For heaven’s sake? The gospel truth behind the agenda of Brazil’s likely ambassador to South Africa
Diplomats say Marcelo Crivella will really be an envoy for his uncle’s church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s controversial right-wing, populist and Covid-19-denying president, has nominated a conservative political ally who is facing charges of corruption to be his country’s next ambassador to South Africa.
Some diplomats and analysts suspect that Bishop Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical pastor, gospel singer and, until 2020, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, only wants the Pretoria job to advance the interests of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Run by Crivella’s uncle, the church has a large but troubled presence in southern Africa.
These diplomats believe Bolsonaro only put Crivella forward for the position because he needs the political support of his Republican party. It is a precarious time for the Brazilian president, who faces the threat of impeachment and also a bruising presidential election next year against Lula da Silva, the left-wing populist former president.
Brazil’s generally highly professional diplomatic corps is believed to be horrified by the likely appointment in Pretoria of Crivella, who they fear will be bad for Brazil’s interests. He would replace seasoned career diplomat Sergio Danese, a former ambassador to Argentina, who has only been in the post for a few months.
Crivella, a senator and former fisheries minister, was arrested in December last year, days before leaving office, after being trounced in elections. He was accused of running “a well-structured and complex criminal organisation” in city hall. Crivella has denied the charges, calling them “political persecution”.
He had become deeply unpopular as mayor of Rio, accused of mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic at city level, just as Bolsonaro has been blamed for botching the national response.
Crivella was also disliked for attacking the city’s world-famous annual carnival. As a religious conservative, he branded it an “unChristian excess” and ordered severe financial cuts for the organisers.
It is not clear how the criminal case will affect his appointment as ambassador, but Bolsonaro clearly does not think it will.
His government is reported to have already asked the South African government for its approval – known in diplomatic jargon as agrément – for Crivella to replace Danese. Though the Department of International Relations and Cooperation is not officially confirming this, it is unlikely that Pretoria would refuse agrément because that would be considered a slight to Brazil.
“But how can Crivella travel to Pretoria when he doesn’t have a passport?” a Brazilian journalist quipped, referring to Crivella’s surrender of his passport to the police on a court order, pending investigations of the corruption charges against him.
One source said Crivella had not been regarded as corrupt before he became mayor, but had fallen in with corrupt officials.
A civil engineer by profession, Crivella was a former senator and fisheries minister under Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff while he was in the Liberal Party.
He came to Southern Africa in the 1990s as an evangelical missionary before entering politics.
In his 1999 book, Evangelizing Africa, Crivella claimed that homosexuality is a “terrible evil”, that Catholics are “demonic”, that African religions are based on “evil spirits” and that Hindus drink their children’s blood. He has since tried to distance himself from the book, saying that it was the work of a young, immature missionary, according to the Financial Times.
A diplomatic source said, however, that Crivella had both personal and political skills and would probably get on well with the South African authorities.
They said he was quite knowledgeable about Africa, particularly Southern Africa, from his time as a missionary. He had kept up with Southern African affairs, especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola.
Professional diplomats are nonetheless dismayed at the prospect of a politician managing Brazil’s “complex” relationship with South Africa, which also involves their membership in the growing BRICS forum that comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Some believe, though, that Crivella would be much worse for Brazil than for South Africa. They believe the professional diplomats at the embassy will continue to liaise with the Brazilian foreign ministry in Brasilia to manage any issues raised by Pretoria.
But these diplomats suspect Crivella “has his own agenda” and will neglect Brazil’s national interests to pursue his own, particularly the affairs of the huge UCKG, a Pentecostal charismatic church, founded and run by Crivella’s uncle, Bishop Edir Macedo.
It is headquartered in Sao Paulo and has many temples and millions of followers worldwide, including many in South Africa and in several other African countries.
One diplomat told DM168 that the basic business principle of the UCKG was “to persuade gullible poor people to hand over their money to buy a place in heaven”. Macedo owns an executive jet that, to some, symbolises the way the church milks its poor congregants to enrich itself.
The church has run into problems in some African countries because of its financial affairs and some of its religious practices that have been deemed “unChristian”, “unAfrican” or even “Satanic” – in part because of its exorcism rituals. It has been banned in Madagascar and twice in Zambia, though reinstated by the courts both times.
The UCKG was suspended for two months in Angola in 2013 after 16 people were killed in a stampede in a sports stadium in the capital Luanda during a church event billed as offering cures for a variety of social, economic and physical maladies.
Local journalist Rafael Marques told the Mail & Guardian then that the suspension was a “smokescreen” and that nothing would happen to the church because it was helping to finance the ruling MPLA and its then leader, José Eduardo dos Santos.
But, last year, the Angolan government of João Lourenço, Dos Santos’s successor, ordered the closure of several temples belonging to the church, accusing it of corruption, tax fraud and the illegal export of money.
In 2019, about 300 Angolan UCKG bishops were reported to have broken away from the Brazilian leadership, accusing it of mismanagement and not being African enough.
Diplomatic sources believe Crivella wants the Pretoria post to enable him to sort out the mess in the Angolan branch of the church and, more generally, to grow its business there and in other Southern African countries, particularly Mozambique.
Brazilian journalist and analyst Claudia Silva agrees, saying: “Crivella will only defend the interests of the Universal Church in South Africa and try to solve the situation in Angola, where church members have been expelled from the country.
In addition, the church needs to be strengthened and the only way to expand is Africa. “He can stay some years in South Africa to try to help the church and escape from the media and the legal process.
“Crivella has neither the conditions nor the expertise to be an ambassador. This will not bring benefits for the relations between the two countries, not even for the BRICS.”
Though diplomatic sources don’t believe that Pretoria will raise any objection to the appointment, they are less sure about the Brazilian Senate, which would have to confirm the appointment.
The diplomats note that Brazil has one of the most professional diplomatic services in the world, with fewer political appointees to ambassadorships than almost any other country. That means the Senate will scrutinise Crivella’s appointment much more strictly than it would that of a career diplomat.
One diplomat said that may not necessarily bother Bolsonaro very much – he believes his nomination of Crivella is largely just a political gesture. This diplomat suggested that Crivella, a Bolsonaro ally, was probably feeling abandoned by Bolsonaro for not offering any support after he was arrested and charged in December.
Offering Crivella the Pretoria post was probably Bolsonaro’s way of keeping both the Republicans and the much larger evangelical constituency on side. The Republicans are “small but significant” allies, he said.
Bolsonaro needs all the help he can get as public outrage about his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic rises. Brazil has suffered nearly half a million deaths from the disease and 57% of Brazilians believe he should be impeached, according to a recent poll.
Bolsonaro also faces a fierce election contest next year against Lula da Silva, also a populist but from the left. He was imprisoned in April 2018 for corruption but was released in November 2019. He has dismissed the charges as political.
Silva agrees: “Bolsonaro also wants to have the Universal Church’s support next year for the elections; he needs to guarantee these votes.”
The crisis in Brazil is deep. Some Brazilians fear Bolsonaro will resort to a military coup to stay in power, being unlikely to beat Lula next year.
Diplomats say Bolsonaro believes the gesture of offering Crivella the Pretoria ambassadorship should keep him on board politically even if the Senate rejects him – which he can claim was not his fault.
They don’t expect Crivella to be confirmed before the end of the year because of the distractions of Brazil’s current crisis. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved