Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has come out in public to support hundreds of people defending military rule and protesting against stay-at-home orders issued by state governors to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
The crowd of about 600 people gathered in front of the army’s headquarters in the capital, Brasilia, on Sunday, Brazil’s armed forces day.
Protesters, many of whom were not wearing masks, called on the military to intervene in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and demanded the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress.
Some held up posters declaring “Military intervention with Bolsonaro”.
“I am here because I believe in you. You are here because you believe in Brazil. We don’t want to negotiate anything; what we want is action for Brazil,” said Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has expressed nostalgia for the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship.
Since being sworn in on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro has asked the defence ministry to organise commemorations of the two-decade-long military dictatorship, paid tribute to General Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman in neighbouring Paraguay, and backed changes in school history curricula that would revise the way children view the 1964 military coup.
During his address, which was interspersed with fits of coughing, Bolsonaro made no response to the crowd’s call for military intervention or the demand to close Congress.
“You must fight for your country. Count on your president to do what is necessary so that we can guarantee democracy and what is most dear to us, our freedom,” he said.
But for some, Bolsonaro crossed a line on Sunday.
“The president of the republic crossed the Rubicon,” wrote Felipe Santa Cruz, president of the Brazilian Bar Association, on his official Twitter account.
“Time for Democrats to unite, to overcome difficulties and disagreements, in the name of a greater good called FREEDOM!”
Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso focused his criticism on the protesters.
“It is frightening to see demonstrations for the return of the military regime, after 30 years of democracy,” he wrote on Twitter.
Many Brazilians were also angered at Bolsonaro’s defiance of the stay-at-home measures introduced by several state governors.
Bolsonaro has stepped up public appearances in recent weeks, meeting supporters, protesters, passersby or business owners, in defiance of social distancing measures advised by the World Health Organization and Brazil’s health ministry.
The president has been a fierce critic of the states’ stay-at-home measures, arguing that the economic harm could be more damaging than the illness. On Friday, he sacked his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had been promoting isolation measures.
Brazil has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Latin America – more than 38,000 – and at least 2,400 deaths. The number remains relatively low in relation to the country’s population of 211 million, but the outbreak is not expected to peak until May.
Small protests denouncing the pandemic restrictions also took place on Saturday, with demonstrators in trucks, cars and motorcycles honking their horns in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, calling for governors to resign over the lockdown measures.
However, a majority of Brazilians approve the government’s confinement regulations despite its impact on the economy, according to a poll published on Saturday.