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The Mad Hatter’s tea-party: Bolsonaro chooses his cabinet which the generals seem the most pragmatic


São Paulo, 3 December:  During the election campaign, president-elect Jair Bolsonaro boasted he would pare the number of cabinet ministers down from its present total of 29 to a mere 15, but he has been overtaken by reality and the number is 22 and counting. The new government includes generals (and an admiral), Cold War warriors, climate deniers and Chicago boys.  Add to the mix the three Bolsonaro sons, Flavio, Eduardo and Carlos, who, although elected on their father’s coat tails, respectively senator, federal deputy and municipal councillor, behave more like the arrogant children of an absolute monarch, making policy pronouncements and holding meetings with foreign officials. And  the evangelicals, who want to turn the clock back to the Old Testament, and you end up with a sort of Mad Hatters’ Tea Party. 
Ernesto Araújo, with Bolsonaro. Image: Guardian website
The Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo,  thinks globalization is an anti-christian, Marxist plot and climate change a Chinese conspiracy. The Education Minister, an ageing Colombian called Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, thinks the priority in Brazil’s schools is to stop teachers teaching children to be homosexual – not teachers’ pay, student drop-out, or an out of date curriculum.  The Culture Minister laughingly says he knows nothing about culture but he can play the berimbau[1].
Various commentaries on the appointment of Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez as education minister, from the Globo TV programme Em Pauta. The maverick right-wing ‘guru’ Olavo de Carvalho has claimed that he recommended Vélez to Bolsonaro. But the consequences of this mix of ignorance, ultra right-wing ideology and arrogance are no laughing matter.  The Labour Ministry, home to inspectors of working conditions and investigators of slave labour, is to be broken up and divided among other ministries, bringing to an end over 80 years of defending labour rights. And Bolsonaro’s irresponsible remarks have already created victims, depriving many of Brazil’s poorest and most remote towns and villages of healthcare, after he criticised the Cuban doctors of the Mais Médicos programme, and accused Havana of retaining and profiting from their pay. In response the Cuban government ordered its doctors to return immediately to Cuba, leaving the programme short of 8,500 professionals. The Health Ministry downplayed the problem and opened up the programme to  more Brazilian doctors, but almost none of those who applied want to work in the places where they are most needed, like indigenous areas. In addition many came from Family Health programmes, attracted by higher salaries, leaving those programmes in turn short of staff.
Video: RedeTV Ironically Bolsonaro, having deprived many indigenous areas of the only doctors who wanted to work in them, then declared that ‘Indians don’t want to live in reserves like animals in zoos.  They want doctors, dentists…’  In a clear indication of his plans to reduce or abolish indigenous reserves, he said that the Yanomami area, with only 9,000 indians,  is larger than the city of Rio with its millions of inhabitants. The fact that the overall population density in Roraima, a large state with a tiny population, is totally different from a densely populated metropolis,  is deliberately ignored, as is the fact that the Yanomami area was  officially demarcated 26 years ago, and is protected, like all indigenous territories, by the constitution.

Goodbye world

The president-elect has also resuscitated the spectre of the so-called Triple A plan – a project, proposed  by the Colombian branch of the Gaia Foundation several years ago and endorsed by the previous Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, to create a wide ecological corridor running from the Andes to the Atlantic, through   the Amazon rainforest. The plan came to nothing, but Bolsonaro claimed it would be enforced on Brazil by the Paris Agreement, once again, a lá Trump, using a non-existent fact  to justify leaving the climate change agreement.   At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires French president Emmanuel Macron warned that he will not do business with countries that are not in the Paris accord.  Bolsonaro, however, wasted no time in torpedoing Brazil’s decision to host the COP25 climate talks in Brasilia next year, forcing President Temer, who had issued the invitation, to justify the abrupt change of attitude. ‘Financial constraints’ were offered as the reason for cancellation, although the sum needed had already been authorized by congress. There are some serious names in the government, though they seem eerily reminiscent of the dictatorship days. Roberto Campos Neto will be chairman of the Central Bank, and  Roberto Castello Branco chairman of  Petrobras. Among the four generals who will become ministers, most have experience of commanding Brazil’s peacekeeping force in Haiti, though whether that will be of much use in negotiating with Congress – the role allocated to one of them – is debatable. Compared to other members of the new government, the generals seem models of moderation and pragmatism. Altogether there are seven military officers in the cabinet, or a third of the total.

Hail to the Chief

It’s hard to believe that these military men approved of  their president-elect greeting walrus-moustached US Defence secretary John Bolton with a military salute, when he arrived in Rio to pay him a visit; or of the Bolsonaro family’s open adulation of Donald Trump; still less of the uncritical embracing of  US foreign policy, including moving the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – despite the inevitable damage this will cause to exports to Arab countries. The US, of course, wants to wean Brazil away from China, its biggest trading partner, but what is it offering in return, apart from the Machiavellian services of Steve Bannon?
[1] A single-stringed percussion instrument typically used in capoeira

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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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