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Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Will the Bite Match the Bark?

After Jair Bolsonaro’s big win in Brazil, Altamar confronts the question everyone is asking: what’s next? Some of his most notorious campaign proposals may be stymied by Brazil’s powerful Congress, but radical rhetoric combined with political gridlock can prove just as damaging.

The threat of bloodshed, anti-democratic rule, and retrograde social policy remains real when right-wing populist and strongman personality Jair Bolsonaro is sworn in on January 1st, 2019 as the president of Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country and eighth largest economy.

But clashing interests could also prove a recipe for stagnation. Bolsonaro is surrounded by economists that want privatization and industrialists that want protection. Reformers for deep change and military pensioners that don’t want to give up a single real. Evangelicals for new foreign policy and agricultural interests that don’t want to rock the boat for Brazilian exports.

Brazil cannot afford stagnation amid a sluggish economy, violent crime, rampant corruption, lackluster education, and non-existent infrastructure.

To understand what really is happening and what path Bolsonaro will take on a variety of issues, we welcome Thiago de Aragão, to lend a hand. Thiago, a political risk expert, columnist, and fellow at the Institute of the Americas in San Diego and French think tank IRIS, explains why Bolsonaro’s government “will be a lot of barks and very few bites.”

Bolsonaro’s power to push through his agenda will be checked by Congress. “In Brazil, the Parliament is stronger than the Executive. We function in a parliamentary system disguised as a presidential system,” says Thiago. This could also spell trouble for needed structural changes, including pension reform.

It will also be tough to cast off over two centuries of Big Government. “Brazilians love the State. We are an invention of the State. Everyone in Brazil, whether they claim they are or not, is center-left,” he says.

Bolsonaro will also have difficulty overriding the power of Brazil’s individual states. That could mitigate indiscriminate and illegal crackdowns on crime. As Thiago de Aragão points out, “We haven’t seen a plan to increase the power of the federal government in fighting crime, because right now the power for fighting crime lies with the states.”

Thiago says the new president might be susceptible to persuasion. When famous Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen wrote him opposing the merger of the agriculture and environment ministries, he reversed course. “He has at least given a glimpse that public pressure might make him back a down a little bit in certain ideas.”

And when it comes to Bolsonaro’s “Brazil First” foreign policy, “Bolsonaro can have a strong narrative against China, but he has very little ground to move anything similar to what Trump did. We depend on China a lot for our trade.”

Thiago thinks that Bolsonaro’s government “will be a center-right administration… He’s going to be closer to Trump, who uses a lot of narrative, than to Duterte, who does direct public policies that are extreme right.”

But that’s not to say that power of narrative isn’t real. “When you have a president that has a very controversial, direct and sometimes very aggressive narrative against any group, although this doesn’t necessarily transform into public policies, this empowers the local idiot, the local individual in any city, to start acting, to feel empowered by that narrative. And this is dangerous,” says Thiago.

But the real fears, he says, should be “inefficiency, lack of accomplishment, and not being able to approve the structural reform that we need.”

Listen now to our analysis of what Brazilians and the world can expect from Bolsonaro – available for download and streaming.

(Image via Wikimedia)


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Episode 33