Brazilians voted last Sunday in a presidential election that’s captured global attention largely because of one man: Jair Bolsonaro. The 63-year-old far-right former army captain resoundingly won a first round last month and cruised home to take over the reins of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Known for bombastic quips demeaning women, gays and people of colour, Bolsonaro has been denounced by everyone — from Madonna to former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief when Bolsonaro backed away from his earlier threats to follow in the footsteps of United States President Donald Trump and pull Brazil out of the global Paris accord to fight climate change, as long as Brazil retains sovereignty over indigenous lands and the rainforest. He has also reconsidered his initial vow to eliminate Brazil’s Environmental Ministry. But that doesn’t mean Bolsonaro has suddenly become soft.
He is a powerful supporter of agribusiness — one of the pillars of his political platform — and is likely to favour profits over preservation. He has called for a new, pro-business approach to exploiting Brazil’s natural resources, insisting that overzealous bureaucrats have harassed farmers for simply trying to make a living by carving out patches of jungle.
Brazil is the guardian of the world’s largest rainforest, in the Amazon basin. But Bolsonaro has chafed at foreign pressure to safeguard it, and he served notice to international non-profit groups such as the World Wildlife Fund that he will not tolerate their agendas in Brazil. He has also come out strongly against lands reserved for indigenous tribes. Bolsonaro’s advisers additionally say that he plans to expand nuclear and hydroelectric power into the Amazon.
Critics fear that all of this is tantamount to declaring a great green rush — opening the already endangered Amazon region to a potential free-for-all for economic interests.
“I really don’t understand much about the economy,” Bolsonaro once admitted. That said, Bolsonaro has detailed his economic platform more than any other of his policies.
At the start of his political career, Bolsonaro was seen by many as a pro-state protectionist. He voted with the left-wing Workers Party against privatisation of the oil and telecom industries. He even praised the early pro-state period of Venezuela’s former leftist firebrand, Hugo Chavez — the late regional leader he now says he reviles.
More recently, Bolsonaro professes to have adopted a profound shift in favour of the free market — and promises what could be a deep dive into capitalism. He has tapped University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes as his financial tsar. Guedes, a staunch disciple of economic liberalism, made investors much more willing to take a chance on Bolsonaro.
“He listens to me when it comes to politics, I listen to him when it comes to economics,” Bolsonaro said of Guedes. “We’re dating.”
Guedes has said he wants to privatise or shut down state companies, cut down on public spending, ease international trade and pass austerity reforms. Investors are swooning, but whether Bolsonaro can actually deliver on these divisive promises will depend on the strength of the coalition he is able to build in the National Congress.
Some worry that the Bolsonaro-Guedes match won’t last, and that Guedes might leave — or Bolsonaro might oust him — before he’s able to implement meaningful reform.
But Bolsonaro is tough on crime and corruption.
Brazil is unquestionably in the midst of a horrendous crime wave, fuelled in large part by gangland turf wars for commercial rights to sell drugs and other contraband in Brazilian cities. Homicides hit a record high of 63,880 last year — nearly twice the number in the US and the European Union combined.
Bolsonaro’s solution is zero tolerance. He has called for police to use more lethal force and wants to relax gun laws so that average citizens can defend themselves. In the past, he has defended the use of police torture on drug traffickers and kidnappers.
Yet already, Brazil has one of the deadliest police forces in the world, responsible for more than 5,000 deaths last year, according to government figures. Experts warn that Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime platform could make life worse for many people of colour.
He was born in Glicerio in Sao Paulo in 1955 to parents of Italian descent, and he served in the army from 1971 until 1988, when he was elected as a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro for the Christian Democratic Party. In 1990, he became a federal congressman for the same party. He has since been affiliated with a number of political parties, and was officially nominated as the presidential candidate of the Social Liberal party last July.
He has praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, which killed and was responsible for the disappearance of dissidents. In the post-dictatorship years, a time when most Brazilian politicians had turned the page of history and rarely spoke of the regime, Bolsonaro called for a military coup. In 1999, when he was in the National Congress, he utterly dismissed democracy and called for the assassination of the president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
“Through voting, nothing will change in this country; nothing, absolutely nothing. It will only change, unfortunately, on the day a civil war breaks out here and does the job that the military regime didn’t do. Killing some 30,000, starting with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, we can’t leave him out, no,” Bolsonaro said in a public television interview in 1999. “Innocent people will die, OK, but in every war, innocents die.”