An oft-quoted line attributed to Stefan Zweig states that “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.” Renewed global interest in that future has been evident this week following the inauguration of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, on Monday January 1st. A firebrand leader of Latin America’s most populous country and the world’s eighth largest economy, Bolsonaro has assumed a position of increasingly global significance and has prompted a variety of reactions from Western media.
While Western observers disagree on what he means to Brazil and to the world, there is relative unanimity about Jair Bolsonaro himself. The 63-year-old former Brazilian army captain and seven-term Congressman has close ties to the military, a history of praising Brazil’s often brutal military regime that ruled the country from 1964-1985, and has made worrisome public comments disparaging women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities.
Yet the gruff, religiously conservative political outsider succeeded in tapping into the public anger at Brazilian elites after three years of deep recession, an unprecedented graft scheme that implicated a large part of Brazil’s political class, and a big spike in domestic violence.
Similar to US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s loose-lipped style in interviews and on social media have been key to his meteoric rise. Bolsonaro proclaimed at the inauguration that his presidency would help Brazil “free itself of socialism" and "political correctness”. Speaking with UK newspaper the Guardian, he commented that “[Brazil is like] a patient whose … whole body needs amputating.” He added that Brazilian politics were an embarrassment and expressed admiration for Israel and President Trump.
His political alliances are unusual for a Latin American head of government. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu - the first time an Israeli leader visited Brazil - attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration in Brasilia. Meanwhile, leftist Latin American leaders Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, were not invited to attend.
Regressive or corrective?
Unsurprisingly, left-leaning sources have been almost universally pessimistic. Some of the jabs have been superficial. The New York Times noted that while Vice President Joe Biden attended the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff, no one from the Trump administration - which is currently embroiled in a partial government shutdown - attended the event. However, President Trump quickly took to Twitter on January 1st to congratulate Bolsonaro for his inauguration speech and proclaimed, “the U.S.A. is with you!"
Other observers see Bolsonaro as a would-be dictator. A January 1st Huffington Post article declared that “Brazil Is About To Show The World How A Modern Democracy Collapses.” The piece draws parallels between Brazil’s military regime and the rise of Bolsonaro, who is staffing some of his cabinet with military generals whose promises to cleanse the political establishment have been accompanied by threats of violence and imprisonment to opponents.
But while his rhetoric and military connections cannot be ignored, Bolsonaro’s presidency looks more like a hard correction than an imminent threat to democracy. For what it is worth, Bolsonaro has repeatedly reiterated his support for the Brazilian constitution. At the same time, public support for democracy is higher now than at any time since Brazil’s military regime ended three decades ago.
Bolsonaro is also one of the few Brazilian politicians who can claim a political record free from connections to corruption or scandal. Since the revelations four years ago of Operation Car Wash - which at $10 billion in stolen funds is one of the largest political graft schemes in modern history - a large part of the political establishment is still implicated. To combat this challenge, Bolsonaro recently named Sergio Moro, the crusading federal judge behind the jailing of many politicians including former president Luiz Inacio Da Silva, as Brazil’s new justice minister.
Blood and soil
But there is still a long list of credible challenges facing Brazil. A January 1st report from The New York Times described troubling setbacks for the environment, crime, and society. The incoming administration has promised that Brazil will no longer host the 2019 United Nations summit on climate change and Bolsonaro said during the campaign that he would rollback protections against deforestation and mining. According to recent reports, Brazilian deforestation increased by 50% from the previous year in the three months from August to October of 2018.
Promises to loosen gun laws are also controversial. Promoted by Bolsonaro as a measure to help responsible citizens defend themselves against crime, experts have said that the measures will likely increase the number of gun-related deaths. According to a poll released on December 31st by Brazilian research firm Datafolha, 61% of Brazilians oppose relaxation of gun ownership rules.
French news agency AFP added that Bolsonaro’s promise to extend immunity to security forces who use lethal force against suspected wrongdoers has sparked unease, given that 5,000 people are already killed by police in Brazil each year.
In addition, a strengthening conservative movement in schools that discourages discussions of gender and sexual orientation is threatening to put Brazilian classrooms in the front lines of an ongoing culture war.
Economic signs are brightening. Analysts are still worried by the country’s ballooning federal deficit, which is currently 7% of GDP, and a total government debt that is nearing 80% of GDP. That level of debt is significant for an emerging economy, especially considering Brazil’s typically high interest rates.
Even so, Brazil’s economy appears to have turned a corner. After a bruising 3-year recession, most forecasts expect between 1.5 and 2% GDP growth in 2019 and 2.5% in 2020. The Financial Times predicts that Bolsonaro will succeed in passing at least a watered down version of the pension reform bill proposed by the previous centre-right president, Michel Temer.
Other ambitious plans, including big privatisations of state-owned enterprises, simplifying the country’s regressive tax code and onerous bureaucratic and regulatory regime, will depend on the new president’s unproven ability to push legislation through Brazil’s highly fractured congress. Currently, Bolsonaro’s party is the second largest in the legislature with just 10% of the seats.
No more rainbows
In foreign policy, Bolsonaro moves Brazil into uncharted waters. Brazil’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, wants to abandon Brazil’s “rainbow” diplomacy, which refers to a longstanding international stance that has kept Brazil on mainly friendly terms with everyone.
Writing in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, Araujo stated “We’re not in the world to be Miss Congeniality,” and argued that Brazil needed to join a “nucleus composed of the three largest Christian countries, Brazil-US-Russia” and impose “pressures on all fronts” on China.
On Bolsonaro’s part, his vocal support for the US and Israel has been accompanied by strong criticism of China and neighbours Venezuela and Cuba. “China is not buying in Brazil, it is buying Brazil,” Bolsonaro is fond of saying.
That antagonism with China will be difficult in practice since China is Brazil’s number one trading partner, making up a quarter of all Brazilian exports. The US is second with 12% of Brazil’s total exports.
If Brazil is still the country of the future, that future is as difficult to predict now as ever. But with a radical new presidency in power, the new few months will be crucial in proving what it is capable of. Western observers are sceptical, businesses are mostly upbeat, and Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are sky-high. Critics and optimists alike will have to wait and see.