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World News

White House brings forward Brazil travel restrictions by two days

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Monday brought forward by two days restrictions on travel to the United States from Brazil that were announced after the Latin American country became the world’s No. 2 coronavirus hotspot.

A White House statement amended the timing of the start of the restrictions to 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, May 26 (0359 GMT on Wednesday, May 27).

In its original announcement on Sunday, it said the restrictions would come into force on May 28.

The statement did not give a reason for the move. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration issues, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The travel ban was a blow to right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has followed the example of U.S. President Donald Trump in addressing the pandemic, fighting calls for social distancing and touting unproven drugs.

The White House said on Sunday the restrictions would help ensure foreign nationals do not bring additional infections to the United States, but would not apply to the flow of commerce between the two countries.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Sunday the measures were needed to protect American people and he hoped they would be temporary. The United States has the largest number of coronavirus cases in the world.

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World News

Brazil's biggest state brings forward holiday to contain coronavirus spread

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Lawmakers in Brazil’s biggest state of Sao Paulo have decided to bring forward to Monday a holiday scheduled for July 9, in an attempt to strengthen social distancing and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The move on Friday adds to efforts already made by the city of Sao Paulo, which had earlier this week brought forward two holidays.

The state of Sao Paulo has 73,739 confirmed cases of COVID-19, nearly one quarter of the country’s total toll, and 5,558 deaths caused by the disease.

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World News

Brazilian doctors medevac indigenous COVID-19 cases to Amazon city

MANAUS (Reuters) – The novel coronavirus is spreading so fast among the indigenous people in the furthest parts of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest that doctors are now evacuating critical COVID-19 patients by plane to the only intensive care units in the vast region.

“The number of COVID-19 patients has increased a lot. We are flying more planes (up the rivers); it’s the last opportunity to save their lives,” said Edson Santos Rodrigues, a pediatric doctor working on medevac planes for the state of Amazonas.

“Sometimes we don’t get there in time, because we cannot land at night on remote airfields that have no lights,” he said as he returned to the city of Manaus with a 26-year-old man of the Tikuna tribe, who was breathing through an oxygen tank aboard the plane. Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas, has some of the only intensive care units in the region.

The Brazilian government’s indigenous health service Sesai reported on Monday at least 23 indigenous people have died from COVID-19, the deadly illness caused by the coronavirus. The victims were in remote tribal territories, 11 of them in the upper reaches of the Amazon river bordering Colombia and Peru.

Brazil’s main tribal umbrella organization APIB counts the coronavirus cases of indigenous people who have migrated to urban areas and who are not treated by Sesai. The group reported on Monday a rise in the death toll with 103 confirmed deaths, up from 18 on April 3.

Three-quarters of the 540 confirmed cases of coronavirus among 40 tribes reported by APIB are in the Amazon where the pandemic has hit Manaus so badly that it was the first Brazilian city to run out of ICU beds, while its main cemetery buries the dead in collective graves.

On Monday, a seriously ill 78-year-old patient on a ventilator died on the flight from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, the mostly indigenous town in the Amazon located on the Rio Negro near the border with Venezuela, said Daniel Siqueira, a medevac doctor.

Siqueira, the son of an evangelical missionary, spent his childhood in an indigenous village in the Amazon and speaks the most common indigenous language in the region, Nheengatu. Speaking to critical patients in their own language is important, he says.

The epidemic may have begun in the city, but it’s worsening in the remote regions, he added. “Towns must isolate and stop the virus from reaching the indigenous villages or many more will die,” he said.

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Economy

UPDATE 2-Brazil national debt jumps to 78.4% of GDP, nears new record

(Adds detail, comment)

By Jamie McGeever

BRASILIA, April 30 (Reuters) – Brazilian public sector debt and deficit figures for March released on Thursday gave a glimpse of the fiscal strain to come from the coronavirus crisis, as the national debt surged toward the highest on record and deficits widened sharply.

The public sector primary deficit in March was the widest in 18 months, the nominal deficit was the fourth largest in two decades, and the national debt posted its biggest month-on-month leap in at least 14 years.

With the lockdowns and sudden stop to large parts of the economy triggering a crisis-fighting spending splurge from the government and a slump in tax revenues, analysts say it is not a question of whether deficits and debt rises, but by how much.

“We expect the fiscal and public debt picture to deteriorate significantly in coming months,” Alberto Ramos, head of Latin American research at Goldman Sachs in New York, wrote in a note.

“We now expect the consolidated public sector to record a primary fiscal deficit of at least 8% of GDP (likely higher) … leading to a sharp increase of gross public debt to close to 90% of GDP,” he said.

