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Portrait of Jair Bolsonaro - President of the Federative Republic of Brazil

Portrait of Jair Bolsonaro - President of the Federative Republic of Brazil
 Frédéric Louault
Professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles

Jair Bolsonaro came out of nowhere. He is now about to rule an important country which, with President Lula and to some extent Dilma Rousseff, had acquired a significant influence on the international stage thanks to its status of major emerging country. It is true that the room for manoeuvre of a neo-authoritarian in Brasilia may be limited regarding international politics. However, his arrival on the scene is a symbolic turning point, given a paradox: a step backwards which is in the spirit of the times, in a country that has just come out of underdevelopment. Professor Frédéric Louault, a great Brazil specialist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, deciphers for us the personality of an improbable president, beyond the widespread caricatures.

Michel Duclos, Geopolitical Special Advisor, Editor of this series

Sunday, 28 October 2018. 7:18PM. The far-right candidate, Jair Messias Bolsonaro (Social Liberal Party), is officially elected 38th President of the Republic of Brazil. A clear victory with more than 55% of valid votes. His supporters take to the streets to celebrate the election of the man they consider as the country’s savior, a champion of the fight against insecurity and corruption. Others mourn the triumph of an individual best known for his misogynistic, homophobic, racist and hateful stances. They denounce his contempt for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They are concerned by both his political project, which they consider to be obscurantist and ultraconservative, and by his resolutely liberal economic agenda. Above all, they fear a deterioration of democracy, or even a shift to an authoritarian regime of military or theocratic inspiration.
Affected by the economic crisis, stunned by the scale of corruption scandals, appalled by the political elites’ behavior, petrified by a context where violence prevails - more than 60,000 homicides last year - and, especially, submerged by waves of fake news, Brazilians voted without any landmarks. Driven by a strong desire for change. Without worrying about Bolsonaro's program (both minimalist and extremely vague). They turned a blind eye to his multiple provocations, and downplayed the significance of his many rhetorical excesses. This election precipitates Brazil into the unknown. Whether consciously or not, the Brazilians just signed the biggest blank cheque in their history. Because no one knows where the government will take Bolsonaro, nor where he will lead the country.

This election precipitates Brazil into the unknown. Whether consciously or not, the Brazilians just signed the biggest blank cheque in their history.

Bolsonaro rose from the ashes of the Brazilian political system as well as from the remains of former President Lula. Lula, who was ahead of Bolsonaro in voting intentions, was jailed for corruption and his candidacy was invalidated on 1 September. Since the latter's exit from the race, Bolsonaro has not really campaigned. Victim of a knife attack on 6 September, he spent more than three weeks in hospital, from where he was only released a week before the first round. Cloistered in his home, he then simply mobilized social networks to maintain his popularity and fan the flames of the rejection of the Worker’s Party (PT).

It is thus quite naturally that "the myth", as his supporters like to call him, chose to deliver his first victory speech on social media, on 28 October. Eight minutes on Facebook Live, which connected him to 330,000 Internet users from his home. Bolsonaro is sitting in front of a white table. The decor is minimalist: a notebook, a pen, a plastic cup and some books, among which the Bible and the Brazilian Constitution. The new President plays it sober. But it is mainly his second speech, delivered later in the evening and broadcasted live on television, that best set the tone for the future government. Only RecordTV, a powerful media controlled by the evangelical bishop Edir Macedo (founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) is present. The scene begins with a blessing from the pastor and singer Magno Malta, incumbent senator and friend of the new President. The oration is punctuated by Bolsonaro's campaign slogan: "Brazil above everything, God above everyone". Bolsonaro then speaks: "First, I would like to thank God, who, through the hands of the men and women of [the clinic] Santa Casa de Juiz de Fora and of the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, left me alive. It is certain that the mission that we will be ready to accomplish is a mission of God." He then goes on to read his speech, in which he quotes a verse from the Bible: "You will know the truth and the truth shall make you free" [John 8:32].

Alea jacta est. Religion will guide Bolsonaro's mandate. And the powerful evangelical churches are now confidently asserting their political influence. Bolsonaro only turned to the evangelical religion at a late stage in his life, after meeting his third wife, Michele Reinaldo Bolsonaro, in 2007. Their union was celebrated in 2013 by the famous Pastor and televangelist Silas Malafaia. Bolsonaro was then baptized in May 2016 in the Jordan River (Israel) by Pastor Everaldo, Evangelical Minister of the Assembly of God and President of the Christian Social Party (PSC). Yet Bolsonaro’s Christian influences go way back. He has been immersed in religious devotion since his birth. After a difficult pregnancy, his mother even believed his birth was a miracle of God. To thank and honor the Christ, she proposed to call him Messiah. Yet his father preferred Jair, in tribute to a player from the Brazilian football team (Jair Rosa Pinto). However, the new President’s trajectory cannot solely be read through the lens of his faith. While his relationship to God may have profoundly oriented his career, Bolsonaro has an equally unwavering dedication to the army.

