RIO DE JANEIRO—If you’re shocked by the transformations that Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, is planning for his country, you haven’t been paying attention.
Riding in on a wave of frustration with more than a decade of left-wing leadership, Bolsonaro has promised to bring dramatic change to Brazil, change intended to make leftists squirm. And if his first two weeks in office tell us anything, it’s that those who thought his brash talk—of ending policies creating protected land reserves for indigenous populations or of liberalizing Brazil’s gun laws to make it easier for Brazilians to own guns—was just campaign bluster might want to take a serious look at the president’s plans. He intends to follow through on his promises, even the most controversial ones.
What happens in Brazil has consequences not just for the country, but also for Latin America and the world. Brazil is the continent’s biggest economy and home to both the world’s largest rainforest and 211 million people. Globally, Bolsonaro’s critics fear that he could drive South America’s largest democracy toward fascism or even toward a return to military rule. An unapologetic firebrand, he has already signaled that he intends to lead Brazil into a new era. But what exactly will that mean for Brazil, and for everyone else?
Four areas in particular lie at the nexus of Bolsonaro’s priorities and critics’ concerns: land rights, education, the economy, and public security. What changes does the new president promise on these fronts, and which of those can he actually follow through on? These are the topics to watch in the coming months.
One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president—which he boasted of on Twitter, à la Donald Trump—was to halt all new demarcations of indigenous lands. In effect, that means the decades-long effort by Brazil’s indigenous populations to seek recognition and legal title to land has been foiled.
Bolsonaro has argued that demarcated land for indigenous peoples is akin to keeping them “secluded in reserves like zoo animals” when “an Indian is a human being just like us.” His critics, though, see an ulterior motive: Stopping the demarcation process opens up land—especially in remote parts of the Amazon—to powerful players such as the mining, farming, and logging industries. Functionally, indigenous reserves have been used as a proxy for environmental protections.
And indigenous peoples are not a strong enough lobbying group to fight back. Maurício Santoro, an expert on Brazilian politics at Rio de Janeiro State University, told me that along with the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples are the most threatened social group under Bolsonaro’s administration.
There are structural limits holding Bolsonaro back, though: His ability to strip all of indigenous peoples’ land-demarcation rights is hamstrung by strong protections for those communities under the Brazilian constitution, ones Santoro is confident the Brazilian supreme court will uphold. Toss in a heavy dose of international pressure to protect indigenous peoples, and Bolsonaro might see his land-rights plans backfire.
Brazil’s education system is worse than you might imagine. In the hot north of the country, some students attend schools made of sticks and mud. In Rio’s hillside slums, or favelas, schools are out of session for weeks or months at a time, thanks to regular gunfire in the area. Even in the better-educated south of the country, teachers have been protesting in the streets for better pay for years. And countrywide, illiteracy is on the rise.
These are not, however, the education issues Bolsonaro has promised to focus on. Instead, his primary, and most controversial, proposal is for the removal of what he calls “Marxist garbage”—code for any teaching that deals with sexuality or gender issues, or even evolution—from the classroom. He has also proposed mandatory classroom lessons on “moral and civic education,” a kind of Patriotism 101.
His new minister of education is a Colombian professor emeritus at Brazil’s military schools who has blogged about keeping “traditional values” in the classroom and who has thus far positioned himself as Bolsonaro’s yes-man. Look for Brazil’s president to press him to make smaller changes, possibly including stripping out essay questions about issues such as gender violence from the national college-entrance exam.
Part of the reason many Brazilians elected Bolsonaro was because he promised to make Brazil more capitalist. His voters point to Venezuela and its crumbling socialist state as an example of the dangerous path Brazil was on under (now-jailed) former President Luiz Inácio da Silva. (Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, for his part, called Bolsonaro a “fascist” during his inauguration speech.)
How does Bolsonaro want to do this? Privatization. The idea tantalizes Brazil’s most powerful would-be investors, but not so much everyday Brazilians: Polls show that most people here are against full-throttle privatization, and instead enjoy their welfare state and the nationalized health, education, and unemployment systems. Plus, Bolsonaro’s party has only about a tenth of the seats in Brazil’s congress, and the president has yet to cement any political alliances that will help him pass big, expensive legislation.
An easier path than wholesale privatization may be for Bolsonaro to change the pension system, particularly by raising the retirement age. Today military leaders can retire young with their full salary, plus benefits, for life—2017 numbers show that 55 percent of people who served in the military retired before the age of 50, and the minimum age of retirement can be as low as 55 for civilian women. By raising the retirement age and reducing pension benefits, Bolsonaro would be cutting the overall costs of doing business in Brazil, helping win over business leaders and international investors alike. Bolsonaro himself has expressed anxiety over making this change, but Carlos Kawall, the chief economist for the Brazilian lender Banco Safra, notes that the pension-reform battle will be a major indicator of the future success of the country’s economy.
The thing is, one of Bolsonaro’s biggest bases of support is the military; the former army captain will find that stripping the benefits of his former colleagues is unlikely to play well. Instead, Santoro predicts that Bolsonaro will look to pass a watered down, minimalist reform, which may include setting the minimum age for retirement at 65, or even 62, for everyone.
Brazil is the world’s leader in homicides: In 2017, 63,880 people were murdered here, and despite federal intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro and along the Brazilian border with Venezuela, a comprehensive solution still eludes the government.
Bolsonaro has marketed himself as a locked-and-loaded tough guy (his trademark gesture is two fingers pointing two imaginary guns), and that image has resonated strongly with his supporters, who are both fed up with the violence and also intrigued by the idea of American-style gun ownership. Forty-one percent of Brazilians think gun possession should be allowed for a citizen to defend himself. Currently, just to keep a gun at home, most Brazilians have to jump through significant hoops, including regular psychological and physical tests. They even have to justify needing one at all, for example, with a police record showing they have been targeted by personal threats.
In one of his first tweets as president, Bolsonaro promised to liberalize gun control in Brazil. For now, the only people who walk around with guns in Brazil are either cops or robbers. Bolsonaro wants to change that, not only making it easier for Brazilians to buy guns, but allowing them to carry guns as well.
Loosening gun-ownership restrictions would be one of Bolsonaro’s easiest successes, Santoro said, because such reforms would not require asking congress for much money, and would win him plaudits from his supporters. The results, however, could be brutal.
The São Paulo nonprofit Instituto Sou da Paz collects data on gun ownership and gun use in Brazil, and its executive director, Ivan Marques, says the figures show that “getting more guns into circulation will mean negative consequences for public security in Brazil.” He points to a study published by the Brazilian government itself in 2013 that shows that a 1 percent increase in guns in an area corresponds with a 1 to 2 percent increase in the homicide rate of that area. “Any weakening of gun laws,” Marques says, “will leave us fated to an increase in the levels of violence.”
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