The overall public sector posted a primary budget deficit excluding interest payments of 23.7 billion reais ($4.3 billion) in March, the central bank said, slightly less than the 24.8 billion reais deficit forecast in a Reuters poll.

That was the widest primary deficit since September 2018. As a share of gross domestic product over the 12 months to March the primary deficit widened to 0.9%.

Treasury Secretary Mansueto Almeida said this week that the primary deficit this year will likely balloon to 600 billion reais, or 8% of GDP.

The nominal deficit swelled to 79.7 billion reais in March, the central bank said. According to their historical data, that was the fourth largest in 19 years, only behind three months during the 2015-16 recession.

Gross national debt rose to 5.76 trillion reais, or 78.4% of GDP, driven by increased gross debt issuance, nominal interest rates and the impact of a weaker currency, the central bank said.

The 1.7-percentage-point increase from February marked the biggest rise since at least 2006, according to Refinitiv data, and takes the national debt back up toward last year’s all-time high of 79% of GDP.

Net debt, however, fell to 51.1% of GDP, the lowest since September 2018, in large part due to the real’s 15.6% depreciation against the dollar in the month, the central bank said. (Reporting by Jamie McGeever and Marcela Ayres Writing by Jamie McGeever Editing by Chris Reese, Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)

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Politics

Brazil justice minister resigns, accuses Bolsonaro of meddling

Brazil‘s Jair Bolsonaro suffered the heaviest blow to his presidency so far as his popular justice minister quit on Friday and accused him of potentially criminal meddling in law enforcement, adding to the turmoil of a government struggling to confront a fast-growing coronavirus outbreak.

Sergio Moro, who won broad public support for jailing corrupt politicians and businessmen as a judge, said he was resigning because Bolsonaro fired federal police chief Mauricio Valeixo for personal and political reasons.

The shocking exit and allegations from the so-called ‘super minister’ were a hammer blow for Bolsonaro, whose popularity had already slumped for downplaying the pandemic that has killed more than 3,600 Brazilians and shows signs of worsening.

Bolsonaro called Moro’s accusations “baseless,” denying he had interfered in investigations and insisting that he had the authority to replace federal police officials.

“The appointment is mine, the prerogative is mine and the day I have to submit to any of my subordinates I cease to be president of the republic,” Bolsonaro said in a public address, flanked by most of his cabinet in the presidential palace.

Moro’s accusations spurred outcry from across Brazil‘s political spectrum, with former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso urging Bolsonaro to step down.

Brazil‘s chief public prosecutor Augusto Aras asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into the allegations.

Brazilian financial markets tumbled, with stocks falling nearly 10 per cent before paring losses to 5.5 per cent and the exchange rate slipping to a record low. Investors fear Economy Minister Paulo Guedes may be the next ‘super minister’ to exit.

Moro said Bolsonaro had expressed concern about Supreme Court investigations, without giving further details, and he wanted inside information from his top cop.

“The president emphasized to me, explicitly, more than once, that he wanted someone who was a personal contact, whom he could call, from whom he could get information, intelligence reports,” Moro said. “And really, that’s not the job of the federal police to give that information.”

Capitao Augusto, head of the gun lobby in Congress that has been key to the president’s threadbare coalition, said this was the “beginning of the end” for Bolsonaro.

The head of the Brazilian bar association OAB, Felipe Santa Cruz, also said the organization would “analyze the alleged crimes highlighted by Moro.”

During the televised remarks by Moro and the president, protests rang out across Brazil, with people banging pots and pans from their apartments and shouting “Bolsonaro out!”

LOSING ALLIES

Moro’s exit may alienate voters who backed Bolsonaro for his anti-corruption campaign in 2018, leaving the president reliant on conservative social activists, lawmakers interested in pork-barrel politics, and current and former generals in his cabinet.

“The exit of minister Sergio Moro from the government shows the Bolsonaro government distancing itself from the popular desire to fight corruption. It is the defeat of ethics,” the centrist Podemos party said in a statement.

The crisis comes a week after Bolsonaro fired popular Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, following clashes over how to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Mandetta, like most health experts, had supported social distancing orders by Brazilian governors, but Bolsonaro called the measures “poison” whose economic consequences could kill more than the virus.

Brazil has registered 357 coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on Friday, taking the death toll to at least 3,670 as confirmed cases rose to nearly 53,000.

“We’re seeing the government come apart,” said Fernando Bergallo, head of currency trading at FB Capital. “There are rumors that the next to go is Paulo Guedes. With that, the government is finished.”

The Economy Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Guedes appeared with other ministers alongside Bolsonaro during his address.

In his parting remarks on Friday, Moro said he had agreed to serve in Bolsonaro’s government as long as he had free rein to appoint personnel without political pressure. However, he said Bolsonaro had been seeking to change the top federal police officer since the second half of 2019 without good reason.

