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Brasilien | Präsident Jair Bolsonaro
Image: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo/picture alliance

Brazil adrift: Jair Bolsonaro's third year as president

Jean-Philip Struck
January 4, 2022

In 2021, Bolsonaro wrapped up his third year in office. A look at how he handled the pandemic, international relations and reached record levels of disapproval.


September 2021. A truck parks in Rio de Janeiro's middle-class Gloria neighborhood. A line forms around the vehicle. The people in it hope to scavenge some of the food the truck is carrying: A pile of bones and animal carcasses that supermarkets have discarded. This scene repeats itself several times a week, according to the newspaper Extra

It might be one of the most symbolic 2021 images of the interminable crisis in Brazil.

This year, the country has seen inflation in the double digits, massive unemployment as well as skyrocketing gas and energy prices. On Christmas Eve, the pollster Datafolha found that 26% of the population can’t feed their families.

But it seems President Jair Bolsonaro spent the past year in a parallel universe.

In a Groundhog Day-like loop, he repeatedly instrumentalized the government for his extremist agenda, fed conspiracies, minimized the pandemic, and threatened the democratic system — only to pull back at tactical moments and wait for a new opportunity. The only difference to 2020 was the scale of his actions. 

Here is a look back at his third year in office.

Vaccine rollout despite Bolsonaro

In December 2020, Bolsonaro attacked laboratories developing vaccines, claiming that a COVID-19 infection provides better immunity. 

One year later, things haven’t changed much even though Brazil recorded more than 420,000 deaths in 2021 and Bolsonaro has been investigated for his handling of the pandemic. 

He has spoken out against children getting the shot, against vaccine passports and he tried to intimidate technicians of the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency. He officially continues to be the only unvaccinated G20 leader.

Despite this, Brazil managed to fully vaccinate 66.9% of its population last year.

Even when the vaccine rollout began, he continued fueling people’s paranoia about the jabs. He went as far as falsely linking vaccines to an increased risk of contracting AIDS. 

Jair Bolsonaro walks in front of flags at the G20 summit in Rome
Jair Bolsonaro was isolated at the G20 summit in RomeImage: Domenico Stinellis/AP/picture alliance

Always an international pariah

In the past year, Brazil has grown even more isolated. Bolsonaro lost allies like the US’ Donald Trump and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Most recently, he saw a leftist triumph in Chile.

The government’s shortcomings in the international arena became especially apparent during the G20 summit in Italy in October. Bolsonaro didn’t have any bilateral talks with other leaders, besides a protocol meeting with the host. Solitary and unable to build relationships, he was sometimes left to chat with the waiters instead. 

This shortcoming also became evident when the president ignored Olaf Scholz, now chancellor of Germany, in a conversation with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Scholz had recently won the German elections and was weeks away from being sworn in, but Bolsonaro apparently didn’t know who he was. 

Criticism from environmentalists

Brazil also lost trust because of its environmental policies. During the 2021 Leaders' Climate Summit, Brazilian authorities pledged to end deforestation by 2030, but few took the promise seriously. 

To make matters worse, environmentalists accused the government of pushing back the publication of its record deforestation numbers to avoid criticism at the summit. 

Days before COP26 Bolsonaro also visited an illegal mine on indigenous territory. Weeks later, hundreds of dredging rafts mined for gold on the Amazon’s Madeira River, exposing the government’s tolerance for the illegal activity.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva points his finger straigt ahead
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could beat Bolsonaro at the next presidential electionImage: Ricardo Stuckert/DW

Lula leads the polls

In Bolsonaro’s third year as president, the supreme court also made a major decision that could derail his 2022 reelection. A judge annulled all the convictions of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, paving the way for him to run for office again.

The leftist politician, known to most as Lula, was charged with corruption and money laundering, but his supporters say the accusations are politically motivated. 

After the annulment, Lula started to lead in all the election polls. In December, 48% of people surveyed said they would vote for him, according to pollster Datafolha. 

Lula also took international trips to contrast Bolsonaro’s bad reputation abroad. He was received by Olaf Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and French President Emmanuel Macron, among others, as well as speaking with leftist MEPs in the European Parliament.

For Bolsonaro, it’s a very different scenario from 2020. He had ended his second year as president even more popular than before. 

Now, with only 22% of Brazilians saying they would vote for him in this year’s presidential election, it looks like Bolsonaro could be entering his last year in office.

Edited by RIchard Connor

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