Brazil’s 'Game of Thrones': Tensions Within Jair Bolsonaro’s Inner Circle
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Brazil is unpredictable thanks to this fractious group.
By Andres Schipani
Jair Bolsonaro is known for his pugnacious style. After seven turbulent months in office, Brazil’s far-right president has found a way to use these divisive tactics to his advantage.
Bolsonaro has governed his inner circle through unpredictability and brashness while bringing his family, the only people he truly trusts, into the inner sanctum for support — spurring fears of the rise of yet another Latin American political dynasty.
As the president presses for his son Eduardo to become ambassador to Washington, the Financial Times has profiled his closest associates. So far institutions have stayed the appointment, but the move typifies Bolsonaro’s instinct to strengthen the role of the ideologues in his retinue while demoting some pragmatists.
These confidantes have turned against ministers for ideological impurities, prompting firings. Some critics have complained that Bolsonaro has spent more time stoking controversy than jump-starting a sluggish economy.
“There has been a changing balance of power and influence among those groups, with Bolsonaro clipping the wings of everyone who could overshadow him,” says Matias Spektor, a professor of politics at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, an academic institution in Brazil.
Offsetting this, the influence of the centrist speaker of the lower house Rodrigo Maia is gaining ground, advancing much needed economic reforms while holding back the president’s identity politics and culture wars agenda much to Bolsonaro’s distaste.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, congressman
His position as head of Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee and growing role in U.S.-Brazil relations makes the president’s third son a de facto foreign minister. The proposed appointment of Eduardo as ambassador to Washington has reignited concerns about nepotism. Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to sack his foreign minister and replace him with Eduardo if lawmakers did not approve his choice for the coveted diplomatic job. A gun-toting former police officer, the 35-year-old has cultivated close relations with the Trump family and with Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist who is a focal point for populist leaders.
Carlos Bolsonaro, city councilor
The combative city councilor for Rio de Janeiro and the president’s middle son has emerged as a de facto spokesman for his father. Known as “Pit Bull,” Carlos has gained a reputation for relentlessly hounding the president’s rivals and attacking senior government figures, some of whom have been swiftly fired. The 36-year-old coordinated his father’s social media strategy during last year’s presidential election and is credited with expanding the then candidate’s voter base. He is also heavily influenced by Olavo de Carvalho, the family’s intellectual guiding light.
Olavo de Carvalho, intellectual guru
The president’s foulmouthed intellectual guru has been likened to right-wing U.S. political pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Kellyanne Conway. The pipe-smoking writer and former astrologer uses his social media accounts to attack the president’s foes, has described Nazism as a leftist ploy and launched expletive-filled rants about gay rights and left-wingers. He was honored by Bannon in Washington. “Without Olavo, there would be no President Bolsonaro,” Eduardo Bolsonaro has said.
Hamilton Mourão, vice president
The vice president, a retired army general and former peacekeeper, is seen by some as the “adult in the room” in his boss’ ideologically charged administration. Following anti-China comments by Bolsonaro, which unnerved Beijing, Mourão traveled to Beijing to soothe tensions with President Xi Jinping. His pragmatism has made him unpopular with some ideologues, especially de Carvalho. “Some of us see him as enemy No. 1,” says one figure close to Bolsonaro’s circle. As an elected official, however, he cannot be fired.
Augusto Heleno, national security adviser
The president’s top security official acts as a bridge between the former generals and the civilian appointees who make up Bolsonaro’s team. Initially tipped as a running mate, the retired general was instead tapped as the president’s national security adviser. Prone to outbursts, Heleno has taken charge of peace missions in Haiti and served as military commander of the Amazon. Though close to the president, he has come under pressure from Carlos Bolsonaro after almost 40 kilograms of cocaine were found in Spain aboard a Brazilian military aircraft serving as the advance guard for the president on its way to the G-20 summit in Japan in June.
Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, infrastructure minister
De Freitas has taken charge of a portfolio of assets including roads, airports and state-owned enterprises, some of which have been earmarked for privatization. Like his boss, the former army captain attended the Agulhas Negras Military Academy. He also worked in peacekeeping missions in Haiti. De Freitas’ discretion and loyalty have made him a favorite even though he previously worked under Dilma Rousseff, the left-wing former president despised by Bolsonaro and his cohort.