Bolsonaro said he had offered his ministers autonomy, but that he had veto power over decisions in his government. He had been open, he said, to a compromise with Moro about the police chief replacement.

“I don’t need to ask permission to change a director or anyone else in the hierarchical pyramid of the executive branch,” the president said, adding that he never made inappropriate inquiries or suggestions about police cases.

“I never asked the status of any case,” he said.

But Moro alleged he had never seen political interference of the kind sought by Bolsonaro over Brazil‘s federal police, even under previous governments whose officials and allies were convicted of participating in sweeping corruption schemes.

For four years, Moro oversaw Brazil‘s largest-ever corruption probe, which uncovered billions of dollars in bribes and jailed scores of powerful businessmen and politicians, including leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“The president is digging his pit. Resign before being resigned,” former President Cardoso said on Twitter. “Let the vice-president take over.”

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World News

Brazil justice minister to quit after Bolsonaro fires top cop: source

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian Justice Sergio Moro will announce his resignation on Friday, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, after President Jair Bolsonaro fired the head of the federal police.

The dismissal of police chief Mauricio Valeixo was published in the official gazette, which gave no reason for the firing. Valeixo was an appointee of Moro, a well-known former judge with whom Bolsonaro has tussled over the past year.

Moro is one of the stars of Bolsonaro’s government due to his record fighting corruption. His exit would be a serious blow to Bolsonaro’s promise to tackle graft with investigations free from political interference.

Valeixo’s removal caps a dramatic 24 hours in the capital Brasilia, although more drama is likely to follow.

When news of Valeixo’s potential ouster leaked on Thursday, Moro threatened to quit unless he could name a successor, according to the source, who said there had been no such arrangement, sealing Moro’s decision to step down.

Moro will make a public address at 11 a.m. (1400 GMT) in Brasilia, the Justice Ministry said. The ministry did not respond to questions about whether Moro would resign.

It was unclear why Bolsonaro wanted to get rid of Valeixo. The presidential press office did not respond to requests for comment.

The threat of Moro’s departure and the sidelining of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes rattled financial markets on Thursday, and Brazil’s currency weakened more than 1% again on Friday to a record-low 5.59 reais per dollar. The benchmark Bovespa stock index fell more than 2%.

Moro’s role in the government has served as a symbol of the fight against corruption, which was central to Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign. The former judge oversaw Brazil’s largest-ever corruption probe, which uncovered billions of dollars in bribes and jailed scores of powerful businessmen and politicians, including leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The relationship between the two has grown tense, especially as Bolsonaro showed interest in changing the leadership of the federal police force in Rio de Janeiro, where he built his political base in three decades as a lawmaker.

Moro and Valeixo resisted suggestions for the Rio job publicly floated by Bolsonaro, leading the president to propose in August that Valeixo himself could be replaced.

The political row comes as the coronavirus outbreak begins to gather steam in Brazil, where Bolsonaro has faced widespread criticism for his handling of the outbreak.

A record daily total of 407 people died from the virus in Brazil within 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on Thursday, with 3,735 new confirmed cases. So far, 3,313 people have died from the virus in Brazil, with nearly 50,000 cases confirmed.

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Economy

UPDATE 1-Brazil central bank could cut rates by 100 bps at May meeting, says Barclays

(Adds detail, quote)

By Jamie McGeever

BRASILIA, April 22 (Reuters) – Brazil’s central bank could cut its benchmark Selic interest rate by 100 basis points to 2.75% at its next policy meeting in May, Barclays chief Brazil economist Roberto Secemski wrote in a note on Wednesday.

Secemski said a more dovish tilt in policymakers’ recent comments and the continued decline in inflation expectations will steer the bank’s rate-setting committee known as ‘Copom’ toward a reduction of “at least” 75 basis points.

“Changes in (central bank) communication with the market suggest to us that the bank intends to deliver a larger cut than what was previously priced by the (rates) curve,” Secemski wrote.

“We now expect the Selic rate to be reduced at least 75bp on May 6, to 3.00%, not discarding a 100bp cut should financial conditions be supportive of the move,” he said.

Secemski also cited Brazilian media reports of other central bank officials’ comments to financial institutions in recent online live events, which were not broadcast publicly and which Reuters cannot verify.

Central bank president Roberto Campos Neto said this week that further easing was part of the bank’s crisis-fighting arsenal, and that conditions have changed a lot since Copom’s last meeting in March when it said deeper rate cuts could be “counterproductive and result in tighter financial conditions”.

The central bank’s latest weekly ‘FOCUS’ survey of economists showed that end-year inflation is now projected to be 2.23%, significantly below the central bank’s official goal of 4.00%. The average forecast for next year fell to 3.40%, also further below official 2021 target of 3.75%.

