Brazil Senate starts potentially damaging probe of president

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Wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the new coronavirus, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets people after a ceremony to deliver affordable homes built by the government, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, April 5, 2021. In a television interview on Friday, April 23, 2021, Bolsonaro suggested that the army might be called into the streets to restore order if lockdown measures against COVID-19 that he opposes lead to chaos. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO – Brazil’s Senate on Tuesday began an inquiry into the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, a probe that analysts say could potentially jeopardize the reelection of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has been one of the world’s most prominent opponents of restrictions aimed at curbing the disease, whose effects he has often downplayed. He has also encouraged use of medications that scientists say are worthless, and critics say his policies, along with a bungled vaccine campaign, have contributed to the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll.

While the investigation isn’t formally aimed at criminal allegations, it potentially could lead to charges. It’s also likely to provide a months-long drumbeat of embarrassing accusations ahead of the October 2022 presidential election.

The probe could weaken his chances against his chief political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who can run for office again only because the Supreme Court recently annulled his two criminal convictions.

It could even damage Bolsonaro’s chances of reaching an eventual presidential runoff, said Gilberto Kassab, leader of the Bolsonaro-allied Social Democratic Party, in an interview with newspaper Valor Economico.

The sessions began with a setback for the president: An independent senator, Omaz Aziz, was elected over one of his allies to be chairman and one of his critics, Sen. Renan Calheiros, was named rapporteur — the person in charge of writing the committee's report and summoning witnesses.

Following the decision, Calheiros said he plans to call all four health ministers who have served under Bolsonaro to testify.

“The country has the right to know who contributed to the death of thousands, and they must be punished immediately and in a exemplary manner,” he said. But he insisted nobody will be prejudged or targeted unfairly.