Special Briefing: With a Populist in Power, Brazil Shifts to the Right

Jair Bolsonaro is pictured at the Aeronautics Command in Brasilia after meeting with military commanders, on November 22, 2018.

Source Sergio LIMA / AFP /Getty

Why you should care

Brazil’s newly inaugurated president is already sending shock waves through the country.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Jair Bolsonaro, 63, was sworn in this week as Brazil’s president after campaigning as a Trump-style political outsider despite having served seven terms in Congress. His supporters were drawn to his law-and-order message — Brazil saw 63,880 homicides in 2017 — and his fondness for guns and social conservatism. But he’s been a deeply divisive figure across Brazil, inspiring the #EleNao (“Not Him”) campaign from those who fear he will reverse gains made toward equality for women, LGBTQ groups and the country’s indigenous populations.

Why does it matter? Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro, who ran on the ticket of the formerly marginal Social Liberal Party (PSL) and won with 55 percent of the vote, made a lot of headline-grabbing statements. But he also made a lot of promises, and now he’s in a position to fulfill them, potentially turning Brazil, long ruled by leftist governments, into a right-wing, populist-driven state more reminiscent of the United States. But doing so might prove tricky for Bolsonaro: Some of his reforms will require changes to the country’s 1988 constitution, and without a party majority in Congress he may need to rely on makeshift alliances with small parties that have different priorities. 

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The new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, greets the crowd when arriving in an open car for his inauguration in the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 1.

Source Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

If a tree falls. Bolsonaro has already issued an executive order fulfilling his campaign promise to transfer power over public forests and regulation of reserves for indigenous populations to the Agriculture Ministry, which has deep ties to Brazil’s agribusiness lobby. That’s stoked fears that his administration will allow business and mining exploitation of the Amazon rainforest and other ecologically vulnerable sites, which make up between 13 and 15 percent of Brazilian territory. The order is temporary and will expire in 120 days unless Congress ratifies it. But Brazilian televangelist Silas Malafaia, a friend of Bolsonaro, opined that “gringos” who decimated their own wilderness areas should pony up some money if they want Brazil to preserve its own.

Divided we stand. As a far-right candidate, Bolsonaro has already provoked partisan division and even violence. During the campaign, mudslinging tipped over into murderous rhetoric and physical assault: Bolsonaro joked about shooting supporters of the opposing party, and he himself was stabbed by a man who told police he was acting “on behalf of God.” Bolsonaro is likely to deepen such division as he tries making good on pre-election promises like expanding gun rights, boosting protections for police who kill civilians and overhauling the nation’s pension system.

Who’s optimistic? While some are nervous about Bolsonaro’s proposed changes, a December poll found that 65 percent of Brazilians say they’re optimistic, compared with 23 percent in August. And his fan base apparently includes investors: Brazil’s stock market closed at a record high on Wednesday, the first trading day since his inauguration, amid anticipation that his economic reforms would successfully target high government spending. On expectations that Bolsonaro’s Cabinet would also partially privatize state-run power company Eletrobras, the firm’s shares jumped 20 percent. And Brazil’s real currency rose 2.4 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump, for whom Bolsonaro has often expressed admiration, tweeted congratulations on Bolsonaro’s inauguration, promising, “The USA is with you!” 

His better half. While Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his insensitive attitudes toward minorities and opponents, his wife, Michelle, may prove more endearing. At the inauguration, the 38-year-old preceded her husband’s speech with her own — in sign language. Brazil’s new first lady, who learned the language to communicate with a deaf uncle and uses it during church services, said she’d continue working on behalf of Brazil’s physically challenged citizens. “You all will be valued,” Michelle said in her address, which reportedly came as a surprise to many on her husband’s team. 

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Brazilian natives and students take part in a demonstration in support of the Guarani-Kaiowa tribe in 2012.

Source EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty

WHAT TO READ 

Brazil’s New Conservative Leader Moves to Revamp Economy, by Jeffrey T. Lewis in The Wall Street Journal

“With his mix of market-friendly economic policies and social conservatism at home, Mr. Bolsonaro plans to align Brazil more closely with developed nations and particularly the U.S., shifting South America further to the right after decades of mostly leftist rule.” 

Brazil’s Media Prepares for War, by Isabela Dias in Slate

“Independent journalists are setting up a host of new efforts to safeguard democracy and press freedom. To cover what will happen to Brazil in 2019, the initiatives aim to regain not only financial support, but the public’s eroded trust.”

WHAT TO WATCH 

Bolsonaro’s Wife Gives Speech in Sign Language at Swearing-In

Watch on Ruptly on YouTube:

How Will Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Impact the World?

“Analysts say there’s danger [Bolsonaro] could eventually add to another global trend: Strongmen undermining democracies.”

Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

They do. Marriage has been legal in Brazil for LGBTQ couples since 2013, but with Bolsonaro’s openly homophobic ascent — he’s described himself as “homophobic with pride” — some fear those rights may not endure. Perhaps that explains the 66 percent increase in same-sex marriages in November. Activist groups are organizing mass ceremonies, and wedding vendors are offering their services for free as couples scramble to make it legal while they still can.  

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