On October 28, Jair Bolsonaro’s decisive victory shifted Brazil to the right when he broke the Workers’ Party electoral winning streak. A pro-gun former army captain and Social Liberal Party (PSL) congressman, he won with pledges to crack down on crime and corruption, a rejection of the status quo, and nostalgia for the country’s military rule.
Before taking office, Bolsonaro signaled what’s to come by selecting key members of his cabinet, including Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro for the Justice Ministry, University of Chicago-trained Paulo Guedes for the Economy Ministry, and an evangelical pastor to head the Women, Family, and Human Rights Ministry, Damares Alves. Bolsonaro’s cabinet contains the largest number of former members of the military since the country’s return to democracy.
AS/COA Online tracks the first 100 days of the Bolsonaro presidency, with regular updates of the big stories defining the new government’s path in Latin America’s largest country.
Note: This article was initially published on January 4, 2019. It has been updated as news becomes available.
Bolsonaro delivered on a campaign promise Tuesday when he signed a decree easing restrictions on gun possession in Brazil. Citing a 2005 referendum in which Brazilians rejected forbidding gun sales, the president said that he was taking the step to “guarantee people’s rights to self-defense.”
The decree modifies Brazil’s Disarmament Statute, passed in 2003. The law established rules for gun purchases, with 25 as the minimum age to have a license. It prohibited civilians from carrying guns, requiring authorized gun owners—such as members of law enforcement—to prove why they need them outside their homes. The legislation also established a national gun registry with periodic license renewal. One year after the statute, the murder rate in Brazil dropped by 8 percent and studies show the average growth of violent deaths in the country fell considerably.
Now, the decree modifies the statute to allow civilians who live in rural areas and violent cities to own a gun and keep it in their homes or business they own. It increases the period for a gun license from 5 to 10 years and forgives expired licenses.
Citizens still face restrictions and psychological tests, but there is no longer a requirement to prove the need for a gun. People living in cities with murder rates higher than 10 per 100,000 people are now allowed to buy up to four firearms. All states in Brazil surpass that murder rate.
A group of Brazilian legislators called the “bullet caucus” joined Bolsonaro when he signed the decree. Congress already took steps to ease gun ownership in recent years, but, during his campaign, Bolsonaro framed loosened gun control as a measure to combat crime, a top concern in the country. The country’s homicide rate rose 3 percent from 2016 to 2017, when there were an average 175 homicides per day. According to a Global Burden of Disease ranking, Brazil is the world leader in deaths by firearm.
When signing the decree, Bolsonaro said more changes could be proposed by legislators. A poll by Datafolha showed on January 14 that 89 percent of Bolsonaro supporters are also in favor of reducing Brazil’s criminal responsibility age from 18 down to 16 years old.
“[Bolsonaro] is a great new leader,” U.S. President Donald Trump said at an event of the American Farm Bureau Federation on Monday, music to the ears of the new Brazilian administration. Just days before, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry outlined six foreign policy objectives for the administration’s first three months, and at the top of the list was Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington. Foreign Minister Araújo wants to launch a Brazil-U.S. partnership agreement, which will cover issues from commerce to defense and technology. Though the two countries have signed a number of bilateral cooperation agreements over the years, keeping up ties has generally faded from both country’s foreign policy goals. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced a commitment to revitalizing those ties when he visited Bolsonaro for the inauguration.
Some U.S. legislators have already raised a red flag, criticizing Pompeo for boosting ties with Bolsonaro, who has a record of far-right rhetoric and recent measures diminishing human rights. (Learn about Bolsonaro’s decrees in Day 2.)
Bolsonaro, often called the “Trump of the Tropics” is likely to get along with his U.S. counterpart, and Foreign Minister Araújo is certainly counting on it. Araújo has praised Trump’s nationalist and anti-globalist views and voiced plans to follow in Washington’s footsteps by moving Brazil’s Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.
To what extent Brazil pursues a similar anti-globalist foreign policy is unclear, given the diverging voices in the administration, political scientist Mauricio Santoro points out. Araújo’s views may end up clashing with the open-economy agenda of Bolsonaro’s economic team, he notes. Then again, there may not be a conflict after all. “Brazil will show that you can increase your share in international trade and investment flows even as you confidently step onto the world stage to defend freedom, speaking with your nation’s own voice,” wrote Araújo in a Bloomberg op-ed.