Jair Bolsonaro was born on 21 March 1955, into a Catholic family of six children, with Italian and German origins. His childhood was first marked by the Cold War and the "communist threat" (1955-1964), and then by the advent of the military regime (1964-1985), of which he now claims to be nostalgic. He was nine years old when the military, with the support of the United States, organized a coup on 31 March 1964. Yet Bolsonaro doesn’t remember this event as a coup. To him, this event was a military revolution. He thus grew up under the military regime in the city of Eldorado (São Paulo).

While his relationship to God may have profoundly oriented his career, Bolsonaro has an equally unwavering dedication to the army.

In the early 1970s, he met with soldiers who were in the region to fight a Marxist guerrilla group, and became passionate about their job. According to his own statements, he then contributed to the hunt of the famous guerrilla fighter Carlos Lamarca by providing information to the army. The following year, he entered the Preparatory School of Army Cadet. He then joined the prestigious Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras (AMAN), from which he graduated in 1977. After serving in the Field Artillery, he joined the Parachutist Infantry Brigade and became captain. Yet his military career faced several hitches. In a military file dating back to 1983, he was accused of displaying an "excessive ambition to be financially and economically successful". One of his superiors referred to an "immature" personality, who had "a permanent intention to supervise junior officers, which always led him to be rejected, both because of his aggressive treatment of his comrades and because of the lack of logic, rationality and balance in the way he presented his arguments".In 1986, without the authorization of his superiors, Bolsonaro published in the press a column entitled "The salary is low", in which he denounced the poor pay conditions of the military. He wrote: "I make this testimony public so that the Brazilian people can know the truth about what is happening to the mass of professionals prepared to defend them. (...) Brazil above all else". This article earned him 15 days in prison, but also a certain respect among the military. The following year, he was at the heart of yet another scandal, after having mentioned, in an interview with the magazine Veja, a plan to attack barracks to protest again against poor pay. He was dismissed by the Military Justification Council, then acquitted for lack of evidence by the Superior Military Court, and reintegrated in June 1988. Bolsonaro then became a reserve officer and entered politics in order to continue to defend the interests of the military. He was first elected as city councillor in Rio de Janeiro (1988). He then sat in Congress from 1990 to 2018, years during which he represented up to seven different political parties. 30 years of mandate. What a great experience for someone who, in 2018, presents himself as an outsider and as a candidate combating the system...

Jair Bolsonaro proposed a military-religious reinterpretation of Brazil's motto inspired by Comtean positivism: "Order and Progress".

In the 1990s, he violently opposed the Social Democratic President Fernando, Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), by accusing him of humiliating the military and by claiming that he deserved to be "shot". In 1999, he took advantage of a televised interview to clarify his vision of democracy:
"Things will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do. Killing some 30,000 people, and starting with Fernando Henrique Cardoso." (TV Bandeirantes, 1999).

He then defended nationalism and denounced the privatization reforms carried out by Cardoso. Anyone can change, he now tells his critics, when they point out the inconsistency between his past positions and the outrageous neoliberalism he is currently promoting. In this same spirit, he does not try to conceal the fact that he voted for Lula in 2002, only to then become the chorus master of a radical "antipetismo" (rejection of the Workers' Party) and who calls on his sympathizers to shoot PT supporters.

Under the governments of Lula (2003-2010) and Rousseff (2011-2016), Jair Bolsonaro focused on values and religion. God became more conspicuous in his discourse as a force driving his commitment. He somewhat loosened his ties with his military background in favor of new standards: Christian morality, family values, education, the fight against "communism" and "cultural Marxism", but also security and, more recently, corruption. He proposed a military-religious reinterpretation of Brazil's motto inspired by Comtean positivism: "Order and Progress". We could in fact even apply to his political and social project the following words pronounced by French Marshal MacMahon in 1873: "With the help of God, the devotion of our army, which will always be the slave of the Law, and the support of all loyal citizens, we shall continue the work of liberating our territory, and of re-establishing moral order in our country". This moral order underlies a vigorous readjustment of society, the strengthening of religious education and a fierce fight against republican radicalism. These are the main projects Bolsonaro intends to carry out in order to build the Brazil of the 21st century. In the brief biography published on his official website, one can read that Bolsonaro distinguished himself by undertaking various legislative initiatives regarding the defense of military rights, against the eroticization of children in schools, for more discipline in educational institutions, for the reduction of the criminal age, for the liberalization of the carrying of weapons and the right to self-defense, for the defense of private property, for Christian values and for a traditional model of family. All these topics constitute the foundation on which he based his participation in the 2018 elections.

