Brazil’s new far-right president had an alarming first week

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, used his first week in office to issue a flurry of new policies and proposals that undermined the rights of indigenous people and the LGBTQ community, and offered a preview of his future far-right policies.

Bolsonaro assumed power on January 1, more than two months after his far-right campaign carried him to election victory. While on the campaign trail, the formerly fringe lawmaker promised to crack down on crime and corruption and to jump-start the economy.

He also embraced incendiary rhetoric against indigenous, LGBTQ, and other minority populations, and expressed nostalgia for the country’s decades under military rule. His unorthodox and controversial campaign garnered more than a few comparisons to that of another politician: US President Donald Trump.

And after only a few days in office, Bolsonaro has already started to turn some of this rhetoric into policy. He’s introduced decrees that could undermine protections for indigenous populations and the environment. He announced a proposal to privatize airports and seaports, and repeated his intention to loosen gun restrictions.

Bolsonaro’s shake-ups have alarmed activists and buoyed his hardcore supporters — and the stock market, so far.

The new leader’s most ardent supporters embraced his far-right views, but he also appealed to less ideological voters because he sold himself as the man to upend the political and economic status quo in a struggling economy and myriad corruption scandals.

But Bolsonaro’s big promises on corruption, the economy, and crime often lacked specifics. The real test for the new president will be how he tackles this overwhelming mandate and how deep, and transformative, his presidency could be.

Bolsonaro took immediate action against indigenous groups

In perhaps his most high-profile move in his first week, Bolsonaro issued a decree to put the minister of agriculture in charge of designating protected lands for indigenous peoples — a move that’s widely seen as undermining indigenous rights and environmental protections.

FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation), the department in charge of indigenous rights, had previously been part of the Ministry of Justice. FUNAI demarcated and oversaw indigenous lands, but Bolsonaro’s decree now delegates those responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture. That ministry is closely tied to the farm industry and logging and mining interests, which have traditionally wanted to expand into these protected lands and sometimes tried to take them by force. (Tereza Cristina Dias, the new minister of agriculture, has deep ties to the farming and agribusiness industry.)

Meanwhile, the rest of FUNAI’s mandate will be folded into the new Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, which critics argue will lessen its ability to enforce protections for indigenous groups.

Bolsonaro defended this move, writing on Twitter that these groups live in isolation and are “manipulated by NGOs.”

But critics and indigenous rights activists have argued that this decree represents a genuine threat to Brazil’s indigenous population. “We are the first to be attacked, we have to be the first to react,” Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous leader, tweeted.

There are still some questions about the implementation of this rule, as Brazil’s constitution designates certain rights for indigenous groups, and Bolsonaro’s policy will expire if it’s not approved by Congress.

But Britta Crandall, a Latin American studies professor at Davidson College, said that even if the effects of Bolsonaro’s decree are still unclear, his rhetoric could potentially fuel tensions between indigenous groups and landowners. Violent confrontations between ranchers and indigenous populations, which often start when landowners lay claim to demarcated lands, have long been an issue in Brazil.

“One aspect is [the] new policy,” Crandall said. “The other aspect is what does the rhetoric from the executive, how does that embolden private interests? It could be that we could see much more violence.”

Bolsonaro’s encroachment on indigenous rights isn’t just a local problem — it could have huge environmental implications for the world. The Amazon’s rainforests were once seen as one of the world’s best defenses against climate change, though deforestation and a changing climate continue to threaten the region. Protected lands for indigenous groups make up about 13 percent of Brazil’s territory, much of it in the rainforest and with limited development. Bolsonaro’s decrees are seen as a precursor to inviting industries onto these nature reserves.

Bolsonaro has scoffed at environmental protections. He previously threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement (he has since backtracked), and his administration removed Brazil from the list of possible hosts for this year’s United Nations climate conference.

Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s new environment minister, was also fined for altering environmental plans to benefit mining interests as a state official in São Paulo. (Salles has said he will appeal the fine.)

On Monday, Bolsonaro blasted the head of Brazil’s environmental protection agency (Ibama), insinuating that the agency had engaged in wasteful spending based on the cost paid for rental cars. The head of the agency defended the charges, then resigned. Salles said they had planned to replace her anyway.

Bolsonaro’s cabinet looks ready to carry out his far-right agenda

Beyond the FUNAI change, Bolsonaro has reshuffled his cabinet and filled the ministries with like-minded allies, many of whom have shown they’re prepared to carry out his agenda.