The ministry is also making it easier for U.S. tourists to visit the country, departing from Brazil’s visa reciprocity policy requiring U.S. and Canadian citizens to obtain visas to enter the country—a move tested during the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Another item on the foreign ministry’s objectives list: Reviewing Mercosur, a South American trading bloc consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, and formerly Venezuela as well until it was suspended in 2016. Bolsonaro, averse to multilateral deals, has shown interest in reforming Mercosur rules to allow individual member countries to sign bilateral trade deals. If such a reform comes to fruition, The Cohen Group’s Fernando Cutz advises Brazil to pursue a free-trade deal with the United States and take advantage of a proven track record of successful U.S. FTAs in Latin America.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro pulled out of a UN Migration accord Temer had signed in December after two years of diplomatic negotiations. “Not just anyone is allowed to enter into our house, just like not just anyone will enter Brazil thanks to a pact adopted by third parties,” said the president.
His decision is symbolic and unlikely to have legal ramifications; the accord, with 160 country signatories, seeks a global and humane approach to addressing waves of migration worldwide but is not legally binding. Political Scientist Mauricio Santoro notes that, while Bolsonaro’s decision is insignificant to his base, it falls in line with his position against signing multilateral deals and aligns the president with other conservative leaders around the world who have won power on similar platforms.
But while the portion of Bolsonaro’s electorate fed up with Brazil’s open arms approach to immigration may be small, it did give him traction in parts of the Northeast, which has typically backed left-leaning presidents. In the presidential runoff, Bolsonaro won both of the states bordering Venezuela, where as many as 900 refugees were crossing the border daily last summer. Bolsonaro has also taken a hardline stance against Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who will begin a second term as president January 10 that at least 12 Latin American countries, including Brazil, won’t recognize. A clash between the two leaders is a “conflict foretold,” argues former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda, who believes military action by the Brazilian and Colombian conservative governments, backed by the United States, “is increasingly conceivable.”
Meanwhile in the Northeast, the president has tried to quell more than a week of violent gang attacks and explosions that prompted Justice Minister Sergio Moro to dispatch some 500 federal security forces to the state of Ceará after Bolsonaro’s inauguration. The attacks are said to be organized in response to the new president’s proposal to combat gang activities in prisons.
See Day 4 for more on the president’s security proposals.
Brazil’s head of the of environmental protection agency Ibama resigned after Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles questioned a budget item. Suely Araujo, appointed by President Temer in 2016 to head the Environment Ministry’s enforcement arm, stepped down after Salles criticized the agency for signing a car rental contract worth $7.7 million. Araujo says that total was negotiated down and covers a wide range of services, including the costs and fuel for nearly 400 trucks used for surveillance, forest firefighting, and environmental emergencies.
To take Araujo’s place, Salles has picked Eduardo Fortunato Bim, a lawyer who worked five years in the Attorney General’s Office. Bim favors reducing bureaucracy when it comes to environmental licenses, a position in line with Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges to cut the fines Ibama imposes on landowners and businesses that break the law in the Amazon—fines the president deems “ideological.”
Scaling back legal enforcement in the Amazon is welcome news to Brazil’s ruralistas who seek to expand their crops in the world’s largest rainforest and thereby boost exports. This agribusiness lobby already has tight links to the Environmental Ministry, with the President of the Rural Democratic Union, Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, hailing Salles’ role in the administration as “the end of the police state…over who works and produces in the country.”
In his appointment of Salles, Bolsonaro sidestepped a court ruling banning the former São Paulo state’s environment secretary from the political arena for three years. During his time working for the state government from 2016 to 2017, Salles allegedly altered maps to clear the way for factories and mining operations along the protected areas around the Tietê, São Paulo’s most important river.
In an early morning tweet, Bolsonaro urged all three government branches to commit to giving security forces the guarantees they need in their work to reduce crime. Bolsonaro wants to facilitate the crimefighting in a country with soaring homicide rates. He is also working on making it easier for people to acquire weapons with an executive order he pledged by the end of the month.
Currently, 8 of every 100 civilians possesses fireams, though weapons are widespread on the black market. Brazil’s 15-year-old gun law gives the federal police the ability to veto any permit. Bolsonaro has proposed removing this veto power, lowering the age requirement from 25 to 21, allowing for weapons to be carried in public, and making permits permanent.
