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Bolsonaro: is there method in his madness?

Is the machine-gun rhetoric a deliberate ploy to divert attention from Brazil's real problems?



11 August 2019, São Paulo.

Each day the list of outrageous, insulting, untruthful comments by the president grows longer as President Jair Bolsonaro takes aim at scientists, environmentalists,  lawyers, foreigners, gays, indians, civil servants, anyone who crosses his sights, while at the same time declaring his ‘passionate’ love for Donald Trump.  Murdered political activists are insulted, dead torturers are praised. 

But is there a method behind his revolving rhetorical machine gun as it targets anyone or any question that happens to attract his attention? Are these all deliberate red herrings to arouse revolt and indignation and monopolize the news cycle, just like  Donald Trump in the United States with his daily dose of dawn tweets?

Bolsonaro says he is just being himself, he has no strategy. It is true he has no strategy to deal with Brazil’s massive unemployment, huge housing deficit, spreading epidemics of treatable diseases, soaring murder rates, and the brutalities  of organised crime. Nor does he seem to care about these issues, as he never mentions them.

But some of his  apparently spontaneous remarks have serious consequences. For example, when INPE, Brazil’s internationally recognised space research institute, produced numbers showing sharply rising Amazon deforestation, Bolsonaro declared they were wrong and attacked INPE director Ricardo Galvão, a scientist of international repute,  accusing him of being ‘in the pay of an NGO’ and working against the interests of Brazil. Galvão was forced out of his post and replaced by an army colonel.

Video describing Ricardo Galvão’s long and distinguished career with INPE. Video produced by a parternship between LAbI, CDMF and Sociedade Brasileira de Física, August 2019.

Bolsonaro’s next target was the president of the OAB, the Brazilian Bar Association, because the OAB had criticised the government’s attempt to access the mobile phone data of a lawyer. The lawyer in question was defending the man who made an assassination attempt on Bolsonaro during the presidential campaign in September last year.

In revenge, Bolsonaro casually denigrated the memory of the OAB president’s father, Fernando Santa Cruz, who during the dictatorship was a student leader and member of a left-wing clandestine organisation called Ação Popular. Santa Cruz is one of Brazil’s 400 or so disappeared political prisoners. Bolsonaro said if the son, Felipe Santa Cruz, wanted to know what really happened to his father he could tell him. But an official document issued by the state Commission for the Dead and Disappeared said that Fernando Santa Cruz had been detained  in Rio in February 1974 and died as a result of violence  at the hands of  state agents. This finding did not please Bolsonaro who ordered most of the members of this Commission, made up of prosecutors and lawyers, to be replaced by retired military officers, including at least one who denies there ever was a dictatorship.

Bolsonaro speaks about the President of the OAB. Video: SBT Jornalismo, 29 July 2019.

Reality, Bolsonaro-style

Some 62 prisoners murdered, some decapitated, in a prison in Altamira? ‘Ask these people’s victims what they think,’ says the President. Over a third of the prisoners were on remand and had not been tried.  

The killing of an indigenous leader of the Waimpi in Amapá and invasion of their land by garimpeiros? – he doesn’t believe it.

Hunger? It doesn’t exist here because he’s never seen any skeletal people in Brazil.

Slave labour? The law which provides for the confiscation of the land of a farmer found using slave labour is ‘absurd’ because it means he can lose his land ‘if the mattresses he provides for his workers are too thin’. This is not only not true, but Bolsonaro ignores the real reasons – subhuman conditions, like lack of drinking water, food, sanitation, payment and debt bondage.  

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The president was cross with Ancine, the state film agency, when it financed a raunchy film called ‘Bruna Surfistinha’ – Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl – so he attacked the agency, threatened to transfer it to presidential control in Brasilia, and to install ‘filters’ (censorship) on which films were going to be financed.

Official trailer: Bruna Surfinista

His ministers are equally outrageous, and in the case of Damares Alves, downright ridiculous. She blamed the high number of rapes on the Ilha de Marajó, on the lack of calçinhas ( knickers). The solution? Build an underwear factory on the island. 

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles decided to transfer Brazil’s top oceanographer Jose Martins, from Fernando de Noronha, where he has lived for 30 years studying dolphins, to a post in the Pernambuco sertão (wilderness), apparently in revenge for his criticisms of the minister’s plan to increase tourism to the island.  Salles also questioned the INPE figures on deforestation and announced  he would hire a private firm, paid by the Ministry, which apparently has no money to spend on regulation, to provide better data.

Bolsonaro has also decided to appoint his own son to Brazilian diplomacy’s top job,  ambassador to the US, because the two top families get on very well. Trump, who has given jobs to several of his own children in the White House, though not yet as ambassador, welcomed the move, declaring Eduardo Bolsonaro to be a genius. From the US point of view, to deal with an ambassador who knows nothing about diplomacy, treaties, international relations or even Brazilian history, and who declares his admiration for the United States at every turn, might be a definite  advantage.

Justifying his choice, Bolsonaro thought nothing of insulting all the recent ambassadors to the US, of all parties, who he said, ‘had achieved nothing’. These  diplomats, politically from both right and left, came together to criticise the policies of Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, who thinks global warming is a Marxist plot. In revenge Araujo banned Itamarati (the Brazilian foreign ministry) from publishing the biography of a well known former diplomat because the foreword was written by Rubens Ricupero, one of these former ambassadors.

Bolsonaro deliberately insulted the French foreign minister, who had arranged a meeting with him in Brasilia, by failing to turn up and being  filmed instead having his hair cut and then declaring that there had a been a diary conflict. The minister, interviewed in France afterwards, was ironic: the meeting had been cancelled, he said, because of Bolsonaro’s ‘hair emergency’.

Bolsonaro’s ‘hair emergency’ Photo from Facebook

But reactions to the Bolsonaro litany of insults, revenge, hatred and lies is mounting.

All nine  governors of Northeast states issued a joint statement rejecting his derogatory references to them, because most were elected by left-wing parties. It  was discovered that federal funding for the region has been drastically reduced.

Then the nine governors of the Amazon region, most of whom were elected by  centre and right-wing parties, issued a joint statement defending INPE’s figures and demanding action on deforestation in their states.

Judge Celso de Mello, the  Supreme Court’s senior minister, strongly attacked the president, accusing him of a carrying out a ‘dangerous attack on the constitution’  by re-editing a bill which had already been rejected by congress. The bill in question transfers  responsibility for the demarcation of indigenous lands from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, to be administered by a department run by ruralistas (farmers and agribusiness). Under the law, a bill already rejected cannot be re-presented during the same legislative period. ‘Nobody, absolutely nobody, is above the Constitution,’ declared Celso de Mello in ringing tones.

The method in the madness

The question remains as to how long will Jair Bolsonaro abide by the constitution? He has made it clear that he governs not for the Brazilian population as a whole, but for the 30 per cent who follow him, and believe in his fake news, on social media. Anyone who contests or criticises him is ruthlessly insulted, smeared and trampled underfoot. He has a problem with the truth.

This is the method in his madness: the constant bombardment of lies and distortions, which occupy the media, serve to hide the real drama in Brazil: 13 million unemployed, no money for housing, cuts to education, no plan or project for the country’s future. The approval of the Pensions Bill was supposed to unleash investment and better days, the Mercosul-European Union agreement was supposed to kick of a cycle of prosperity, but instead the unreliable performance of Brazil’s president and his anti-environmental policies that threaten the very survival of the Amazon have left other countries wary. Germany has just announced it is suspending some of the funds it contributes to the Amazon Fund. 

Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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