Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's New President, Takes Office

Jan 1, 2019
Originally published on January 1, 2019 4:58 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Brazil, where they swore in a new president today. Jair Bolsonaro is a far-right retired army captain. His election was a complete break with the leftist leadership of recent years. In the past, Bolsonaro has praised Brazil's former military dictatorship, defended torture and disparaged gays, blacks and women. Crowds cheered as he addressed the nation...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

CORNISH: ...Where he struck a unifying note by declaring war on corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Foreign language spoken).

CORNISH: ...And said the government and economy must serve all Brazilians. NPR's Philip Reeves is in the capital, Brasilia, for today's ceremony and joins us now. Phil, first, describe the mood there. What was the scene?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, this historic moment took place on a dull day under a dripping gray sky. At first, it seemed as if the crowd would be quite small, but the day gradually gathered momentum, especially after both Bolsonaro and his wife drove in standing up and waving from the back of a vintage open-topped Rolls Royce, accompanied by cavalry on white horses which was a brave thing to do when you consider that Bolsonaro was stabbed during his election campaign.

In the end, though, there was quite a large crowd and a crowd with very high expectations. Almost everyone I spoke to thinks Bolsonaro holds the key to solve Brazil's chronic problems. Listen, for example, to Vanessa Silva, a psychologist who sees Bolsonaro as a change that the country really needs.

VANESSA SILVA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Because, she says, Brazil's going through a huge crisis and desperately needs better health, education and financial reform. She's also hoping that both Bolsonaro and his Cabinet - a third of whom, by the way, are retired military officers - can fix this despite their lack of experience in government.

CORNISH: How did Bolsonaro address some of those issues in his speech?

REEVES: Well, he talked about unity and protecting democracy, but he also hit on many of his favorite themes, saying that he wants to stop families being, in his words, destroyed by what he calls wicked ideologies. That's a swipe at the left for seeking to educate schoolchildren about gender diversity. And talking about the rights of citizens to defend themselves. That's a reference to his plan to greatly expand the ownership of firearms among the Brazilian public on the grounds that this will help them fight the crime epidemic here.

CORNISH: We mentioned earlier Bolsonaro has made a lot of provocative statements. How does that compare to the actual agenda that he's expected to pursue?

REEVES: We're going to see, undoubtedly, a far closer relationship with the United States. Bolsonaro's a big fan of President Trump. This has implications for regional issues, notably the handling of Venezuela, which Bolsonaro regards with the same kind of hostility as Trump. People will also be keeping a very close eye in coming months on his environmental policy. He's talked about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. And he also wants to loosen environmental laws, a move that makes the powerful agribusiness lobby that supports him very happy but sets alarm bells ringing about the preservation of the Amazon rainforest.

Other things to look out for - will he go ahead with his plan to move Brazil's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was here today, and he got a big hug from Bolsonaro. And also, will that plan for widening gun ownership actually go through?

CORNISH: Does he have the support from Congress to do that?

REEVES: Well, it's not going to be easy. He has no experience of high office. And he has a lot of interest groups tugging at his shirt tails - the military, who support him, the evangelical lobby, who support him, the agribusiness lobby. So it's going to be very difficult reconciling their needs and also building the consensus he needs in Brazil's Congress.

CORNISH: That's NPR South American correspondent Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.