“Savior,” she said.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Brazil, and businesses closed and local officials urged people to stay home, the government began pumping $110 per month into the wallets of the poorest citizens. Matias Maia, who fed her two children with that money, knows whom to credit.
“I would now vote for Bolsonaro,” she said. “He is helping us so much.”
By most measures, this should be an abysmal political moment for Bolsonaro. A disease he called a “little cold” has swelled into the world’s second-worst coronavirus outbreak, killing 114,000 Brazilians, infecting more than 3.6 million and devastating the country’s health system. An economic collapse he failed to forestall has driven the unemployment rate to 14 percent. He has been abandoned by allies, pilloried by emboldened critics and ensnared by several corruption scandals.
And yet, the right-wing former army captain is more popular than at any time since the beginning of his presidency.
Even in the unpredictable world of Brazilian politics, where alliances are fleeting and politicians routinely go to prison, Bolsonaro’s mounting popularity has been stunning. For the first time in more than a year, more Brazilians approve of his performance than disapprove. In the past two months, as the novel coronavirus gutted Brazil, his approval has risen from 32 to 37 percent, according to the polling service Datafolha. Disapproval has dropped from 44 percent to 34 percent.
Just weeks ago, people from across the political spectrum were clamoring for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Allies said he was leading the country on a suicide mission. His most popular deputy, Sérgio Moro, resigned as justice minister and accused him of corruption. Bolsonaro was growing more erratic by the day — conducting lengthy and unfocused meditations on national television, undermining his own government’s health admonishments, waving a box of hydroxychloroquine at an emu-like bird, and regularly fanning calls for him to lead a military takeover of the country.
Even the president himself didn’t seem to quite believe his approval rating.
“True, half-true or fake news?” he said of the results on Facebook.
His growing popularity underscores how the coronavirus crisis can be harnessed to break into new constituencies and forge a political transformation. Bolsonaro, a former fringe politician who won the presidency in 2018 on the message of cracking down on crime and corruption, has often been called a populist. He speaks extemporaneously — sometimes offensively, frequently profanely — and was raised in a poor part of rural São Paulo state.
But he has never been a politician of the poor. His supporters have largely been members of the middle and upper classes — fiscal conservatives, evangelicals and the military. During the pandemic, however, his base of support has grown to include more poor people. The disease has been far more deadly among their ranks. But they’re receiving emergency financial aid, and, in return, they’re giving him their support.
“The benefit reached many people long before the disease did,” said Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university and research institution. “Many people have gone two or three months with never-seen income, and they have not yet seen the disease. And even if they have, it’s income they’re not used to making.”
During the pandemic, Bolsonaro has prioritized the economy, to the near exclusion of all else. He urged businesses to remain open, saying life must continue, even at the risk of immense casualties. Among the media and political elite, he was vilified. But among the poor, Bolsonaro found an audience more inclined to agree. Many said they couldn’t survive without working.
“They saw that it was important to struggle against the coronavirus, but Brazil doesn’t have the luxury of social isolation,” said Esther Solano, a political scientist at the Federal University of São Paulo. “It’s a poor country, and the fact that he wanted to permit people to work was seen as something positive.”
She said he has gained more by doing less. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has been remarkably quiet. He stopped lashing out at other branches of government, shed controversial administration members, and worked to develop new congressional alliances. The moderated tone and aid package, Solano said, have erased the self-inflicted political harm.
“He is, in fact, stronger than he was before the pandemic,” she said.
Nowhere else in the country has this been more apparent than in the northeast, an arid, impoverished region that voted overwhelmingly against Bolsonaro. The emergency aid was money few had before. In numerous states, around 60 percent of households were soon receiving it. A buying spree followed.
“It’s a lot of money for them,” said Yala Sena, the editor of the news site Cidade Verde in the largely undeveloped state of Piauí. “There was a lot of economic activity after the benefit. It has helped them to buy food, and businesses have grown a lot.”
There was no town in the region more opposed to Bolsonaro than the remote city of Guaribas, one of the poorest places in Brazil. The only way in is a 25-mile dirt road. The earth is so sandy that agriculture is nearly impossible. Many of its 4,500 inhabitants are illiterate.
Because of its struggles, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva chose it as the first recipient of an ambitious social welfare program in 2003. In all the years since, people never forgot. They voted almost unanimously for anyone Lula’s Workers’ Party put on the presidential ticket. In 2018, 98 percent of people voted against Bolsonaro.
But now many are reconsidering that position.
“You can’t close everything,” said Irã Alves, 30, a municipal worker. “Life can’t stop, even during a pandemic. We are changing how we feel about [Bolsonaro]. People would vote for him now.”
Many residents said their changing opinions about Bolsonaro weren’t rooted in ideology but practical life concerns. Were things getting better? Did people have more money?
Matias Maia, who runs a seven-room hotel where rooms go for $10 per night, said the future was looking brighter. Workers were putting asphalt down on the dirt road to town, which could mean more business at her hotel. She didn’t know whether Bolsonaro was directly responsible for that. But it seemed foolish to oppose the president, she said, if conditions in long-impoverished Guaribas seemed to be improving.
“The road is a dream,” she said. “If they can finish it, it would be so wonderful.”
No one knows how long the support among the poor will last. Support based on material benefits like the emergency money is tenuous. Economists are saying the government simply cannot afford the aid, which costs nearly $10 billion per month. The finance minister, Paulo Guedes, has said it will bankrupt the government, if continued much longer. He said Bolsonaro could end up impeached for fiscal irresponsibility.
The other path, however, is equally treacherous. When the payments stop, the population will absorb the full impact of the financial crisis. The problems of the poor, temporarily stalled, will surge back — and then be magnified. Then the calls for impeachment could begin once more.
“The payments are a mirage,” said Rogério Barbosa, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo. “For now, they are only being protected by this emergency measure. Poverty in Brazil hasn’t dropped.”
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.