São Paulo, April 5: ‘If he sees a banana skin on the pavement across the road, he will cross over to slip on it’, said columnist Elio Gaspari, describing the Brazilian president’s unerring capacity to provoke self-inflicted crises.
The latest example of the Bolsonaro boomerang effect was his order to all military establishments to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the 1964 coup, which overthrew an elected president to usher in a brutal 21-year dictatorship, notorious for the imprisonment and torture of thousands of dissidents, for repression and censorship, besides leaving the country in an economic mess.
But Bolsonaro and his senator son Flavio decided to rewrite history, claiming the military intervention was a benign democratic exercise to save Brazil from communism. Outrage at this blatant distortion of history led to a wave of protests up and down the country, while the media was full of former torture victims describing their ordeals. One executive from the industry described how even advertisements were censored.
Bolsonaro’s liking for rewriting history was also on display during his visit to Israel, where he insisted that Nazism was a movement of the left, not the right, even after visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial where it is described as the result of an extreme right-wing regime.
The three day long visit, which included declarations of mutual admiration between the Brazilian president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, brings no economic benefit to Brazil but instead puts at risk the flourishing export trade with Arab countries, importers of US$40 billion of halal meat products.
Alarmed at the prospect, the Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina, a leader of the conservative ruralista bloc in congress, has hastily convened a meeting with 51 Arab and Muslim ambassadors. The Palestine ambassador won’t be going – he has been recalled in protest at Brazil’s blatant break with its long standing policy of even-handedness in the Israeli-Palestine question.
Farm trade at risk
Bolsonaro’s flirtation with Israel is infuriating not only the Arabs, but the powerful agribusiness lobby in congress, who enthusiastically supported his election. The leader of the Farmers’ Front, deputy Alceu Moreira was overheard saying ‘Enough is enough! We’ve reached the limit!’, after Flavio Bolsonaro tweeted a childish, but offensive message to Hamas, saying ‘I hope you blow yourselves up!’
Under pressure Bolsonaro retreated from his campaign promise to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, opting instead to open a commercial office, but the damage has been done. Besides the Arabs and the farmers, he also managed to disappoint another group of his most fervent supporters, the evangelical churches, who believe that the second coming of Christ will take place in Israel, and therefore good relations are essential. Why Jesus Christ, a pacifist, would choose Bolsonaro as his messenger is not clear.
Insults to China
Meanwhile there are reports of a growing revolt among Brazilian diplomats, disturbed and dismayed by the eccentric attitudes of the foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, another enthusiastic rewriter of history. As though bent on destroying Brazil’s trade, Araujo has also made disparaging remarks about China, Brazil’s biggest trading partner, and China as a result has put on hold several important investments. More pragmatically, the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, has abandoned his campaign enthusiasm for Bolsonaro, and announced a series of cooperation agreements with China and the opening of a trade office in Shanghai.
Both Bolsonaro and Araujo have adopted a controversially subservient attitude to the USA, declaring that Donald Trump will ‘save the world from the communist threat’. On his recent visit to Washington, Bolsonaro claimed that his own election had saved Brazil from an imminent communist takeover. It’s not only reds under the beds for Bolsonaro, but reds at the ballot box too.
Bolsonaro’s disastrous touch in foreign policy has included Brazil’s neighbours Chile and Paraguay, where even their rightwing presidents, Sebastian Piñera and Mario Abdo Benitez were offended when he heaped praise on former dictators Pinochet and Stroessner.
Tweeting like Trump
Bolsonaro creates problems whenever he opens his mouth or takes to his twitter account to transmit fake news, insults and unfounded accusations against his ‘enemies’. He seems unable to understand that the behaviour of a president should be different from that of a candidate. He was filmed at a ministerial meeting, where everyone else wore a suit and tie, dressed in a Palmeiras soccer team shirt (which the press pointed out was a pirate version) and flip flops.
His twitter targets, like Trump’s, his model, are wide ranging. Even the official statistics institute, IBGE, became a target when it published data showing that 13 million Brazilians, or 12 per cent of the economically active are now unemployed. He accused the institute of using the wrong methodology, of not measuring reality. What that reality is was amply demonstrated when some jobs were offered in Sao Paulo last week, and hundreds of thousands of men and women queued day and night for a chance.
Pensions reform endangered
While diplomats, politicians, exporters and, of course, the opposition express anger and dismay at Bolsonaro’s fascination with banana skins, maybe the biggest danger to his continuation in power comes from the sector which last year hailed him as the man who would deliver radical pension reform, changing it from a social security system into a bank-friendly capitalization system, abandoning the poorest to an old age of destitution and penury.
The financial sector and the conservative media which campaigned for him now see their cherished reform threatened by the president’s disastrous handling of relations with congress, and newspapers have published scathing editorials on his incompetence.
Such was the displeasure among all parties at Bolsonaro’s branding attempts at negotiation as ‘old politics’ and whipping up virulent anti-politician anger on social media to please his fans and followers, that the Chamber of Deputies inflicted a resounding defeat on the government by passing at top speed, and by a large majority, a bill to loosen controls on government spending. Paulo Guedes, the economics superminister, seeing his cherished pensions bill being torpedoed by his own boss, has threatened to resign.
The other superminister, Justice Minister Sergio Moro, has also been forced to realise that his powers are limited by today’s equivalent of mob rule – social media. When he appointed a respected security expert to a committee, she was vetoed by the president after being attacked on his social media for her pro-disarmament position.
Spite and vengeance
Bolsonaro didn’t hesitate to use his presidential power to take revenge on the IBAMA inspector who fined him for illegal fishing in 2012. The inspector, with many years of unblemished service was punished for his temerity in upholding the law. Ricardo Salles, the environment minister who has never set foot in the Amazon, justified the decision, saying the fact that Bolsonaro had a fishing rod in his hand and was on the river, didn’t mean he was going fishing.
This habit of seeing laws, fiscalization and monitoring as a nuisance has now extended to banning the introduction of new speed cameras on federal highways. For Bolsonaro they are merely machines for making money by charging fines. He ignored the fact that in the first six years of their installation they helped to reduce road deaths by 25%.
As the sum of errors, absurdities, incompetence and disastrous decisions steadily mounts, increasingly the question is being asked, how long can this calamitous government be allowed to continue? For the PT governor of Bahia, Rui Costa, ‘If he insists with this agenda, eventually he will reach the limit of demoralization and ungovernability’.
How much longer?
If the point is reached when things get much worse ‘the conclusion could be reached that the country is no longer being governed. It’s not a debate about ideas. What we are debating is a void and a deepening of Brazil’s demoralization abroad.’
Opinion polls are reflecting a dramatic decline in Bolsonaro’s popularity, according to Ibope Inteligencia on 20 March. Thirty-four per cent consider his administration good, down from 49 per cent in January. The percentage of people who deem his government bad rose to to 24 per cent, from 11 per cent in January. This is worse than Cardoso, Lula or Dilma at the same stage of their first terms.
Bolsonaro himself, elected with the votes of 55 million Brazilians anxious for change, has failed to present a single project to improve their lives, to create jobs, to build more houses, to get the economy moving. Instead he declared that the presidency is an ‘abacaxi’ (pineapple), meaning a headache, a problem, a bore. Not an honour or a responsibility. From bananas to pineapples!
Meanwhile the vice president, general Hamilton Mourão continues in his self appointed role of fireman, travelling the country, talking to businessmen, ambassadors, politicians. Many think he is he preparing for the collapse of the Bolsonaro presidency.