Why Bolsonaro backtracked on firing Mandetta

By Carolina Botelho

20/03/2020 Coletiva de Imprensa do Presidente da República, Jai

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro (with mask off), at a press conference on Covid-19 with his health minister (third from left), Luiz Henrique Mandetta, March 22, 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega / PR.)

The president’s backtracking was only possible because a considerable part of the Brazilian elite felt threatened.

Read this article in Portuguese

(Please note: After this article was written, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, on April 16, 2020.)

April 6th was a particularly tense day for Brazil. Not for the normal reasons to which we have already become accustomed, such as the President of the Republic, his children, and his supporters. No, this day went beyond that. The threat to dismiss the only minister who seems to value the idea of the republic, as is expected from a public servant, had already been announced. Bolsonaro was going to fire Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the Minister of Health. Mandetta is the only person on Bolsonaro’s team who has shown concern and acted to save lives in this horrible epidemic that has generated alarm in almost all of the world, or at least the “civilized” world. By the end of the day, the president had backtracked, or rather, others had pushed a reversal of Bolsonaro’s decision. Who were they?

This is an important question at the moment. Who made Bolsonaro backtrack on his decision? Normally in a democracy, it would be expected that political and social institutions would recommend the necessary caution to the president in the face of the threat of Covid-19. It would also be expected that he would accept these recommendations. In the case of Brazil, institutions have fulfilled their roles, but Bolsonaro has disregarded all of them, dismissing scientific debates and expert knowledge. The results of this equation are simple: our democracy loses on a daily basis. However, April 6th seemed different. Many analysts argue that it was the generals who surround Bolsonaro and contain his “excesses” who demanded that the president backtrack. While I agree with this theory, it is not the complete answer. So, I rephrase the question as, “Who were the generals listening to before they made Bolsonaro backtrack?”


I want to emphasize a common theme in social science literature (the field most despised and denigrated by Bolsonaro): elite theory. I studied a little of this theory as an undergraduate, and then used it in my master’s thesis almost two decades ago. In 2019, when organizing an undergraduate course, I judged the theory to be important enough to include in the bibliography, and I do not regret it.

Jair Bolsonaro com o presidente dos EUA, Donald Trump, na Flórida, em 7 de março de 2020. Um membro da equipe de Bolsonaro testou positivo para o coronavírus alguns dias depois. (Foto de Alan Santos / PR.)

Jair Bolsonaro with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida on March 7, 2020. A member of Bolsonaro’s team tested positive for the coronavirus a few days later. (Photo by Alan Santos / PR.)

Recently, a Datafolha poll showed that 51% of people interviewed said that Bolsonaro is more harmful than helpful in the fight against the coronavirus, and 39% of interviewees disapproved of the President in general. This would be easy enough to accept. However, this data also highlights more interesting results: Bolsonaro is poorly rated by women (43% disapproval), people with higher education (50%), and the rich (those with wages equal to or greater than 10 times the minimum wage, 46%).

The president will say that he does not trust polls, but elite theory explains why Datafolha is correct, and why part of Brazilian society has backed away from its support of Bolsonaro.

With the caveat that social isolation has altered the methodology of the most recent polls, disapproval of the President among the richest Brazilians has grown from 28% in December to 46% in April. The importance of this group is not trivial. Bottomore, an elite theorist, has shown that elites can exercise a true veto power in support of a country’s economic and political development. As observed by Elisa Reis, even the possibility of gradual change depends considerably on the acquiescence of the elites. According to Reis, “the importance of the elites lies in the direction and control they can exercise over the complex and difficult transition of one form of organization to another.”

Abram de Swaan’s work addresses the emergence of national social welfare policies in Europe. To de Swaan, the elites’ perception of social problems has a fundamental importance. Along with Reis, de Swaan argues that, in the case of Europe, the elites saw advantages in the collectivization of solutions to social problems, and public power became the natural agent in the provision of “citizenship goods” like health, education, and social security. For de Swaan, the elites are, as a general rule, self-serving, and they act to avoid “negative external effects” such as epidemics, pollution, crimes, rebellions, and migrations.

Ruas vazias em São Paulo, 5 de abril de 2020. (Foto de Elize Massard da Fonseca.)

Empty streets in São Paulo, April 5, 2020. (Photo by Elize Massard da Fonseca.)

In my master’s thesis, my main hypothesis suggested that among the Brazilian elites, there are few similarities with the European ones analyzed by de Swaan. I argued that there is no awareness of interdependence of social classes, which would enable mobilization to solve problems in Brazil in a cooperative way, facilitating the creation of social policies that favor the poor. However, at that point we had not felt the weight of an epidemic, or rather, of a pandemic such as we are experiencing today.

Brazilian society is facing many risks if the government does not take urgent responses. I say the entire society because the negative effects will be shared by all. It is certain some will be affected more than others, but all will lose. Losses will start with the spread of a lethal and up until now little-known virus, which entered the country via the travel of elites. Losses will continue with the lack of hospital beds, a worsening economic crisis, the threat of social upheaval, and looting by groups that are desperate for assistance. Everyone will be affected.

The decision to backtrack on the firing of Mandetta was only possible because a considerable portion of the elite were feeling threatened, as reflected in the polls. While this does not guarantee that the Minister of Health will remain in office, it does add support to some of his policies that will help control the epidemic. It remains to be seen what these elites think about the importance of democracy.

This article was originally published on Nexo on April 7, 2020, and was translated by CLAS staff.

Carolina Botelho.Carolina Botelho is a researcher at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, and a professor and postdoctoral fellow at Escola Nacional de Ciências Estatísticas / Instituto Brasileiro de Geografía e Estatística. She holds a doctorate in political science from the Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos da Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, and a master’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. She is an Affiliated Scholar of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.

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