His rhetoric is as fiery, his Twitter feed is as divisive and his style is as disruptive as those of the American original, but on substance, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — the “Trump of the Tropics” — so far has delivered the one thing no one expected: more of the same in trying to tackle the country’s deep-seated problems.
Swept into office last year on promises to rid Brazil of crime and corruption and revive South America’s largest economy, the nationalist president made global headlines in recent days by rejecting international concern about raging Amazon wildfires and getting into a public feud with French President Emmanuel Macron, whose wife Mr. Bolsonaro seemed to insult on social media.
Since taking office Jan. 1, he has commemorated a 1964 military coup, mused about invading neighboring Venezuela, warned that Argentina’s presidential election would cause a wave of refugees, conditioned accepting $20 million in aid from the Group of Seven nations on getting a personal apology from Mr. Macron, and told Chancellor Angela Merkel — who had frozen aid over the Amazon forest fires and the Brazilian government’s pro-development policies — to “take your dough and reforest Germany.”
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro is given to politically incorrect statements and maximalist demands that appall his opponents but energize his political base. On Tuesday, he complained about the country’s policies to protect indigenous populations and limit economic development, arguing that protected tribes “don’t speak our language, but they have managed to get 14% of our national territory.”
At the same time, Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has yet to make a dent in problems that bedeviled his more conventional predecessors.
Pension reform remains stalled in Congress. The president’s hometown, Rio de Janeiro, has a spike in homicides and overall violent crime. The economy is teetering on the edge of a recession. And Mr. Bolsonaro’s hesitation to veto an “abuse of authority” law, which could stifle investigations, has called into question his commitment to fight corruption.
“He continues to govern by speaker,” said Clovis Saint-Clair, editor of the Jornal do Brasil. “It’s not entirely surprising, but it is worrying and disappointing that he continues to behave as though he were campaigning.”
Brazilians’ patience is wearing thin, said the author of one of the few book-length profiles of Mr. Bolsonaro, especially among those who backed the former army captain as a way to keep the long-ruling leftist Workers’ Party (PT) from returning to power.
“Polls indicate that his [base] is still behind him,” Mr. Saint-Clair said. “But the part of the electorate that voted for him merely in opposition to what it perceived as the threat of the PT is realizing that, maybe, he wasn’t the best choice, so the president’s popularity has tumbled.”
One supporter whom the president can still count on is President Trump, who defended his fellow populist on Twitter on Tuesday over his handling of the Amazon fires.
“I have gotten to know [Mr. Bolsonaro] well in our dealings with Brazil,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil — not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”
From ‘carte blanche’ to ‘obstructionist’
Perhaps the biggest reason for the early disenchantment is that Mr. Bolsonaro has not come through on his promise to clean up Brazilian government after many in the political elite were implicated in the multiyear, billion-dollar “Car Wash” graft investigation. It was the discrediting of much of Brazil’s establishment that opened the lane for Mr. Bolsonaro’s outsider campaign last year.
“Especially in recent times, he has truly turned out to be an obstructionist in the fight against corruption,” said Paulo Roberto de Almeida, who until March led the Brazilian foreign ministry’s IPRI think tank.
The president’s nomination of his son Eduardo to serve as ambassador in Washington and the maneuvering to shield his son Flavio, a Rio senator who is facing an investigation over alleged money laundering, brought accusations of nepotism and favoritism.
Mr. Bolsonaro also is increasingly curtailing Justice Minister Sergio Moro, famous as an anti-corruption crusader and the public face of the Car Wash investigation, who analysts believe may sooner or later turn into a political threat to the president.
“What we saw in the past few weeks was a cutback to Sergio Moro’s famous ‘carte blanche,’” Mr. de Almeida said. “There has been a series of steps to take back the commitments made by the president with regard to the fight against corruption and the autonomy Sergio Moro wanted.”
Brazilians, Mr. de Almeida added, are now closely watching what Mr. Bolsonaro will do about “abuse of authority” legislation passed by Congress. Critics say the legislation is designed to intimidate judges and prosecutors in corruption cases.
Though Attorney General Raquel Dodge has recommended that the president veto the bill at least in part, Mr. Bolsonaro has yet to make a final decision on whether to sign it into law.
