16 January 2019

Bolsonaro Could Realize His Critics’ Worst Fears—and His Supporters’ High Hopes

Frida Ghitis 

The new year marked the beginning of a new era for Latin America’s largest country. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right winner of Brazil’s presidential election, assumed office amid a remarkable swirl of contrasting expectations. While the former army captain’s incendiary declarations during the election campaign last fall sparked fears among millions of Brazilians and others abroad, a less noticed phenomenon took shape in the weeks leading up to his inauguration on Jan. 1: Brazilians, by large majorities, are optimistic about his tenure.

In two surveys last month, Brazilian pollsters found that a stunning 75 percent of respondents approved of Bolsonaro, and two-thirds expected the new administration to bring about a turnaround in Brazil’s economic fortunes. That is notable, and a bit of a head-scratcher, considering that for years the most popular politician in the country has been former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist leader who made his name as a union organizer and a campaigner for social justice, essentially embracing policies that Bolsonaro diametrically opposes.

The optimism of the majority, however, does not conceal the alarm around Bolsonaro’s rise. During the campaign, he railed against minorities and women and spoke approvingly of Brazil’s past military dictatorship, and dismissively of environmental concerns. At his inauguration, he vowed to “restore and rebuild our homeland, liberating it from corruption, economic irresponsibility and ideological traps,” a sign of the new administration’s ideological goals.

One week into the Bolsonaro era, the evidence is already mounting that at least some of the fears were well founded. Within hours of taking office, Bolsonaro issued a presidential decree granting the Agriculture Ministry responsibility for determining which parts of the Amazon should be protected for indigenous groups. The ministry is heavily influenced by big agribusiness, whose financial interests clash with indigenous groups hoping to hold on to their territories in the Amazon. Indigenous leaders said the new order would lead to more deforestation and violence against their people, a longstanding problem. The move was just as alarming to environmental leaders, who now foresee a potential disaster for the Amazon basin, where the rainforests produce more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and rivers contain a similar proportion of the planet’s fresh water. 

The new foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, has already described climate change as a conspiracy by “cultural Marxism.” Environmental activists were horrified by Bolsonaro’s initial steps, which they said could prove catastrophic for the environment. It is clear that in the contest between environmental protections and business interests, the new administration is already tilting drastically in favor of business.

For LGBT leaders, who cringed at Bolsonaro’s assertions that he’d prefer to see one of his children die in a car crash than tell him he’s gay, more bad news was also immediately forthcoming. Bolsonaro, who says he opposes “gender ideology” and accuses his predecessors of promoting homosexuality, has built his core support among Brazil’s growing evangelical Christians, who generally oppose any acceptance of LGBT rights and equality.

In a first-day gesture to his base, the new president renamed what used to be Brazil’s Human Rights Ministry, branding it the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and removing any mention of gay protections in its mandate. The ministry also removed indigenous peoples as a protected category. To lead the ministry, Bolsonaro named Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor.

Perhaps the most resonant message came in Bolsonaro’s decision to eliminate Brazil’s Ministry of Labor, a key institution during the 14 years of Workers’ Party rule. The ministry’s duties are being distributed among other entities. 

If Brazilians are open to reversing so many of the policies that they embraced in previous administrations, it is because conditions have deteriorated so sharply.

For liberal activists, the bad news keeps coming. Bolsonaro signed an executive order that could create enormous problems for nongovernmental organizations, giving the executive branch much tighter control over NGOs operating in Brazil. In addition, Bolsonaro has vowed to relax restrictions on gun ownership, shut down the agency responsible for diversity in the Education Ministry, and loosen all manner of labor regulations. 

On foreign policy, Bolsonaro sent shockwaves through the region when he suggested he might allow the U.S. to build a permanent base in Brazil in order to counterbalance growing Russian influence in Venezuela. The idea, confirmed by the foreign minister, was said to be very poorly received by Brazil’s military leaders.

Still, Brazilians so far are enthusiastic about their new leader. If they are open to reversing so many of the policies that they embraced in previous administrations, it is because conditions have deteriorated so sharply. Brazil has been in the throes of one of the worst corruption scandals anywhere, while it is still barely recovering from a devastating economic depression and street violence has spiraled out of control. 

Brazilians simply want life to get better. The question is whether Bolsonaro’s policies will achieve that. From the moment he won the election, euphoric markets have bet that he will succeed in restoring economic growth, or at least corporate profits. Brazil’s main stock index, Bovespa, was one of the world’s top performers in recent months, solely on optimism about Bolsonaro’s presidency. The index has reached record highs.

Confidence in the future is bolstered by the president’s choice to lead his economic team, Paulo Guedes, a free market champion who studied at the University of Chicago. And optimism about the prospects for rolling back crime and corruption is bolstered by Bolsonaro’s choice of justice minister, Sergio Moro, the now iconic judge who led the massive corruption cases known as Operation Car Wash.

But the Cabinet also includes many military officers, a troubling shift in a country where many still remember the worst years of military dictatorship. His vice president is a retired general. For now, it seems clear that the new administration will move quickly to satisfy the demands of social conservatives. On the economy, the direction is definitely rightward, with environmental concerns set aside in favor of business and development.

There is little doubt that the incoming team will engage in the privatization of state assets and loosening of regulations. But a more elaborate economic policy remains a work in progress, subject to approval by a Congress whose consent is far from assured.

For Brazilians who once seemed to embrace a leftist worldview, the bottom line will be how Bolsonaro’s policies impact their standard of living. The new president could, in fact, realize both the worst fears of his critics and the high hopes of his supporters.

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