The new president has 22 cabinet ministers, while his predecessor, Michel Temer, had 29. According to the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, Bolsonaro has eliminated some departments — like the Ministry of Labor — and reformed and merged others to create new ones, like the new Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, which was formerly just the Ministry of Human Rights.

The head of this new ministry is an evangelical pastor named Damares Alves, who is against what she calls “gender ideology” — a kind of catchall phrase that refers to LGBTQ and women’s rights, and other views that she sees as undermining the concept of traditional families and societal order.

Alves said last week that a new era had begun where “boys wear blue and girls wear pink,” a distillation of Bolsonaro’s anti-LGBTQ stance. In addition to this appointment, Bolsonaro used his first week in office to strip LGBTQ issues from Alves’s jurisdiction, which advocates saw as indicative of a larger attack on vulnerable populations.

Bolsonaro’s new minister of education, meanwhile, eliminated a department intended to promote diversity in schools, a move the president praised as preparing people for jobs rather than the domination of “socialist ideas.”

Bolsonaro selected his cabinet ministers before taking office, so most critics were prepared for some of his more controversial picks. But his cabinet is also notable for other reasons. At least seven of the ministerial positions are filled by former military officials — the highest number since Brazil was run by a military dictatorship, which ended in the 1980s. Bolsonaro has lauded the dictatorship in the past, and his obsession with the military has made some Brazilians nervous.

And despite the new president’s promise to crack down on corruption, the Intercept’s Bruna de Lara pointed out that a handful of his cabinet ministers are themselves embroiled in scandal, including his chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni, who’s under investigation for possible illegal campaign donations, and his economy minister, Paulo Guedes, who was investigated for possible involvement in a pension-fund fraud scheme.

Bolsonaro began to carve out his new foreign policy

There’s a bit of a lovefest going on between the Trump administration and Bolsonaro, and it’s delivering a jolt to the US-Brazil relationship, and Latin American politics more broadly.

Trump tweeted praise of Bolsonaro’s inauguration speech, saying “the U.S.A. is with you!” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended Bolsonaro’s swearing-in, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called Bolsonaro — who has lauded Brazil’s military dictatorship — a US-friendly leader who “will join the fight against dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba.”

Bolsonaro has returned the favor. “Together, under God’s protection, we shall bring prosperity and progress to our people!” he tweeted in response to Trump.

Most dramatically, Bolsonaro suggested in a TV interview last week that he was open to the idea of a US military base in Brazil, as a check on Russian influence in Venezuela. Military officials quickly pushed back on the idea, and Bolsonaro’s defense minister told reporters that he didn’t see a need for such a base.

Bolsonaro seems to be backtracking on the offer now, and maybe for good reason. When it comes to the US, Brazil might not be totally with him. A poll published in the Brazilian paper Folha de São Paulo showed that about two-thirds of Brazilians were skeptical of closer ties with the US.

The US-Brazil relationship has historically been chilly — a vestige of US meddling during the Cold War (and because the US, to some extent, supported the military dictatorship). Later, leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva supported a “South-South” policy — emphasizing partnerships with developing countries — and formed ties with Venezuela and Cuba and other leftist governments.

But Bolsonaro has veered from his predecessors, specifically when it comes to Venezuela. He’s also promised to check Chinese influence and investment in the Brazilian economy. For these reasons and more, Brazil’s new president looks like the US’s new guy in the region.

Bolsonaro made clear during his first week that he’s just getting started

Bolsonaro has promised to break with his predecessors and achieve what they’ve failed to do. And he’s already taken steps in that direction. On the economy, he’s proposed a privatization plan for major airports and seaports. He’s also promised pension reform, something his predecessors were unable to do.

As a candidate, he had also promised a security crackdown. He appears ready to push through plans to loosen gun restrictions in Brazil to allow citizens to carry a gun for self-defense in a country that saw more than 63,000 murders in 2017. He’s also promised stronger protections for police who kill criminals and while on the campaign trail even suggested a “shoot to kill” policy.

It’s not quite clear how he plans to accomplish some of these ambitious (and still controversial) plans, particularly when it comes to security. It’s also not clear how effective they would be — for example, many critics believe loosening gun laws will increase, rather than deter, violence.

But either way, Bolsonaro will likely need Congress’s support to make many of these changes — and there’s also a question as to whether some of his proposals might run up against the country’s constitution.

“In terms of the checks and balances, the Brazilian congress is going to pay a hugely significant role this year,” Crandall told me. “It’s one thing to wrap up FUNAI on the Ministry of Agriculture. It’s another thing when he starts eroding the constitutional rights of individuals, and that’s where I do think he’ll have a lot less leeway than he hopes.”

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