Bolsonaro Is Afraid of Going to Jail, and He’s Right to Be

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — “I’m letting the scoundrels know,” President Jair Bolsonaro told supporters last year, “I’ll never be imprisoned!”

He was shouting. But then, Mr. Bolsonaro tends to become animated when talking about the prospect of prison. “By God above,” he declared to an audience of businesspeople in May, “I’ll never be arrested.” As he spends “more than half” of his time dealing with lawsuits, he surely feels well armed against arrest. But there’s desperation in his defiance. The fate of the former Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who was recently sentenced to prison for allegedly orchestrating a coup, hangs heavy in the air.

For Mr. Bolsonaro, it’s a cautionary tale. Ahead of presidential elections in October, which he’s on course to lose, Mr. Bolsonaro is plainly worried he too may be arrested for, as he put it with uncharacteristic understatement, “antidemocratic actions.” That fear explains his energetic attempts to discredit the election before it happens — such as, for example, gathering dozens of foreign diplomats to fulminate against the country’s electronic voting system.

Yet however absurd the behavior — and forcing ambassadors to sit through a crazed 47-minute diatribe is certainly on the wacky end of the spectrum — the underlying motive makes perfect sense. Because the truth is that Mr. Bolsonaro has plenty of reasons to fear prison. In fact, it’s getting hard to keep track of all the charges against the president and his government.

To start with, there’s the small matter of a Supreme Court investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s allies for participating in a kind of “digital militia” that floods social media with disinformation and coordinates smear campaigns against political opponents. In a related inquiry, Mr. Bolsonaro himself is being investigated for, in the words of a Federal Police report, his “direct and relevant role” in promoting disinformation.

Yet Mr. Bolsonaro’s wrongdoing is hardly confined to the digital world. Corruption scandals have defined his tenure, and the rot starts at home. Two of his sons, who also hold public offices, have been accused by state prosecutors of systematically stealing public funds by pocketing part of the salaries of close associates and ghost employees on their payrolls. Similar accusations, concerning his period as a lawmaker, have been directed at the president himself. In March, he was charged with administrative improbity for keeping a ghost employee as his congressional aide for 15 years. (The supposed aide was actually an açaí seller.)

Charges of corruption also surround high-ranking members of the government. In June, Brazil’s former education minister, Milton Ribeiro, was arrested on charges of influence peddling. Mr. Bolsonaro, who is mentioned by name by Mr. Ribeiro in compromising audio clips, was steadfast in his defense of the minister. “I would put my face in the fire for Milton,” the president said before the arrest, later explaining that he would only put his hand in the fire. He maintains, against all available evidence, there is no “endemic corruption” in his government.

Then there’s the damning report by the special Senate committee on Brazil’s Covid-19 response, which describes how the president actively helped to spread the virus and can be held responsible for many of Brazil’s 679,000 deaths. It recommends that Mr. Bolsonaro be charged with nine crimes, including misuse of public funds, violation of social rights and crimes against humanity.

How does the president respond to this swirling charge sheet? With secrecy orders. These injunctions, concealing evidence for a century, have been applied to all manner of “sensitive” information: the detailed expenses of Mr. Bolsonaro’s corporate credit card; the army’s disciplinary process that acquitted a general and former health minister for having participated in a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration; and fiscal reports from the corruption investigation targeting his eldest son. This is a far cry from the man who, early in his tenure, bragged of bringing “transparency above all else!”

If secrecy doesn’t work, there’s obstruction. Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently been accused of trying to obtain privileged information from investigations, or to stymie them altogether. In the most notorious instance, the president was accused by his own former minister of justice of interfering with the independence of the Federal Police. It’s a credible charge. After all, in a leaked recording of a ministerial meeting two years ago, Mr. Bolsonaro was caught saying that he wasn’t going to “wait to see my family or my friends get screwed” when he could just as well replace law enforcement officials.

To exercise that power, though, he needs to keep his job. With that in mind, Mr. Bolsonaro has been handing out top government jobs and using a pot of funds, called a “secret budget” for its lack of transparency, to guarantee the support of centrist lawmakers. Given the strength of calls for impeachment — as of December 2021, over 130 requests had been filed against him — a bank of support is crucial. The strategy is no secret: Mr. Bolsonaro confessed to doing both in order to “placate Congress.” He denies that the budget is secret, despite the fact that those who request funds from it remain anonymous.

But the bigger challenge is winning over the electorate. There, again, Mr. Bolsonaro is resorting to tricks and workarounds. In July, Congress passed a constitutional amendment — nicknamed the “kamikaze bill” by the minister of the economy — that grants the government the right to spend an extra $7.6 billion on welfare payments and other benefits until Dec. 31. If it sounds like a shameless attempt to gin up support across the country, that’s because it is.

Whether it will help the president’s cause, who knows. But the signal it sends is unmistakable: Mr. Bolsonaro is desperate to avoid defeat. And he has every reason to be.

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