Interest rate futures have fallen sharply in recent days. The September 2020 contract fell as low as 2.80% on Wednesday and the January 2021 contract fell to 2.60%, implying significant policy easing in the coming months. (Reporting by Jamie McGeever Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)

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World News

Bolsonaro expected to fire defiant Brazilian health minister

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian health officials braced on Wednesday for President Jair Bolsonaro to fire his health minister over disagreements on how to handle the coronavirus outbreak, with at least one secretary offering his resignation in protest.

In a defiant news conference, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta acknowledged his differences with Bolsonaro and said he had discussed a search for his replacement with the presidential chief of staff.

Bolsonaro and Mandetta have been at odds over the handling of the coronavirus epidemic for weeks, as the president played down the gravity of the outbreak, touted unproven drugs and attacked governors over lockdown orders applauded by Mandetta.

“The president has made clear that he would like a different position from the Health Ministry,” Mandetta said in televised remarks. “I’m offering a way forward based on science. Outside of that, you’d have to find alternatives.”

Mandetta said he had refused the resignation of Wanderson de Oliveira, secretary of health vigilance, a key figure in the fight against the epidemic. In a note to his team seen by Reuters, Oliveira said that Mandetta, his boss, would likely be fired “in coming hours or days.”

Mandetta told his aides on Tuesday evening that Bolsonaro was likely to fire him this week, according to two people familiar with the matter. Mandetta told his team he planned to remain in the job until Bolsonaro had chosen his replacement, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mandetta emerged from relative obscurity with technocratic daily briefings on the coronavirus presenting the latest science, stressing the need for social distancing measures, and earning praise from across the political spectrum.

The Health Ministry’s response to the epidemic was rated “good” or “great” by 76% of Brazilians surveyed by pollster Datafolha this month. Just 33% of those surveyed gave Bolsonaro the same ratings.

Some 1,736 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, out of more than 28,320 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease, according to Health Ministry data on Wednesday. There were more than 3,000 new cases recorded in the past day, the biggest daily jump registered since the outbreak began in late February. More than 200 new deaths were registered, matching the previous day’s record rise.

After dodging what many expected would be a firing last week, Mandetta added to tensions in a Sunday television interview. He urged the government to speak with a unified voice, effectively calling out Bolsonaro for downplaying the threat ahead of what may be the two toughest months for the outbreak.

After days without commenting on Mandetta, Bolsonaro told supporters on Wednesday morning that he expected to “sort out the health situation,” without making a direct reference to his minister.

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Business

Toyota joins GM in suspending auto production in Brazil until June

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Toyota Motor Co (7203.T) on Monday said it was suspending auto production in its Brazil plants until at least June 22, joining General Motors Co (GM.N) which also expects to resume production in the same month.

Most carmakers in Brazil, South America’s top auto producer, are currently not producing cars due to the coronavirus crisis. Major Brazil players such as Fiat Chrysler (FCHA.MI) and Volkswagen AG have yet to announce when they expect to resume production.

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World News

Brazil reports more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths

Brazil has become the first country in the southern hemisphere to surpass 1,000 deaths with coronavirus.

The South American country has recorded at least 1,068 deaths and 19,789 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Most Brazilian state governors have imposed quarantine measures but President Jair Bolsonaro continues to challenge the restrictions.

Health officials say the outbreak is not expected to peak for a few weeks yet.

There is growing concern that the virus could spiral out of control, especially in poorer areas like favelas, crowded neighbourhoods where social distancing is hard to achieve and basic sanitation is lacking, the BBC’s South America correspondent, Katy Watson, reports from Sao Paulo.

There are also fears that Brazil’s indigenous communities could be devastated by an outbreak. Experts say they are more vulnerable because they have fewer natural defences to external diseases.

Earlier this week, an indigenous teenager passed away in hospital in the northern state of Roraima, becoming the first person living inside an indigenous reservation to die.

Alvanei Xirixana, 15, was one of more than 20,000 members of the Yanonami ethnic group. They live mostly in large indigenous reservations along the Brazilian-Venezuelan border.

Despite concerns, far-right President Bolsonaro has frequently clashed with state governors and his own health officials over coronavirus, describing their reaction to the “little flu” as “hysteria”.

He also argues that their restrictions on movements and business are creating an unnecessary drag on the economy.

On Friday, he was filmed visiting a hospital and meeting crowds, choosing not to wear a face mask or gloves. At one point he wiped his nose and then shook hands with an elderly supporter.

The president’s actions have incurred political costs in recent weeks, with his popularity falling in opinion polls. Nightly protests have also been held in Brazil’s biggest cities, with residents banging pots and pans and shouting “Get out, Bolsonaro!”

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