On the rampage

President Jair Bolsonaro goes about trampling on the rights of indigenous communities, casting aside environmental laws and tinkering with the education system in order to “free” Brazil from the clutches of socialism.

Published : Jan 17, 2019 12:30 IST

Jair Bolsonaro and his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, after the swearing-in ceremony in Brasilia, on January 1.

Jair Bolsonaro and his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, after the swearing-in ceremony in Brasilia, on January 1.

Brazilians can expect a tumultuous new year after the swearing-in of its extreme right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, on January 1. Of the right-wing populist candidates who have won elections in Latin America in recent times, Bolsonaro is by far the most reactionary. On the campaign trail, he advocated giving the police and the army unfettered rights and railed against members of the LGBTQ community, coloured people, feminists and the indigenous communities of Brazil. Bolsonaro has been openly saying that he is a proud “homophobe”.

Bolsonaro also does not give a damn about Brazil’s rainforest, which is called the lungs of the world. He had promised to cast aside the strict environmental laws that have managed to protect a sizeable part of the Amazon from depredation by agriculturists, ranchers and miners. He had compared indigenous communities living in the Amazon to animals living in the zoo. Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, is also an unabashed supporter of the brutal military regime that ran Brazil for two decades since the mid 1960s.

In a speech delivered after he was sworn in, Bolsonaro was at his incendiary best. He said that his election signalled the freeing of Brazilians “from socialism”. Like his role model Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is known for shooting from the hip and cares little for facts or truth. Brazil has never had a socialist economy despite being under the rule of the left-wing Workers’ Party for much of the last decade and a half. It was corruption on a grand scale under a capitalist system that laid the groundwork for the emergence of a racist demagogue like Bolsonaro.

The polarised nature of Brazilian politics was evident as the Workers’ Party boycotted the inauguration ceremony. Among the prominent guests present were Mike Pompeo, the United States Secretary of State, and other right-wing leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Netanyahu was the first Israeli Prime Minister ever to visit Brazil. Bolsonaro has pledged to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Arab League has warned Brazil against making such a move. The only other major country that has done so is the U.S. The regional media have dubbed Bolsonaro “the Trump of the tropics”. Steve Bannon, Trump’s election strategist and “alt-right” leader of the global neofascist movement, advised Bolsonaro during his campaign.

Controversial appointments

Bolsonaro’s Cabinet is very much reflective of his ideological mindset. It comprises retired military men, big business representatives and right-wing ideologues. Most of his political appointees have very little political experience and administrative expertise. A significant number of the top officials he has appointed are from the military. Among his most controversial appointees is Sergio Moro, the so-called crusading judge who was responsible for the sentencing of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on what many Brazilians believe were trumped-up charges. Lula da Silva was comfortably ahead of Bolsonaro in the opinion polls in the run-up to the elections before he was arrested and barred from contesting.

One of the first decisions Bolsonaro took after being sworn in was to announce that the Ministry of Agriculture would henceforth be responsible for certifying land occupied by indigenous communities. Under previous administrations, the government-appointed National Indian Foundation protected the rights and lives of indigenous communities. The Ministry of Agriculture is dominated by people with vested interests who want the rights of the indigenous groups living in the Amazon forests to be further curtailed so that the interests of the powerful agricultural lobby are protected. Bolsonaro, defending his decision, which clearly goes against the spirit of the Constitution, said that it was unfair that the indigenous tribes and descendants of coloured slaves controlled 15 per cent of Brazil’s territory. Brazil was the last country in the region to abolish slavery. The Brazilian business elite views the indigenous communities as barriers to the expansion of agriculture and industry.

In 1998, after civilian rule was re-established, Brazil adopted a forward-looking Constitution which guaranteed the rights of the historically neglected minorities. Among the rights enshrined in the Constitution was the right of indigenous communities to administer areas that were inhabited by their forebears. As many as 436 territories were formally designated as autonomous indigenous land. Despite their special status, more than half of the protected territories were encroached on. Even during the three terms of the Workers’ Party government, the non-indigenous settlers could not be evicted. Under the previous military rule, much of the protected territories was encroached on by agriculturists and miners. Many indigenous communities were completely destroyed.

After trampling on the rights of the indigenous people, the new government announced that it was disbanding a division in the Education Ministry that dealt with issues relating to human rights and reforms aimed at giving disadvantaged communities better access to higher education. Bolsonaro has been accusing progressive Brazilian groups of using classrooms in public schools to indoctrinate students. Bolsonaro said that the changes he had set in motion were intended to make students become good citizens, not “Marxist militants”.

