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The tough job of Brazil’s vice president

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro marked 100 days in office last week. A far-right firebrand and former army captain, Bolsonaro emerged from the fringes of the National Congress to sweep presidential elections in 2018, riding a wave of popular disenchantment with the country’s sagging economy and its widely reviled political establishment. But he has struggled in his first months on the job.

A controversial restructuring of the country’s pensions system, as well as other measures to curb corruption and crime, hit legislative roadblocks. Bolsonaro, who is recovering from an assassination attempt that nearly killed him last year, suffered health setbacks following a third surgery related to the incident, keeping him for an extended period in the hospital and on orders not to even speak. At home, members of Bolsonaro’s family were implicated in a series of ongoing investigations, which include allegations of suspicious kickbacks and ties to paramilitary gangs in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a troubling development for a president who staked his political legitimacy on a supposedly squeaky-clean record. Polls show that support from Brazilian evangelical voters — a key plank of his base — is starting to slip.

Through it all, the notoriously brash Bolsonaro has stuck to his rhetorical guns, coloring the early days of his presidency with a slew of incendiary remarks. Last month, to the chagrin of many, he moved to honor a 1964 military coup that ushered in two decades of brutal dictatorship. During Brazil’s Carnival he circulated a pornographic video on his Twitter account, in a misfiring attempt to attack the left and stoke outrage toward LGBTQ Brazilians.

On a visit to Israel this month, he declared Nazism to be a leftist creed, a claim that historians reject outright but one that fits Bolsonaro’s political posturing. To compound the matter, in an address to evangelical pastors in Rio on Thursday night, Bolsonaro said that one could “forgive” the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but not “forget” its horrors. The remarks earned swift repudiation from Israel’s president and the country’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, while critics pointed to earlier occasions when Bolsonaro had dabbled in a kind of Nazi apologia.

These apparent gaffes may reflect the missteps of a new president habituating himself to power. But they also reflect a stubbornly ideological streak coursing through the Bolsonaro presidency. Analysts point to the president’s embrace of a broader far-right, nationalist zeitgeist, one that’s amplified by a clique of supporters around him, including Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, who subscribe to a similar “antiglobalist” worldview.

But not everyone in Bolsonaro’s circle is on the same page. Most notably, Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, in the United States on a diplomatic visit, and Vice President Hamilton Mourão, have attempted to steer governance along a more “normal” track and have gently pushed back against Bolsonaro in the news media. “They are not a monolith, but they generally favor a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, noting for example that China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner,” wrote Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly about the cabinet officials in Mourão’s camp. “Many couldn’t care less about the social issues — ‘gender ideology,’ ‘cultural Marxism’ and so on — that tend to animate Bolsonaro’s hard core base.”

Speaking to Today’s WorldView last week during an official visit to Washington, Mourão sought to play down the significance of his president’s words.

“Sometimes he has some hard expressions,” Mourão said of Bolsonaro, adding that the comment in Israel on Nazism and the left was perhaps made so that Araújo — who had originally made the claim — “did not feel alone.” Mourão contended that Bolsonaro probably “doesn’t fully believe” the line he seemed to endorse.

“I think he wanted to make a point, and maybe he went in a wrong direction,” Mourão said. “But these are things of the past. We have to understand that in this new world that we’re living in, these questions of right and left must be left behind.”

Mourão, a retired four-star general, was not keen to look backward. Bolsonaro’s fondness for the 1964 coup, Mourão said, was simply about “history” and satisfying some members of his base who may have nostalgia for that era. But he said the new Brazilian government was “marching in a good way” toward the implementation of its desired changes, including the pension and public security bills held up in Congress, as well as plans toward further deregulation of the Brazilian economy.

Far from the heated nationalism that characterized Bolsonaro’s election campaign — and the soft bigotry toward minorities, indigenous groups and other vulnerable communities that shaped much of Bolsonaro’s political career — Mourão insisted that the true creed of the Bolsonaro administration is “liberalism.” That is, he claimed, a set of democratic values at odds with those “who believe the state should intervene in the markets.”

Bolsonaro is “under the constitution, and he fully respects our institutions,” Mourão said. “He’s a politician and understands very well that as president he’s president of all Brazilians, those who voted for him and those who didn’t.”

Despite his conciliatory pose, the vice president has grown quite accustomed to checking his boss. In February, he called on the president to rein in his sons, outspoken politicians in their own right who have courted ties with far-right figures such as former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon and are particularly active on social media. After Bolsonaro celebrated the departure of Jean Wyllys, a prominent LGBT congressman who left the country out of security fears, Mourão said that the threats faced by Wyllys constituted “a crime against democracy.”

When Bolsonaro toured Israel and floated the possibility of moving the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, Mourão met with the Palestinian ambassador in Brazil to offer assurances that it might not happen. While Bolsonaro, possibly in a fit of Trumpist pique, has so far shunned China, Mourão has plans to visit China next month and told Today’s WorldView that Brazil “can’t run away” from a market that may soon eclipse Europe. And even though Bolsonaro has refused to rule out backing a possible U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, his vice president was more categorical in his rejection of the idea.

“A classic invasion of Venezuela to overthrow [President Nicolás] Maduro — I don’t see this as a solution,” Mourão said. “Because we know how it’s going to begin, but we don’t know how it’s going to end.”

Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro’s backers aren’t especially pleased with the role played by Mourão. “Everyone is pissed off at Mourão, who has turned out to be a real pain in the a--, as well as a media hog,” Gerald Brant, a New York-based hedge-fund executive and a friend of the Bolsonaros, told the New Yorker last month.

But Mourão — who on the campaign trail was seen as even more of a hard-liner than Bolsonaro — shrugs at the suggestion that he is a “moderating” influence on the presidency. “We were elected to govern for the whole of Brazil. We do politics by dialogue,” he said. “I don’t think this is moderation. This is just good politics.”

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