However, a brief overview of his parliamentary activities tells a completely different story. Bolsonaro is a man of speech rather than action. During his seven terms as congressman, he delivered 1,540 speeches in the Chamber of Deputies and introduced more than 150 bills. Yet he only managed to get two minor laws passed: one to allow computer equipment to be exempt from the tax on industrialized goods (IPI), and the other to authorize the marketing and use of a "cancer pill", the effectiveness of which is questionable.

In reality, Bolsonaro does not need legislative work to exist politically. He has another strategy, which is to spark controversy.

He has not chaired any committees or led any political groups. He ran for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies three times (in 2005, 2011, 2017), but only won 15 votes in total, four of which were cast during his last attempt in February 2017. Already a pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential election, he only gathered 5% of voting intentions at the time.

An informed observer of Brazilian politics summarizes Bolsonaro's place in the national political landscape before the 2018 elections as follows: "He is not an important parliamentarian, he merely attracts the media. He is visible because he is authoritarian, but he is an ineffective parliamentarian who does not influence important decisions." In reality, Bolsonaro does not need legislative work to exist politically. He has another strategy, which is to spark controversy. This is his great speciality, which he enjoys to the point of being a caricature, and without any regrets. Insults, apology of violence and torture, apology of rape, incitement to hatred... He casts a wide net on all topics.

He is the congressman who has been subject to the largest number of disciplinary proceedings before the Office of Congressional Ethics. The following examples are quite representative:

  • "[The Chilean dictator] Pinochet should have killed more people" (1998);
  • "I won't fight or discriminate, but if I see two men kissing on the street, I'll hit them" (2002);
  • "I wouldn't be able to love a homosexual son. I would rather my son die in an accident than see him show up with some bloke with a mustache" (Playboy, 2011);
  • "There is no risk [that my children go out with black women], they were very well educated" (2011);
  • "I will not rape you, because you don't deserve it" (2014);
  • "The mistake of the [Brazilian] dictatorship was to torture without killing" (2016).

He left it to his supporters to take over and work - in the streets and on social media - to "Bolsonarize" the public space.

His last major exploit took place on 17 April 2016, during the very mediatized impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Each member of Congress had a few seconds in plenary to justify their vote. Bolsonaro went to the podium. He voted in favor of dismissal and dedicated his vote "to the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff". Considered the main torturer of the military dictatorship, Ustra led torture sessions in the Center for Internal Defense Operations (DOI-CODI) in São Paulo, where Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured in the early 1970s.

His notoriety had until then been restrained to his electoral area (Rio de Janeiro) and to some extreme right-wing areas, but this episode gave Bolsonaro national visibility. To broaden his electoral base and to strengthen his position as candidate to the presidential elections, Bolsonaro then tried to temper his rhetorical impulses. He left it to his supporters to take over and work - in the streets and on social media - to "Bolsonarize" the public space.
While he does draw considerable media attention, the man is not a tribune. In fact, he is even downright austere, the very opposite of the great Latin American speakers, the traditional populists of the last century such as Vargas or Perón, or the charismatic leaders of the 21st century such as Lula or Chávez. He is particularly uncomfortable in debates. Aware of his limitations, he refused, for "medical and strategic" reasons, to participate in the six televised debates scheduled in between the two rounds. All you have to do is listen to his first speech as President-elect to appreciate his oratorical style: a monocord tone, a tense face, his eyes clinging to his notes. Minutes seem like hours. It is on social media that Bolsonaro truly excels and asserts himself. On platforms where it comes down to condensing and simplifying. Where he can freely distort facts and play with numbers to produce his "truths", without anyone there to contradict him. Both a man of his time and out of time, he mobilizes new technologies with a retro, if not old-fashioned, touch. At a time when some people are testing hologram meetings, he organizes duplex speeches on mobile phones. His speech, recited from the terrace of his residence, in a posh neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, and intended to reach thousands of supporters gathered on the main avenue of São Paulo, exemplifies a form of outdated modernization...

The Brazilians who voted for him in the second round of the presidential election did not hold his rhetorical excesses, his inefficiency during his 30 years in Congress, or even the emptiness of his program against him. But they won't be able to say that they didn’t know. Everything in Jair Bolsonaro is crystal clear: he affirms what he thinks and he thinks what he affirms. His words hold the value of truth. Yet a question remains, as he is due to take office on 1 January 2019: how far is he prepared to go to bring his project to fruition? The risk of democracy disintegrating and the government drifting towards a form of authoritarianism must not be taken lightly, given Bolsonaro's evident contempt for democratic institutions, human rights and fundamental freedoms.


Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair Messias Bolsonaro - Mito ou Verdade, Rio de Janeiro: Altadena Editora, 2017.

Illustration by David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.

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