video of a cabinet meeting, with portions redacted, was released as part of a probe into allegations that the president was trying to improperly meddle in the federal police, a claim made by former justice minister Sérgio Moro when he resigned last month.

Moro told investigators that Bolsonaro openly demanded he make changes in key federal police positions, including the head of the agency. Moro resigned after Bolsonaro fired the federal police director general without consulting him.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with journalists while wearing a protective face mask. Photo: Reuters

The video shows the president complaining, “I already tried to change our security in Rio de Janeiro and I couldn’t. That is over. I will not wait [for them] to [profanity] my entire family just for fun, or a friend of mine.”

Bolsonaro has insisted he was referring to the head of his security detail, though he had successfully changed that position recently. Moro said the president was alluding to the head of police operations in Rio, who presumably might have been involved in investigations into the president’s sons, who live there.

Bolsonaro’s popularity has been sagging due to his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 21,000 Brazilians and the death toll is accelerating.

The pandemic, not the revelation of the video, will be the main driver of the president’s future, said Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. Garman said the video did not provide any sound legal evidence of interference and would energise Bolsonaro’s base in the near term.

“He’s not going to win hearts and minds of those who don’t support him or convince those who abandoned him already to come back. It just plays to his base, polarises the environment more,” Garman said. “And that will fade. I don’t think it will be any kind of game changer on the positive side.”

Members of the congress show the request of impeachment against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro during a protest against him in Brasilia. Photo: Reuters

Carlos Melo, a political-science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said Brazilians could be put off by scenes from a meeting in which the subject of fighting the virus is barely broached. Bolsonaro did ask ministers to defend him against criticism over his handling of the virus.

“It calls one’s attention that in that moment no one was talking about Covid-19 in the cabinet, except for a brief mention. When then health minister starts speaking about what is being done, the president stops him and moves on,” Melo said. “That is very bad, and it will be used by the media and the opposition. It shows very little effort to fight it.”

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At another point in the video, the president also complains about his inability to get information from the police or other agencies. “I have the power and I will interfere in all ministries, no exception,” he said.

“I cannot be surprised by news. I have the federal police that do not give me information. I have the armed forces intelligence that does not give me information. The intelligence agency, I have some information. I don’t have more because we have some problems,” Bolsonaro added. “We cannot live without information.”

The president frequently appears enraged in the video. He insults governors who are enforcing stay-at-home measures, threatens to fire ministers praised by the mainstream media and defends the view that all his countrymen should possess firearms to avoid being governed by tyrants.

Bolsonaro also said he would not accept being removed from office because of his disregard for health recommendations on the best ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“If I have to go down one day, may we fall fighting, for a good reason. Not for a stupid antivirus exam, for the love of God,” he said.

Bolsonaro tested negative for a coronavirus infection three times in March after taking a flight with two dozen passengers who tested positive.

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Maranhao state governor Flávio Dino, a nemesis of Bolsonaro’s, said the video “confirms the testimony of Sérgio Moro, includes several crimes, reveals plans to arm the population for political ends and shows unmistakable despotic impulses”.

The video provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an administration that does not open its doors to the mainstream press. It revealed not just Bolsonaro, but also cabinet ministers, making statements strongly criticising elements of Brazilian society.

Education minister Abraham Weintraub, for one, said Supreme Court justices should all be jailed. Celso de Mello, the Supreme Court justice, said in his decision to release the video that Weintraub committed “an apparent crime against the honour of members” of Brazil’s top court.

During the meeting, Bolsonaro also complained that he has struggled to govern, saying he does not know “where our boat is heading”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ideo of Cabinet meeting puts Brazil's Bolsonaro under fireCabinet video deals blow to Bolsonaro