Why you should care

Controversies involving the sons of Brazil’s new president are threatening to undermine planned economic reforms.

Carlos Bolsonaro has the face of his father, Brazil’s president, tattooed on his arm. The Rio de Janeiro councilor and gun enthusiast has taken part in high-level meetings since Jair Bolsonaro became president despite having no Cabinet role, to the irritation of government ministers. His brother Flávio, a member of Brazil’s Senate, is under investigation over suspect financial transactions — allegations he has denied. He has also been criticized for employing both the wife and the mother of a former police captain accused of running a Rio de Janeiro death squad.

The controversies surrounding the pair reveal the extent to which family matters have overshadowed the first months of Bolsonaro’s administration. The president, who in last year’s election won a strong mandate for his conservative values platform, has been dogged by problems since he took office on Jan. 1, many of which can be traced back to his sons. Analysts worry that these and other issues surrounding the Bolsonaros could jeopardize a series of important economic reforms.

What we have seen so far is just a taste of what is to come.

Ricardo Sennes, managing partner, Prospectiva

The latest came this month when Carlos Bolsonaro accused a senior aide to his father of being a liar for claiming to have discussed a brewing corruption scandal with the president. Jair Bolsonaro quickly endorsed the accusation. Yet soon after the aide was fired, leaked conversations corroborated his version of events — leading many to ask why the Bolsonaros would make such a claim when it risked being exposed as false.

“In the scandals surrounding the government, those to do with the president’s sons are by far the biggest source of instability and the hardest to manage,” says Ricardo Sennes, managing partner at Prospectiva, a consulting firm. “But they are not even the worst problem. The real problem is the lack of political strategy. The president has no political operator. He doesn’t trust anybody.”

Bolsonaro has broken with tradition in Brazil by not seeking to use appointments to the country’s bloated ministerial apparatus as a means to build support in Congress. Instead, he has cut the number of ministries from 29 to 22, although he has stopped short of slashing a further seven. A plan to turn to leaders of the agricultural, evangelical and security lobby — the so-called beef, Bible and bullet caucus — was abandoned before it started as unworkable. Instead, the president has sought to appeal directly to the ordinary rank-and-file congressmen — the baixo clero, or “low clergy” — many of whom were elected on Bolsonaro’s conservative platform.

However, this strategy of offering low-level privileges to backbench legislators without the intermediation of party bosses has brought the president into open conflict with leaders who have complained openly about the tactic.

“They’re trying to appeal to the baixo clero on the cheap,” says Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. “It’s a bold and interesting move but it has angered party leaders, who still have access to funds and still control nominations [to congressional committees].”

The head of the Democrats party — one of more than 30 operating in Congress — that has backed Bolsonaro was one of those who said he felt shut out of the process. “The party leaders have not been called in for talks,” Elmar Nascimento told the UOL news site recently. “What we know, we’re finding out from the press.”

This improvised nature of some parts of Bolsonaro’s administration, which has contributed to a chaotic first few weeks since Congress began sitting on Feb. 1, contrasts with the professionalism of others. The former generals that make up a faction of his Cabinet have, in meetings with congressmen, been praised for their straight talk and proved adept and moderate administrators.

Sergio Moro, the justice minister who led the Brazil’s sweeping Lava Jato anti-corruption probe, also continues to command respect, though he has been criticized for launching an anti-crime bill in the same week that the government announced its long-awaited pension plan, competing for attention with the flagship reform.

Paulo Guedes and his team of Economy Ministry technocrats have been praised for their competent handling of the pensions proposal, the key part of a plan to overhaul Brazil’s deficit-ridden public finances and set the country back on a path to growth.

It remains unclear whether they will be able to guide this and other reforms through Brazil’s highly fractured Congress. Most analysts believe the government will get some form of pensions reform through Congress this year, even if it has to be watered down. Guedes has already warned that some parts of his pensions proposals may have to be dropped.

In a signal of the difficulties ahead for Bolsonaro’s administration, a government-led proposal to give officials greater powers to withhold information from the public was last week defeated overwhelmingly, as just 57 out of 513 members of Congress voted in favor.

Another fear among those who prioritize economic reform is that the more ideological wing of the administration — which includes Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo and Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, who has the education brief — will gain the ascendancy and the government will lose direction.

Sennes at Prospectiva says: “What we have seen so far is just a taste of what is to come.”

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By Jonathan Wheatley

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