By winning the Brazilian Presidential elections in October last year, Jair Bolsonaro has risen to the stature of world leaders and he is a good addition to a global club of strongman leaders that includes Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and, of course, Donald Trump in the US.
The addition of Brazil to the group of countries that is led by strongman leaders would matter a lot as Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, and the largest in Latin America. This group spans democracies and autocracies west and east but it is loosely united by a highly personalised style of government that combines nationalism with a leadership cult, and a disdain for liberal norms, such as a critical press and independent courts.
Born in Campinas (São Paulo) on March 21, 1955, Jair Bolsonaro is a descendant of Italian immigrants who arrived in Brazil after World War II. The son of Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro and Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro, he is married to Michelle, with whom he had his youngest daughter, named Laura. His children Flávio, Carlos and Eduardo Bolsonaro also followed political careers. Flávio has been elected a senator by the state of Rio de Janeiro in the last election, while Carlos has been elected councilmen in Rio and Eduardo has been re-elected as a federal deputy in São Paulo. Jair Bolsonaro won the Presidential race race with 57,797,847 votes (55.13% of the Brazilian electorate). His political career began in 1988, when he won a seat for municipal councillor for the city of Rio de Janeiro. In 1990, two years after that election, he would win the first of seven consecutive terms as a federal deputy.
In 2014, he was the most voted candidate for federal deputy in Rio de Janeiro with 464,565 votes, according to data from the Superior Electoral Court (TSE). Throughout his mandates as a parliamentarian, he stood out especially for his defense of the rights of on-duty, off-duty and pension-earning military officers. He defended the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility, the possession of firearms for good citizens, the right to legitimate defense, the assurance of legal certainty during police action, and Christian and family values. He is the sponsor of the printed ballot bill (currently pending in Congress), which he believes will contribute to the holding of more reliable and auditable elections in the country, and is a staunch congressional advocate of the fight against corruption.
Jair Messias Bolsonaro graduated in 1977 from the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras (AMAN), located in Resende (RJ), and finished his military skydiving course with the Rio de Janeiro Pratrooper Brigade. He decided to follow a military career in 1970, when he met army troops that went to Eldorado after Carlos Lamarca, who had deserted the military and was commanding guerrilla actions at the Ribeira Valley.
He earned a degree in Physical Education from the Army School of Physical Education in 1983, and would later become a master of parachute jumping from the Paratrooper Brigade of Rio de Janeiro. His studies were at the Agulhas Negras Military Academy (AMAN), which offers solid background in exact sciences, at a complexity similar to that of an Engineering degree. It is one of the most sought-after educational institutions in Brazil, which is similar to the US Military Academy (also known as West Point). He won first place in a class of 45 students at the Army Physical Education School, as well as first place in the autonomous diver course offered by the Search and Rescue Group of the Rio de Janeiro Fire Department.
Riding in on a wave of frustration with more than a decade of left-wing leadership,
Bolsonaro has promised to bring dramatic change to Brazil, change intended to make leftists squirm. And if his first two weeks in office tell us anything, it’s that those who thought his brash talk—of ending policies creating protected land reserves for indigenous populations or of liberalizing Brazil’s gun laws to make it easier for Brazilians to own guns—was just campaign bluster might want to take a serious look at the president’s plans. He intends to follow through on his promises, even the most controversial ones.
One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president which he boasted of on Twitter, à la Donald Trump—was to halt all new demarcations of indigenous lands. In effect, that means the decades-long effort by Brazil’s indigenous populations to seek recognition and legal title to land has been foiled.
Bolsonaro has argued that demarcated land for indigenous peoples is akin to keeping them secluded in reserves like zoo animals when an Indian is a human being just like us. His critics, though, see an ulterior motive: Stopping the demarcation process opens up land especially in remote parts of the Amazon to powerful players such as the mining, farming, and logging industries. Functionally, indigenous reserves have been used as a proxy for environmental protections. And indigenous peoples are not a strong enough lobbying group to fight back. Maurício Santoro, an expert on Brazilian politics at Rio de Janeiro State University, told me that along with the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples are the most threatened social group under Bolsonaro’s administration.
There are structural limits holding Bolsonaro back, though: His ability to strip all of indigenous peoples’ land-demarcation rights is hamstrung by strong protections for those communities under the Brazilian constitution, ones Santoro is confident the Brazilian supreme court will uphold. Toss in a heavy dose of international pressure to protect indigenous peoples, and Bolsonaro might see his land-rights plans backfire.
During his electioneering Jair Bolsonaro promised to make Brazil great again. For Bolsonaro and many of his supporters, that primarily means restoring law and order and rooting out government corruption. But that nationalistic message will have consequences outside Brazil’s borders, and could even shift the country’s role in the region and the world.
To be clear, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy is still coming into focus. He seemed muddled at times during the campaign declaring he would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, for example, before changing his position and promising to stay in. But he has expressed disdain for international institutions, including the United Nations, which he’s called a gathering for communists and threatened to leave. He has also said he prefers bilateral deals, especially on trade.
On October 28, Jair Bolsonaro’s decisive victory shifted Brazil to the right when he broke the Workers’ Party electoral winning streak. A pro-gun former army captain and Social Liberal Party (PSL) congressman, he won with pledges to crack down on crime and corruption, a rejection of the status quo, and nostalgia for the country’s military rule.
Before taking office, Bolsonaro signaled what’s to come by selecting key members of his cabinet, including Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro for the Justice Ministry, University of Chicago-trained Paulo Guedes for the Economy Ministry, and an evangelical pastor to head the Women, Family, and Human Rights Ministry, Damares Alves. Bolsonaro’s cabinet contains the largest number of former members of the military since the country’s return to democracy.
AS/COA Online tracks the first 100 days of the Bolsonaro presidency, with regular updates of the big stories defining the new government’s path in Latin America’s largest country.
Bolsonaro decided to celebrate his first 100 days in Brasília on April 11 by announcing a package of 18 measures, some of which were part of his government’s 100-days plan.
After saying the country lives a moment of bright blue skies, he said that on top of working to make pension reform a reality, his administration has set goals for social policy, infrastructure, the economy, the environment, as well as institutional changes.