Brazilians feeling frustrated with president Jair Bolsonaro are turning to another voice for guidance and reassurance. Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has emerged from relative obscurity with technocratic daily briefings presenting the latest science, stressing the need for social distancing measures and earning praise from across the political spectrum.
A former federal lawmaker from the same party as the leaders of both houses of Congress, Mandetta plays up his background as doctor and health official, but allies say his political savvy also make him an important counterweight in the cabinet.
His rise has not gone unnoticed. Tensions boiled over in a tense meeting at the presidential residence, according to sources, and Bolsonaro was visibly irked by questions about Mandetta. “Nobody should forget that I’m the president,” he said.
This week, Bolsonaro replaced the Health Ministry briefings, which had been carried live on several TV networks for weeks, in favor of a news conference at the presidential palace where Mandetta is one of a half dozen ministers, often speaking last.
“Mandetta comes out of this crisis much stronger than when he went into it,” said Efraim Filho, the head of Mandetta’s Democrats party in the lower house. “Now he has the admiration and the respect of a big slice of society that goes beyond ideological lines.”
Just 35% of Brazilians called Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus crisis “good” or “great,” according to a Datafolha survey released last week, compared to 55% support for Mandetta’s performance, in line with that of governors.
“He is an important asset for the Bolsonaro government,” said Filho, when asked about rising tensions. “Any firing or exit of Mandetta would erode support for the president.”
As his public standing has risen, the health minister has more openly contradicted Bolsonaro. He warned of the dangers of chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that Bolsonaro believes could be a cure for the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Mandetta enjoys the support of various key cabinet ministers including Justice Minister Sergio Moro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, according to the sources and press reports.
“Now we are hit by this (coronavirus) wave ... we are under the guidance of Minister Mandetta,” Guedes said in a press conference. “People can obey Mandetta’s social isolation orders.”
In a statement, the justice ministry said it had adopted measures “to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in accordance with the technical guidelines of the health ministry.”
A former doctor and health secretary for the city of Campo Grande, Mandetta became a federal lawmaker in 2010. Hailing from the soy-producing state of Mato Grosso do Sul, he has strong ties to Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, sources said.
During his time in Congress, he was most well-known for opposing health policies of the leftist Workers Party government, and in particular its “Mais Medicos” program which brought Cuban doctors to Brazil’s most far-flung corners.