BRASILIA, Brazil — Accusations that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro turned a blind eye to possible corruption in a deal to purchase coronavirus vaccines have heightened threats to his presidency, including a move to recommend slapping him with a criminal charge.The claims have added impetus to the opposition’s impeachment drive and left the Brazilian leader’s allies in Congress evaluating the costs of their support.Bolsonaro, who has been targeted by nationwide street protests in recent weeks, has called the Senate committee investigating the government’s COVID-19 response a “national shame” aimed at undermining his administration. For two months, the nationally televised hearings have largely focused on why his Health Ministry ignored opportunities to buy vaccines while Bolsonaro relentlessly pushed hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that rigorous studies have shown to be ineffective in treating COVID-19.Testimony before the Senate committee last week from Luis Ricardo Miranda, the chief of the Health Ministry’s import division, and his brother Luis Miranda, a lawmaker until recently allied with Bolsonaro, has turned up the heat even more.The Health Ministry official said he faced pressure to greenlight the import of Indian pharmaceutical Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine and that there were irregularities in the invoices — particularly a $45 million upfront payment to a Singapore-based company.In March, the brothers brought their concerns to Bolsonaro, who they said promised to send the case to the Federal Police and mentioned the government’s leader in Congress’s lower house, a top Bolsonaro ally, as being involved.However, the Federal Police never received any request to investigate, neither from Bolsonaro nor his Health Ministry, according to a Federal Police source with knowledge of investigations who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and declined to be named.The secretary-general of the presidency, Onyx Lorenzoni, told reporters last week that Bolsonaro did meet with the Mirandas but claimed they presented fraudulent documents. Bolsonaro ordered the brothers investigated, he said.Bharat Biotech has denied any allegation of wrongdoing with respect to vaccine supply, saying in an emailed statement that it adheres to the highest standards of compliance. The company’s press representative didn’t respond when asked why a payment would be routed through a Singapore-based company.The case has galvanized Bolsonaro’s opponents and prompted protest organizers to move up their next nationwide demonstration to Saturday. The percentage of people rating Bolsonaro’s government bad or terrible has reached an all-time high, according to pollster Datafolha.Seven of the 11 members of the Senate committee investigating Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 response told The Associated Press that, once their inquest concludes, in August at earliest, they will vote to approve recommending Bolsonaro be indicted on the charge of prevarication. The crime entails delaying or refraining from action required as part of a public official’s duty for reasons of personal interest.Sen. Randolfe Rodrigues and Sen. Humberto Costa spoke on record with AP. Five senators spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns that detailing plans will expose the committee to attacks from the government and its allies.Bolsonaro on Saturday said the committee has “seven scoundrels” among its members. He has denied all wrongdoing and knowledge of possible corruption.Any committee recommendation for indictment would need to be accepted by the prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee, then approved by Congress before an investigation could begin.The committee is “a big threat to Bolsonaro, but one step at a time,” said Thiago de Aragão, director of strategy at political risk consultancy Arko Advice, who added the accusations have increased the pressure.“But it’s only a gamechanger if you have an important portion of congressmen … shifting sides and endorsing this kind of action against him.”Last year, Bolsonaro began drawing close to the large “Centrao” bloc in Congress to shore up his legislative agenda and stave off risks of impeachment. In the wake of the allegations against Bolsonaro, its lawmakers have begun reevaluating the risks of backing him, according to Cláudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university.