On economic terrain, too, the government has struggled to change the old narrative. Even after nine months in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s ambitious pension reform plan — seen by many as key to rekindling an underperforming Brazilian economy that for years has been stuck in crisis — still has cleared only the lower house of Congress.
“For the medium- to long-term health of the Brazilian economy, the pension reform is extremely important,” said Thomas O’Keefe, who counsels investors as head of the New York-based Mercosur Consulting Group.
But Brazilians who were hoping for a fast turnaround are disappointed, Mr. de Almeida said.
“Brazil did not have a jump in investments to recover its economy, which is somewhere between a recession and a depression,” the former diplomat said. “The president’s contradictory statements and his difficulties in Congress have markedly lowered expectations for investments.”
Many other promises of what was branded a pro-market administration, including tax reform and the privatization of state-owned businesses, remain entirely unfulfilled, Mr. de Almeida said.
“There’s not a very clear definition of how Brazil is going to work from now on,” he said.
Although Mr. Bolsonaro has established close personal ties to Mr. Trump, the U.S. president’s ongoing trade dispute with China may only make matters worse for Brasilia.
“Brazil’s No. 1 export market is China,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “The Chinese economy continues to slow down; that’s going to have a very negative impact.”
China is not the only concern on the international scene, where Mr. Bolsonaro’s brash style and policy swerves appear to have jeopardized a free trade agreement between the four-nation Mercosur trade bloc and the European Union.
A comment on social media that unfavorably compared the French first lady’s looks with those of Mr. Bolsonaro’s wife last week prompted Mr. Macron to say he hoped Brazilians would “quickly have a president who is up to the job.”
Mr. Bolsonaro dismissed the French leader’s suggestion that massive forest fires in the Amazon must be dealt with as an “international crisis” as “reminiscent of a colonial mindset.”
The great-grandson of Italian immigrants, Mr. Bolsonaro has long portrayed himself as a staunch defender of Brazilian sovereignty and played up his relationships with Mr. Trump and right-wing leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Italian populist Matteo Salvini. Mr. Bolsonaro’s fierce response to international concern over the environmental health of the vast Amazon region springs from a belief that such a concern represents a violation of Brazil’s sovereign rights.
But especially his attempt to overcome traditional tensions with the United States have been met with doubts in the local foreign policy establishment, Mr. de Almeida said.
“It’s clear that this rapprochement lacks real foundations,” he said. “It has an ideological foundation — the fight against the left, against globalism, absolutely surrealist things nobody takes seriously.”
Even in the rough-and-tumble world of Latin American politics, Mr. Bolsonaro’s overt attacks on Alberto Fernandez, the front-runner in Argentina’s Oct. 27 presidential election, appeared to cross a line.
“A president of Brazil had never meddled this directly in the domestic politics of Argentina,” said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center of International Studies. “Bolsonaro even suggested many Argentines could emigrate to Brazil [in case of a Fernandez win] and cause a problem in border regions.”
Although his rhetoric may be “rambling” and his personality “virulent,” Mr. Bolsonaro is on the right path when he tries to turn the page from the protectionist, leftist ideology that hampered the continent under the Workers’ Party and its regional allies, Mr. Cardozo said.
At home, though, blaming his predecessors will no longer let the 64-year-old make up lost ground, much less get him reelected in 2022, analysts predicted. Should Mr. Trump be ousted in the 2020 U.S. vote, Mr. Bolsonaro will also lose perhaps his most powerful and useful ally on the international scene.
“His strategy is to always keep the focus on the endgame of the political fight to keep his base motivated, as Trump does in the United States,” Mr. de Almeida said. “He turned out to be a mediocre leader, without the capacity to clearly express policy or government project, who continues to campaign.”
After more than half a decade of what many view as an ever-deepening political, economic and social crisis, Brazilians may simply be ready to move on and not ready to embrace Mr. Bolsonaro’s desire to refight the battles of the past.
“The problem is that he is looking backward. His adversaries are the PT, the left, which dominated Brazil from 2003 to 2016,” Mr. de Almeida said. “That’s over already.”