Brazil’s Embattled President Dilma Rousseff Seizes on Fight Against Zika


Facing impeachment charges and the worst recession in decades, Brazil’s unpopular President Dilma Rousseff has seized on the fast-moving Zika epidemic as a way to rally her deeply divided nation.

In recent days she has declared “war” on the mosquitoes that carry the virus and invited a cantankerous Congress and the public to join her in the fight. She is dispatching 220,000 troops from the armed forces throughout the country on Saturday to educate the public about mosquito eradication. And her administration has convened a meeting of top global health authorities in Brasília on Feb. 20.

With the international spotlight on Brazil and her presidency under fire, experts say Ms Rousseff is trying to display leadership and turn the moment to her advantage.

“Dilma is using the Zika scare to take the public debate away from impeachment and recession, and also to call for national unity,” said Leonardo Barreto, a political consultant in Brasília. “It is what the circumstances are offering.”

Whether she will succeed is far from certain.

Critics say Ms. Rousseff was slow to sound the alarm on Zika and endangered the Brazilian public by naming an underqualified political ally to head the Health Ministry. The president has insisted that the coming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro aren’t threatened even though as many as 1.5 million Brazilians may already be infected and the World Health Organization has declared Zika’s suspected links to birth defects to be a global public-health emergency.

What is clear is that Ms. Rousseff has taken to her bully pulpit in a way she hasn’t since she was campaigning for a second term in 2014.

The president last week made a rare appearance in Congress for a ceremony marking the opening of a new legislative session to urge feuding lawmakers to unite on Zika. She followed that with a nationally televised broadcast in which she called for the whole nation to come together.

“I’m not going to talk about politics or the economy,” Ms. Rousseff said in the Feb. 3 address. “I’m going to talk about health and an urgent battle that we have to wage at this moment in defense of our families. A battle that should unite us all.”

Some Brazilians are unmoved by the president’s overtures. In the opposition hub of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, her speech prompted a panelaço, a protest in which residents bang pots and pans at their windows.

With Brazil’s economy in a free fall and her opponents seeking to link her to a corruption scandal around state oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA, Ms. Rousseff badly needs to display competence amid Brazil’s growing health crisis.

Reports of babies born with undersized heads and underdeveloped brains, a condition known as microcephaly that authorities believe is linked to Zika, have terrified Brazilians in recent weeks.

“All the headlines are about Zika and there’s no more big stories about impeachment,” says David Fleischer a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Brasília. “It distracts the population, distracts the politicians and distracts you guys in the press.”

As Brasília awakens in coming days following the close of Carnival festivities, however, continuing corruption investigations, Brazil’s moribund economy and impeachment are likely to put Ms. Rousseff back on the defensive. The president is accused of manipulating public accounts to mask a growing deficit, allegations she has repeatedly denied.

“She’s in a very vulnerable place, politically,” says João Augusto de Castro Neves, head analyst for Latin America at political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group. He gives her a 40% chance of not finishing her term.

How Zika affects those odds isn’t clear, Mr. Neves says. The outbreak could give Ms. Rousseff a chance to reach across party lines and work with governors and mayors, many of whom have been less supportive of impeachment than their colleagues in Congress.

But if the virus continues to spread unchecked, it could feed the impression that the president is in over her head.

The situation isn’t entirely in Ms. Rousseff’s hands. Researchers are struggling to understand Zika and its complications; the development of a vaccine could be years away. Experts say the best hope for stemming the virus’s spread is to eradicate the mosquitoes that carry it, a major challenge for Brazil given its dense urban areas, poor population and limited resources.

Some say the president was slow in her initial response to Zika, which Brazil began tracking in May. In October, Ms. Rousseff appointed as Health Minister Marcelo Castro, a psychiatrist who spent most of his career as a politician in Brazil’s largest party, whose support she has sought to shore up.

In a speech in Recife in early December, Ms. Rousseff incorrectly said the Zika virus can be found in the mosquito’s eggs, leading opponents to question her understanding of the pathogen.

Last month, a camera crew snooping around Brasília’s government buildings found discarded cups, trash cans and other receptacles full of stagnant water—just the sort of mosquito-breeding conditions Ms. Rousseff’s government has warned the public to eliminate. A small pool in one of the capital’s largest monuments, located a few hundred yards from the presidential palace, was teeming with mosquito larva.

Betting on Zika to bolster Ms. Rousseff’s presidential credentials “could cut both ways,” Mr. Castro Neves said. “Even if there is an angle that could be used by the government, there’s another angle that could put the government in the spotlight in negative way as incompetent.”

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