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.
Read: Can Brazil’s democracy withstand Jair Bolsonaro?
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.