It was an image not seen on São Paulo’s iconic Paulista Avenue since the start of the pandemic: Tens of thousands of people in the streets. A sea of red hats, flags and shirts — the color associated with leftist and labor movements in Brazil — stretching on for almost a dozen blocks.
Protests hit Brazil in 213 cities on Saturday against the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his failed handling of the pandemic and its high death toll. More than 460,000 people in the country have died from COVID-19 so far — the second-largest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world — while total cases there have reached 16.5 million.
Many protesters said they came out because they personally lost loved ones.
“We’ve seen thousands of families impacted. All of this genocide happening. May 29 was a way to express all of our pain and to bring it to the streets. It was a way to defend science.”
“We’ve seen thousands of families impacted,” said Ingrid Assis, an Indigenous labor leader who helped organize demonstrations on Saturday in the state of Santa Catarina. “All of this genocide happening. May 29 was a way to express all of our pain and to bring it to the streets. It was a way to defend science.”
Throngs of people on the streets called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
“Bolsonaro is killing our people,” a man in a blue surgical face mask told a crowd in one video of a protest in Brasília, just outside of Congress. “He’s killing our people with COVID-19, with hunger and with bullets, and we’re not going to accept it.”
One woman shown in a tweet wearing all black and an N95 surgical face mask, carried a sign that read: “My dad believe[d] in the president and that’s why he died this week. We are not statistics. We are people!!! Get vaccinated! Take care of yourself! Genocidal people, get out! Bolsonaro, get out!”
"In #Brazil, in 2021, a new type of protest repertoire has emerged: a protest sign of mourning," writes @lawaisbich. Many in the #29M protests carried signs. Those below read: "My grandfather could still be ALIVE!" & "My dad believed in our pres & that's why he died this week." https://t.co/4aN35fDMKG— Michael Fox (@mfox_us) May 31, 2021
But Bolsonaro has substantial support in Congress, and impeachment seems like a long shot. So, a lot of opposition supporters are rallying behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who leads Bolsonaro in early polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
Brazil’s protests received a violent response from police, who cracked down with force, particularly on a march in the northeastern city of Recife.
A video posted online showed people running as military police fired tear gas and rubber bullets.
Military police just attacked this rally in Recife w/ tear gas & rubber bullets. Protests are happening across #Brazil against Bolsonaro's handling of the #pandemic & his failure to buy early vaccines & implement measures to save lives. 450,000+ Brazilians have died. #29M https://t.co/2ex6Pt4LSy— Michael Fox (@mfox_us) May 29, 2021
Police also pepper-sprayed Recife City Councilwoman Liana Cirne at point-blank range while she was trying to respond to the repression.
Recife City Councilwoman @LianaCirne was pepper-sprayed at point-blank range by military police when she was trying to speak w/ them after widespread repression against today's #29M march. Fotos by Tarsio Alves. Vice Governor said they didn't authorize repression. #29MPovoNasRuas pic.twitter.com/fm6c5rhQwY— Michael Fox (@mfox_us) May 29, 2021
Nevertheless, political analysts believe the weekend’s mobilizations were key for the opposition in the lead-up to next year’s presidential elections. Rallies and demonstrations have been held both for and against Bolsonaro’s government over the last year, including caravans of cars in many cities, but nothing close to this size.
Related marches and rallies were also held in 17 cities outside of Brazil, including New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona.
“The Saturday demonstrations against Bolsonaro were very important. They were a watershed in the Brazilian political struggles of the last years.”
“The Saturday demonstrations against Bolsonaro were very important. They were a watershed in the Brazilian political struggles of the last years,” said Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.
“It’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic when we saw this anger against the president on the street as an organized political movement, and not just something that people were posting on their social media or hitting pots from their windows.”
Since April 27, the Brazilian Senate has been holding an investigation into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. The hearings have been making daily headlines.
“The investigation of the Brazilian Senate about how the Brazilian government is reacting to the pandemic has been very important, because almost every day, we are seeing how the Brazilian officials failed in a systematic way in responding to the coronavirus emergency,” Santoro said. “And more than that, we are getting the details. We are getting more information about exactly what happened.”
Bolsonaro has long denied the severity of the virus. He’s spread fake news, pushed unproven drugs and fought lockdowns, social distancing and even vaccines. According to reports, the Bolsonaro government either ignored or rejected 14 early offers for the purchase of vaccines.
“Vaccinations could have begun before they did. We had the doses. They were ready. I often declared publicly that Brazil could be the first country in the world to begin vaccinating.”
“Vaccinations could have begun before they did,” Covas said. “We had the doses. They were ready. I often declared publicly that Brazil could be the first country in the world to begin vaccinating.”
Covas said as early as July 2020, Butantan had offered to deliver 60 million doses of CoronaVac by the end of last year.
Instead, Brazil’s vaccination rollout was delayed and slow. Just over 10% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
“We could have prevented at least 250,000 deaths with CoronaVac alone,” former Health Minister Arthur Chioro said last week. “Imagine if we add to that what we failed to receive from Pfizer, Janssen, Sputnik, among others?”
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has fought CoronaVac and accused China of creating the virus, embroiling Brazil further in a diplomatic crisis with the largest vaccine exporter in the world. Shipments from China of the raw materials to Brazil for both the CoronaVac and AstraZeneca have been delayed.
It’s still too early to say what may be the impact of the Senate investigation and this past weekend’s marches. But many student and labor organizers say that this is just the beginning of a movement for political change in the country.
“This was a historic day for 2021. It shows that there is a lot for us to do before the elections,” said Assis, the labor organizer. “May 29 shows us that we need to continue to fight. Fight for our lives. Fight against these attacks. And remain united to get Bolsonaro out.”