Jair Bolsonaro has promised to end corruption © Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Jair Bolsonaro has promised to end corruption © Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

What the 'Trump of the tropics' means for Brazil

5 November 2018

“Elections won’t change anything in this country”, observed Jair Bolsonaro in 1999, when he was a member of the Brazilian chamber of deputies.

As the right-wing victor in the country’s recent presidential election, nicknamed the “Trump of the tropics”, Bolsonaro may be about to prove himself wrong.

Like Trump, Brazil’s new president has a flair for sound bites. Asked about the country’s largest trade partner, he snapped: “China isn’t buying in Brazil, it’s buying Brazil.” His appeal has mystified many foreign analysts – many opponents have called him a fascist – but his pitch was simple. With the economy stalled, unemployment at 12% and corruption rife, Bolsonaro  presented himself as the only viable alternative to the kind of chaos Nicolás Maduro’s idiosyncratic brand of socialism has unleashed over the border in Venezuela.

Giving police carte blanche to kill drug dealers, describing indigenous people’s rights as a foreign conspiracy to control the Amazon, and a promise to end corruption seemed to resonate with voters infuriated by the status quo and by the Workers Party, which occupied the presidency for 14 of the past 16 years.

Bolsonaro’s pre-election talk of privatising oil behemoth Petrobras and power generator Eletrobras, has subsided. Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a free marketeer who turns protectionist when he believes national interests are at stake. Investor Paulo Guedes has advised the new government to privatise 150 organisations but such moves have often faced lengthy legal challenges. Brazil’s new president has also expressed the fear that if Petrobras was put up for sale, China would buy it.

Pledges to end red tape have become a familiar election night ritual across the world but Brazil has a lot of it to cut. The World Bank estimates that 5% of the country’s GDP is wasted on bureaucracy and that it takes 79.5 days to start a business there – compared to a global average of 19.8 days.

And then there’s corruption. Operation Car Wash is one of the biggest, longest-running – and best-named – corruption scandals in Latin American history. Executives at Petrobras were found to have taken bribes to accept construction bids at inflated prices. The resulting investigation led to the imprisonment of president Luiz Inácio Lula and the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff. The continual revelation that something was very rotten in the state of Brazil paved the way for Bolsonaro who has nominated Sérgio Moro, the judge who ran the Operation Car Wash probe, as justice minister.

As with Trump, only Bolsonaro knows if he means what he says. He has already backtracked on his pledge to take Brazil out of the Paris climate accord. As most of the Amazon rainforest – which recycles 18bn tonnes of carbon a year – is in Brazil, this U-turn came as a relief to many heads of state and environmental campaigners.

Eduardo Viola, co-author of the book Brazil And Climate Change, says it would be “practically impossible” for the new president to repudiate the accord: “Unlike in the US, the Paris agreement was ratified by the Brazilian Congress, almost unanimously.”

A more likely scenario is that the new administration will slash the budgets of the two federal bodies that protect the Amazon – Funai, the indigenous people’s rights agency and Ibama, the environment ministry unit that enforces regulations. Another proposal is to merge the environment and agriculture ministries into one.

Deforestation has risen again in the past five years and most analysts expect Bolsonaro’s administration to favour the expansion of agriculture and infrastructure into the Amazon and be less vigilant if landowners and farmers break the rules. Even before Bolsonaro took office, Congress had approved sweeping changes to the forest code to reduce or eliminate some penalties for illegal deforestation.

China’s insatiable appetite for food has made Brazil an agricultural superpower and strengthened the hand of conservative landowners in Congress – known as ruralistas – who argue that rolling back some regulations would stimulate the economy, an attractive argument given that GDP grew by just 1% in 2017 – and that after two years of recession.

The famous quip “Brazil is the economy of the future – and it always be” alludes to the country’s mysterious failure to achieve the same kind of economic transformation as China and India. Yet it also reflects the country’s immense natural potential – it makes one-third of the world’s coffee, is the world’s ninth-largest oil producer and one of the world’s largest beef producers. With the right infrastructure – not just roads, but hospitals and schools – and a serious anti-corruption drive, the country could finally fulfil some of that potential.

That said, Bolsonaro’s dream of making Brazil great again could become a nightmare for the indigenous Indian population. Beto Marubo, a Javari leader in a valley on Brazil’s western border, told National Geographic that, since the election: “Many brothers tell us there are invasions, people entering territories with no regard for rules and no fear of the authorities.”

The native peoples had already formed an organisation, Guardians of Amazon, to protect themselves. The conflict is little reported outside Brazil but in the northern state of Marañhao, up to 80 Guajajara people have been murdered since 2015. Often, their bodies are dumped, as a warning, in a stream associated with illegal loggers. This war has been simmering since the 1970s, when loggers and ranchers began bulldozing their way through the rain forest.

This summer, the indigenous people’s agency Funai released footage of a man in his fifties, moving through the western Brazilian rain forest, who is believed to be the sole survivor of his tribe. He was last glimpsed in 2005 and was widely assumed to have died. Fiona Watson, advocacy director for Survival International, says: “The fact that he is still alive is a symbol of hope.”

He is known as the “man in the hole” because he lives alone in 8.070 hectares of protected forest, completely surrounded by ranches and farmers. Conservations and campaigners are already asking: what place will there be for him in Bolsonaro’s “great and prosperous” Brazil?

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