Bolsonaro indicated that he would loosen gun regulations by allowing Brazilians who did not have a police record to buy weapons. Brazil has a serious law-and-order problem, one of the worst in the world. There were 63,880 homicides recorded in the country in 2017. More than 5,000 people were killed in police encounters. A “good criminal is a dead criminal”, Bolsonaro used to say on the campaign trail. The Brazilian army, which has been deployed in Rio de Janeiro, the new President’s home State, has been on a shooting spree. Between March and September last year, 922 people were killed in the State. One-fourth of those killed died at the hands of the police or the armed forces. Soon after assuming office, Bolsonaro ordered the deployment of military police into the north-eastern State of Ceara, as criminal gangs went on the rampage.

Before assuming power, Bolsonaro, who wears his anti-socialist views on his sleeve, said that his government would take action against the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. John Bolton, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, visited Brasilia to meet Bolsonaro in November 2018 after his victory in the election. Bolton told the media that Bolsonaro’s victory would help the U.S. in its efforts to isolate the progressive governments in the region such as the ones in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. The Lima Group, which consists of 15 countries in the region having governments friendly to Washington, in a meeting held in the first week of January, issued a statement demanding the immediate resignation of Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan President who is to be sworn in for his second term in office shortly. Brazil, a member of the Lima Group, was in the forefront in raising this demand. Mexico, another member which has a centre-left government, however, rejected the demand and cautioned other countries in the region against interfering in the internal affairs of Venezuela.

Deteriorating relations with Cuba

Relations with Cuba had deteriorated even before Bolsonaro was formally sworn in as President. The President-elect had said that he could go to the extent of severing diplomatic relations with Cuba. He also made derogatory comments about Cuban medical professionals working among the poor and downtrodden in remote areas of Brazil. Cuba started deploying doctors in Brazil in 2013 following a request from the Brazilian government, headed at the time by President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party. It was part of the government’s “More Doctors” programme and had become popular in the region and in many other developing countries.

Cuba’s participation in the programme was made possible through the auspices of the Pan-American Health Organisation. Almost 60 million Brazilians who had never had access to a doctor before benefited from the programme. The Cuban professionals filled a void in the country’s health care system. For the first time, entire communities that were situated far away from hospitals and metropolitan areas could access affordable medical care. Most of the Cuban doctors worked in areas affected by extreme poverty and among indigenous people.

Bolsonaro has been critical of the “More Doctors” programme from the outset and questioned the professional expertise of the Cuban doctors. He demanded that their credentials should be vetted by a Brazilian government-appointed medical board. He also said that the Cuban doctors should be allowed to keep their entire salaries. Under the agreement with the Brazilian government, the hard currency-starved Cuban government keeps a portion of the doctors’ salaries. Cuban doctors currently work in more than 67 countries and have been at the forefront of disaster relief management in countries struck by natural disasters. Cuban doctors were among the first to reach areas in Central Africa hit by the ebola epidemic.

The Cuban government withdrew its medical contingent from Brazil even before Bolsonaro was sworn in. The Cuban Health Ministry accused Bolsonaro of making “derogatory and threatening” comments and questioning the “dignity, professionalism and altruism” of the doctors. As many as 8,000 of the 18,000 doctors currently employed under the “More Doctors” programme are Cuban. The Ministry has stated that in the past five years, 20,000 Cuban doctors have worked in Brazil, treating more than 113 million patients. More than 700 municipalities saw the services of a medical doctor for the first time. A former Brazilian Health Minister, Alexandre Padilha, said that the withdrawal of the Cuban medical teams was “a sad day for Brazilian health and foreign policy”.

The Trump administration has started exerting greater influence on Brazil’s foreign policy. The new Brazilian President said that he had no objections to the U.S. setting up a military base in Brazil and that he was willing to partner Trump in fighting the Left in the continent and curbing the growing Chinese economic influence in the region. He has announced restrictions on Chinese investments in infrastructure and other strategic sectors.

Bolsonaro’s Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araujo, made it clear that his first priority was to further strengthen ties with the U.S. He had earlier hailed Trump for saving Western civilisation from “radical Islam” and “cultural Marxism”. Brazil will likely keep a low profile in organisations such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping. It was formed to fight U.S. hegemony and to find alternative trade partnerships and financing mechanisms. Brazil will be chairing this year’s BRICS summit. Now there are two right-wing leaders in the BRICS grouping. BRICS survived four years of Narendra Modi at the helm in India. It could limp along with the additional baggage of Bolsonaro for another five years.

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