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A Televised Inquiry Examines Brazil's Handling Of The Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is under pressure. Hundreds of business leaders in Brazil say he is subverting democracy. He's also at the center of a probe into how he's handled the pandemic. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMILTON GOMES DE PAULA: (Speaking Portuguese).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is an evangelical pastor and businessman. His name is the Reverend Amilton Gomes de Paula. De Paula is appearing live on TV before a Brazilian Senate committee investigating the government's pandemic response.

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UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Senators pound him with questions. They want to know if he was a middleman in an alleged scam over vaccine purchases. They suspect Brazilian government officials tried to hike the price and pocket the difference. De Paula denies wrongdoing, but suddenly bursts into tears.

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DE PAULA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I apologize to the Brazilian people," he says. He says he knows he made a mistake.

This hard-hitting inquiry has been holding these hearings off and on since May. They're drawing big TV audiences and generating big headlines. The pandemic's eased in Brazil recently, yet it's still killing an average of nearly a thousand people a day and accounts for 560,000 COVID deaths overall. These senators are asking, why? Why did President Jair Bolsonaro scoff at the virus for so long? Why did his officials squander lifesaving opportunities to buy vaccines? Bolsonaro was elected on a promise of cleaning up corruption. Those allegations of government scams involving vaccine purchases could be particularly damaging, says Daniela Campello, professor of political science at Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation.

DANIELA CAMPELLO: Corruption's a very simple word. And if you say the government stole money and people died because of that, that's a very simple message. So I think that's very powerful, what they're finding right now in the investigation.

REEVES: Bolsonaro is counterattacking...

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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...By taking to the airwaves to generate some big headlines of his own. Next year, he faces a presidential election. He's been slipping in the polls. Facing possible defeat, he's raising the issue of fraud.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: In this recent two-hour broadcast, Bolsonaro claims, without proof, that Brazil's electronic voting system can be manipulated. He threatened to cancel the elections unless the system's changed. This tactic is typical of Bolsonaro, says political analyst Guilherme Casaroes.

GUILHERME CASAROES: Every time he is pushed to the ropes, he becomes more aggressive, and he tries to come up with something to distract the audience and so on, so forth.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's threats are causing an outcry. Hundreds of prominent Brazilians, including leaders from big business, yesterday published an open letter defending the current voting system. Brazilian society won't accept authoritarian adventures, the letter says. Elections will be respected.

Political tensions are spilling onto the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

REEVES: Tens of thousands of Brazilians have turned out to protest against Bolsonaro in the last three months. At this demonstration in Rio, the crowd waves banners demanding vaccines and berating Bolsonaro over the loss of lives. But other issues are also in the mix, says Maria Luisa, who's a teacher. That includes protecting Brazil's elections from a president threatening to cancel them.

MARIA LUISA: This kind of menace is typical from gangsters. And democracy in Brazil is not strong yet.

REEVES: So are you worried?

MARIA LUISA: Oh, yes, sure.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.