“I come before the nation today, a day in which the people have rid themselves of socialism, of inversion of values, of statism and political correctness,” the former army officer said in his inauguration speech. Hours later, the first tremors of change were felt from Brasilia, the nation’s capital, as Bolsonaro signed a decree granting farmers eager to access protected lands the authority to decide which indigenous territories merit recognition by the federal government, a move widely expected to increase logging in the Amazon.
Bolsonaro’s speedy moves to reward the base that got him elected — enacting populist policies through executive orders, at little political cost — recall the early days of President Trump’s tenure.
Trump also vowed a litany of moves on Day 1 of his presidency, including a federal hiring freeze and withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Some of those promises were left for later or abandoned, but the president made headlines by signing a number of orders and directives that signaled to his base that he meant business.
Similarly, Bolsonaro has made a showy flourish of his first days and signaled even bolder acts to come. The new president plans to loosen restrictions on gun ownership, cut the number of government employees by 30 percent and shut down the agency responsible for diversity in the Education Ministry.
In Brasilia, where the leftist Workers’ Party governed for 14 years, men on scaffolds this week slowly removed the letters on the sign of the now extinct Labor Ministry.
The scene was surreal in a country once hailed as a bastion of the global left. But much has changed since Brazil’s most popular president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, left office with an 87 percent approval rating eight years ago. The country sank into its worst-ever recession, a corruption investigation decimated its political class and a crime wave led to record homicides. Lula now leads a disorganized and dispirited opposition from jail, where he is serving 12 years for corruption.
The result was an outpouring of popular anger that catapulted Bolsonaro to the presidency. And the swing to the right he promised in response appears set to be the sharpest Brazil has seen since the end of its military dictatorship almost 35 years ago.
“It is the other face of radicalization, the other side of the Workers’ Party,” said Marcelo Kfoury Muinhos, an economics professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro and Trump have expressed mutual admiration. But the tie may have significant limits. Bolsonaro is likely to back Trump on some global and regional issues, such as climate change and Venezuela.
However, he is unlikely to fully embrace other causes that hold more risk for Brazil, particularly the U.S.-led campaign to pressure China on trade policy.
In a television interview this week, Bolsonaro said he would be open to discussing establishing U.S. military bases in Brazil to contain Russian interference in Venezuela. Just a decade ago, by contrast, Lula sought to foster regional independence from the United States by building out organizations like the Southern Common Market, the South American trade bloc known as Mercosul, and the New Development Bank
“Count me as one of the skeptics that this going to amount to more than theater and rhetoric,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C.-based think tank. “They may do a lot of posturing and grandstanding together that will make them feel good and tough and like powerful guys. But what does that amount to in the end? I don’t know that this is the kind of romance that leads to anything concrete.”
Bolsonaro’s finance minister, Paulo Guedes, a libertarian and University of Chicago-educated economist, said he plans on undoing 40 years of bad investments and statism in four years of government. That could mean enacting significant cuts to the country’s budget and pension system — cuts that economists say are needed to pull Brazil out of recession. Investors lauded the plan and the Sao Paulo stock market closed at a record high on the news.
But delivering on the broader anti-corruption and economic reforms Bolsonaro has pledged will take more than the stroke of a pen. He will need broad support from Congress to deliver on promises such as shrinking Brazil’s budget and selling off government assets.
Yet with the left in disarray, even Bolsonaro’s more controversial reforms may get the green light. His once-fringe Social Liberal Party won the second-highest number of seats in the lower house and struck a deal this week expected to unite center-right and center parties on its platform.
To be sure, some of Bolsonaro’s more extreme campaign promises on security, like giving police officers license to kill on the job without being prosecuted, face stiff opposition and would prove nearly impossible to implement. But by simply giving such ideas airtime, analysts say, he is amplifying their power nationally. Police violence in Rio de Janeiro, for example, spiked 38 percent last year when Bolsonaro’s campaign was in full gear.
“Everything Bolsonaro has said about security would face huge institutional barriers for implementation,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, “but his simple presence in the presidency — having a president who delivers this kind of discourse — could lead to more violence by officers who feel protected not just by the president, but by society as a whole.”
Faiola reported from Miami.