Paulo Guedes, economics minister
The former financier is in charge of one of the administration’s top priorities: pushing a pensions overhaul through Congress that aims to save $1 trillion reals ($250 billion) over 10 years. He has also promised sweeping free-market reforms and an end to years of state interventions. Guedes studied at the University of Chicago during the 1970s, where he was heavily influenced by economist Milton Friedman. He later taught economics in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet alongside a group of Friedman disciples known as the “Chicago Boys.”
Marcos Troyjo, foreign trade secretary
Troyjo was instrumental in brokering the landmark deal last month between the South American Mercosur trading bloc and the European Union after 20 years of negotiations. The accord was viewed as a significant victory for the Bolsonaro government. “If there was any doubt that Brazil is opening up its economy, this is a major statement,” Troyjo told the Financial Times. Suave and affable, the foreign trade secretary is another of the practical players in the administration. He is a diplomat, an economist and a former professor at Columbia University in New York.
The experienced congressman has gained prominence for helping push Guedes’ pensions bill through the lower house of Congress after months of wrangling. “When it comes to passing pension reform, Rogério Marinho has no doubt been the key player from the government side,” says Sérgio Fausto of Fundação Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a think tank. Marinho is one of only a handful of members of Bolsonaro’s government from the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party, once the dominant political force but defeated in last year’s elections.
Rodrigo Maia, speaker of lower house
The speaker of Brazil’s lower house emerged from the key vote to overhaul the country’s pension system as a kingmaker, having whipped lawmakers to support the bill. Asked recently if he was becoming Brazil’s most powerful man, he replied: “I am just doing my job — and it is not an easy one.” Born into one of Brazil’s leading political families, the 49-year-old is a leading member of the center-right Democrats party. He has also been attacked on social media for acting as a bulwark against the identity politics pushed by Bolsonaro and his supporters.
Davi Alcolumbre, Senate president
The Senate president is a relatively new face who has been working closely with Maia. Part of the “lower clergy” of backbench lawmakers — which included Bolsonaro before he became president — Alcolumbre rose to prominence this year after defeating Renan Calheiros for the coveted role in the upper chamber. He is economically aligned with Guedes, yet has kept some independence from Bolsonaro’s government on ideological matters, such as firearms. “Violence is not fought with violence,” Alcolumbre said after the Senate defeated a gun ownership bill.
Alexandre Frota, congressman
The porn star turned congressman was a full-throated Bolsonaro supporter during last year’s election. Yet Frota has become a critic of the way Bolsonaro and his inner circle govern. This led to his expulsion from the president’s conservative Social Liberal Party last week. “Bolsonaro is the one who disappointed me the most,” he recently told Epoca magazine. Frota has also taken on the ideologues such as de Carvalho, who called him a “rat.” Frota has shown a pragmatic streak by working closely with Maia and Guedes to push through economic reforms in Congress.
Gustavo Bebianno, former secretary-general of the presidency
As secretary-general of the presidency, Bebianno was at one time among Bolsonaro’s closest aides. His abrupt firing in February followed a dispute with the president and his sons, setting the tone for the chaotic early part of the administration. The former leader of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party was accused of lying about alleged misuse of campaign funds within the organization. He recently told Crusoé magazine that the president “knows he was absolutely unfair and that erred badly with me.”
Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, former government relations minister
The retired general became the most senior figure to exit the Bolsonaro government when he was fired in June after coming under pressure from ideologues such as de Carvalho. “Social media sparked a phenomenon in which everyone thinks himself a William Shakespeare,” dos Santos Cruz said afterward, arguing that allowing Brazil to become “radicalized” by identity politics was “stupidity.” The former minister had previously led peacekeeping missions in Haiti and the Congo.
Joaquim Levy, former president of BNDES
In June, after only a few months in the job, the head of Brazil’s powerful development bank quit under pressure from Bolsonaro, who complained: “I am fed up with Levy.” The former chief financial officer of the World Bank was recruited by Guedes but was never fully trusted by Bolsonaro because he previously served as finance minister in Rousseff’s government.
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