The Schizophrenic Presidency

Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The word that has become popular to describe Jair Bolsonaro’s government is “schizophrenic.” It stems from the many interests that Bolsonaro appealed to during his presidential campaign and which now form groupings within his government. Some of the salient ones are the military, economic liberals, agribusiness and the so-called anti-globalists. These groups’ interests showed themselves to be contradictory once the presidency was secured.

The anti-globalist agenda in particular is at odds with the political prudence of the others. The anti-globalist rhetoric portrays the international political regime as imposing “cultural marxism” on Brazil. This perspective is represented by the foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who wrote in an article shortly before taking office that he would remove ideology from Brazil’s foreign policy, pointing to the “Marxist ideology” of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) that in his view is being propagated by academics and the media.

One of the items on Araújo’s agenda was the move of Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the lead of US President Trump and Bolsonaro’s evangelical supporters. The military figures within the government viewed the initiative with skepticism, seeing the alienation of Middle Eastern powers and Palestinian factions as creating threats to Brazil where none previously existed while gaining little in return. In the end, Bolsonaro desisted from moving the embassy and settled for a trade office in Jerusalem.

Severals spats have occurred between military government figures and Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian philosopher living in the US who is seen as the ideological guru of the Brazilian anti-globalists and is influential with Bolsonaro and his family. Olavo has suggested a number of names that Bolsonaro ended up nominating for important positions, such as the Minister of Education. The philosopher — known for his liberal use of swearwords and proclivity for conspiracy theories — criticized harshly officials such as the vice-president, general Hamilton Mourão, and the former chief minister of the Government Secretariat, general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, using descriptions such as “stupid,” “idiot” and “a bunch of shit.” Both generals had criticized his works and polemic behavior, seeing him as a vulgar man of little consequence who constantly resorts to vitriol. Santos Cruz was replaced by another general, Luiz Eduardo Ramos. He said that he was not told the reason for his dismissal.

The military wing of the government was also against intervention in Venezuela beyond humanitarian aid, after analyzing Maduro’s support among the population as weak but strong within the armed forces. Bolsonaro saw as unlikely Brazil taking part in a military intervention, but did not discard the option. The generals have overall opted for a more prudent and subtle approach than the confrontational language used by their president.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was another item on Bolsonaro’s and Foreign Minister Araújo’s agenda. It met with resistance from the agribusiness sector, which feared that it would damage the international image of Brazil’s agricultural production and undermine exports. “Those who want to exit the agreement never exported anything,” the executive director of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association told the newspaper Estado de S.Paulo in January. The EU exerted additional pressure on Brazil to adhere to the Paris Agreement as part of the trade negotiations with Mercosul, whose full members include Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela was suspended from the trade bloc in December 2016 for violating democratic norms and human rights.

Brazil’s renewed effort to sign the trade agreement between Mercosul and the EU is part of the Bolsonaro government’s goal to liberalize the country’s economy and open up its markets to international trade, a vision primarily represented by Paulo Guedes, the Minister of Economy who received his Ph.D. from Chicago University where he was taught by Milton Friedman. Such a vision was supported by President Bolsonaro during his campaign but seemed to clash with his anti-globalist rhetoric aligned with that of his close ally Donald Trump. Foreign Minister Araújo defined “globalism” on his blog as “the economic globalism that has come to be driven by cultural marxism,” calling it “anti-human” and “anti-Christian.”

Bolsonaro signed a decree in May liberalizing access to guns, a cause he had long championed, that was opposed by the Evangelical caucus in another clash between allies. Evangelicals supported Bolsonaro during his campaign and the caucus holds a total of 195 seats in the Câmara dos Deputados, the lower chamber of Congress to which a total of 513 deputies are elected. Some of the caucus’s deputies said after the signing that they were articulating projects to revoke the decree, which the government saw as a potential threat. A bill to make the gun liberalization into law is currently under consideration in the Câmara dos Deputados.

The pension reform is generally considered one of the president’s few successes so far, having passed two voting sessions in the Câmara dos Deputados and now awaiting the Senate vote. But it was the speaker of the Câmara, Rodrigo Maia, and not Bolsonaro who was declared the protagonist in the effort to get the constitutional amendment through.

Many said that Maia managed to pass the amendment despite the president, rather than with his support. Members of Congress, including from the president’s party, have complained about Bolsonaro’s lacking dialog with them throughout the process. The president tended to distract from the reform, preferring to polemicize on social media or focus on other matters.

Bolsonaro at one time entered Congress amid deliberations over the pension reform to personally present a bill increasing the number of infractions allowed before a driver’s license is revoked. The bill was a response to demands from large mobilizations of truck drivers who supported Bolsonaro in the election. The timing irritated many of the deputies present, who saw it as an interruption of something far more consequential.

The trade agreement with the EU is seen as the government’s second achievement. The agreement had been under negotiation for 20 years but received a spur with the ideological change of the Brazilian government. It still needs to be ratified by the parliaments, which can be tough with the likely win of the Peronists Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner in the upcoming Argentinian election.

Bolsonaro is already on bad terms with the probable next president of Argentina, having said earlier this month that the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul could become like Roraima if Fernández wins. Roraima is a Brazilian state that has received an increased influx of immigrants from neighboring Venezuela, although far less than Spanish-speaking countries such as Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

The Brazilian president has not missed a chance to insult the leadership of France, Germany and Norway after criticisms of the rapidly increasing deforestation of the Amazon forest under Bolsonaro’s government. He canceled a visit with the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, when he was in Brazil last month. The French minister’s Brazilian counterpart explained that there had been scheduling problems. Bolsonaro then appeared in a live video on social media getting his hair cut just minutes after when the canceled meeting was supposed to have ended. He later questioned why the French minister had wanted to speak with environmental NGOs during his visit: “When you speak about NGOs, already an alarm signal goes off.”

Le Drian said that France will take “the time necessary” to evaluate the trade agreement with Mercosul when questioned about the rising deforestation under Bolsonaro’s mandate. Norway announced on August 15 that it would withhold 300 million Norwegian kroner (about USD 33.4 million) in money transfers to the Amazon Fund.

The implementation of the EU-Mercosul agreement, once lauded in Brazilian media, now appears less likely. The pension reform has come far but has been watered down along the way. The equal treatment originally promised by Bolsonaro was abandoned in favor of special treatment for the military corporation from which he himself stems, as a former member of the Armed Forces. The reform still has to pass through the Senate where the president has another pressing concern to spend his political capital on: getting his 35-year old son approved as ambassador to the United States, arguably the most coveted post in the foreign service.

With sinking approval ratings, Bolsonaro will have to balance the interests within his government, build a stronger coalition in Congress, and decide what his priorities are. He will not get far with a schizophrenic agenda where the goals contradict themselves.