“It’s still in their interest to follow the government at this moment,” Couto said. But, he added, “Defending a president who is very compromised is difficult for anyone. Politicians and parties won’t want to associate their image with a president like that. There’s a limit to everything.”The opposition has filed more than 100 impeachment requests, but House Speaker Arthur Lira, a Centrao member, reiterated in an interview Friday with local media Jota that there aren’t sufficient reasons for him to greenlight proceedings.The Miranda brothers’ Senate committee testimony “fundamentally changes the debate, because at that moment the president had the duty to take some sort of measure” or explain why their claims were baseless, said Davi Tangerino, a professor of criminal law at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.The Health Ministry signed a contract for 20 million Covaxin doses in February. However, the government hadn’t yet made any payments nor were any vaccines provided due to obstacles in the health regulator’s approval process.On Tuesday, the health ministry announced that the government is “temporarily suspending” the Covaxin contract. Comptroller-general Wagner Rosário said his office will evaluate the process by which it was signed.Even before the Miranda brothers’ testimony last week, federal prosecutors were already investigating possible irregularities in the contract, which committed the Health Ministry to pay $320 million — at a cost of $15 per vaccine dose, the most expensive of all vaccines Brazil purchased — to Bharat Biotech’s representative in Brazil, according to a document sent to the AP by the prosecutor-general’s press office.The political dust has yet to settle, but the case is a sign that Bolsonaro will face additional headwinds with his reelection bid next year.“The extent of the political damage remains uncertain,” newspaper O Globo wrote in an editorial published Tuesday. “Concretely, the only thing one can say is the government is cornered and ever more hostage to allies.”—-This story has been corrected to show that the health ministry is suspending the Covaxin contract rather than canceling it.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has signed a decree to dispatch soldiers to the Amazon in a bid to curb surging deforestation, just two months after withdrawing troops from the regionBy DÉBORA ÁLVARES Associated PressJune 29, 2021, 4:09 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s president is sending troops back to the Amazon to bolster policing against logging and other illegal land clearance, acting amid international criticism of a surge in deforestation and just two months after withdrawing a similar military mission.President Jair Bolsonaro’s decree calls for soldiers to go to the states of Para, Amazonas, Mato Grosso and Rondonia through the end of August. The order, which was published Monday in Brazil’s official gazette, didn’t provide details about the number of troops to be deployed nor the cost of the operation.Vice President Hamilton Mourão told reporters earlier this month that the deployment could be extended beyond two months with the arrival of the dry season, when people burn forest to clear land for farming and ranching.Amazon deforestation had edged upward for several years, then it surged after the 2018 election of Bolsonaro, who repeatedly called for development of the rainforest. The destruction has elicited an international outcry and, more recently, an effort by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to urge Bolsonaro to get tough on illegal logging.This will mark the third time that Bolsonaro has dispatched troops to the Amazon, following two “Operation Green Brazil” deployments, the most recent of which ended in April. Each mission involved thousands of soldiers. Still, environmental experts have said the military was ill-prepared and had limited efficacy.In 2020, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon reached a level unseen since 2008, according to official data.And 98.9% of deforestation had indications of illegality, either done near springs, in protected areas or carried out without requisite authorization, according to data released this month by the MapBiomas Project, a network of nonprofits, universities and technology companies that studies Brazilian land use. Brazil’s environmental regulator levied fines in just 5% of these cases, the group found.Márcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental nonprofit groups, called the latest military deployment a “smokescreen″ that will allow the government to claim to be fighting deforestation. He noted a previously successful initiative, largely funded by the Norwegian and German governments, has been suspended since 2019.“The government has adopted a series of measures that simply destroys the state’s monitoring capacity, like stopping environmental fines,″ Astrini said. He added that the regulator has also ceased destroying machinery used for illegal logging.Bolsonaro’s plan to send soldiers comes as the US. administration has called for curbing Amazon deforestation in order to help arrest climate change. Bolsonaro has said Brazil lacks enough funds to do so on its own, despite the fact the nation did so at the start of this century.The U.S. has made clear it would only be willing to contribute once Brazil registers concrete progress, of which there has so far been no sign. Talks between the U.S. and Brazil’s environment ministry have stalled, three Brazilian government officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.The decision to deploy troops is partially meant to demonstrate the government’s good intentions to the U.S., one of the officials added.On June 23, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles announced his resignation, giving up his post amid sharp criticism of his tenure and two investigations into his actions involving allegedly illegal timber operations. He has denied all wrongdoing.