But most Brazilians may not be on board with such changes. While the portion who think possessing guns should be a legal right rose 11 points over the past five years, an October 2018 Datafolha poll found that just 41 percent support that right. The same pollster registered an uptickin the portion of Brazilians who think that possessing arms should be illegal, from 55 percent in October to 61 percent in December.
The cabinet hosted its first meeting at the Planalto Palace and began purging the government of contractors—mostly part-time employees—who do not share the new administration’s ideology. Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni said he has already fired 300 contractors in his ministry in an effort to “clean house” and that other ministries will likely follow suit. He also reported that the administration’s privatization plans were “still under consideration,” alluding to an early morning tweet by the president that noted the potential $1.85 billion in investments Brazil could attract with the privatization of airports and ports.
Bolsonaro gave his first interview as president to SBT TV, declaring his intention to build on the current pension reform proposed by the previous administration. But the new president has some of his own changes to submit, such as cutting the minimum retirement age from 65 to 62 years old for men and from 60 to 57 for women by 2022, after which “it will be up to the next president to reassess the situation.” Lowering the retirement age, however, is contrary to what economists and financial analysts like J.P. Morgan’s Emy Shayo would advise Brazil to do to manage its bloated fiscal deficit. The current pension system consumes 50 percent of the country’s public spending.
Bolsonaro arrived at the Planalto Palace with a number of presidential decrees, which could expire after 120 days unless the Congress approves them. Among them was a 4.6 percent hike to the minimum wage, which fell below what was accounted for in the federal budget passed by the Temer government. A second decree ordered the office of the Government Secretary to coordinate and monitor international NGOs in Brazil. Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco noted the measure could be used to either increase collaboration or restrain the independent nature of these entities.
Another executive order allows the Agriculture Ministry, headed by Tereza Cristina, to delineate indigenous territory. Previously a responsibility of the national indigenous agency FUNAI, the change limits concessions made to native Brazilians and slave-descendants known as quilombolas while boosting agribusiness. In a tweet, Bolsonaro said 15 percent of the national territory is currently categorized this way despite having less than 1 million people, and that “together we will integrate these citizens.”
Mais de 15% do território nacional é demarcado como terra indígena e quilombolas. Menos de um milhão de pessoas vivem nestes lugares isolados do Brasil de verdade, exploradas e manipuladas por ONGs. Vamos juntos integrar estes cidadãos e valorizar a todos os brasileiros.
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) January 2, 2019
Bolsonaro also removed LGBT concerns from the purview of the Human Rights Ministry, which is now headed by evangelical pastor Damares Alves. No specific agency is now responsible for handling LGBT issues and policies, though Alves clarified that the Secretariat of Global Protection under her ministry will have a board that will address all discrimination issues. The community fears it will now have less protections from the government, especially in light of Bolsonaro’s homophobic comments throughout the campaign and Alves’ own view that “diversity politics threatens the Brazilian family.” She and Cristina are the only two women in the 22-member cabinet, which also includes seven former military men.
During his swearing in, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes reaffirmed his promise to cut taxes, public spending, and reform the pension system. Markets responded positively, strengthening the real 2.4 percent and the Bovespa stock index by 3.6 percent.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro also met with Mike Pompeo, each stating their commitment to a new era of stronger U.S.-Brazil ties.
Brazil kicked off 2019 with the inauguration of a new president. Bolsonaro’s speech struck a nationalistic tone, with calls for “Brazil above everything, and God above everyone,” as well as that the country would start to “free itself of socialism” and “political correctness.”
The inauguration counted the lowest number of international delegations in 30 years, with just 46 foreign delegations traveling to Brasilia and 10 heads of state among them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban were among the foreign leaders present. Donald Trump sent Secretary Mike Pompeo in his stead, though the U.S. president tweeted a congratulatory message.
When it comes to Latin American heads of state, five attended: Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández, Paraguay’s Mario Abdo Benítez, and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. Peru’s Martín Vizcarra canceled last minute and Colombia sent Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez. Bolsonaro disinvited the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan presidents, while Argentina’s Mauricio Macri was vacationing and notably absent, though he’s scheduled to meet with Bolsonaro on January 16.