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Controversy and cacophony mark Bolsonaro’s first week as Brazilian leader

EVARISTO SA / AFP | Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) talks to Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni during the appointment ceremony of the new heads of public banks, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on January 7, 2019.

Brazil’s new far-right president faces criticism for amateurism after he announced tax rises and a reform on the minimum retirement age, later rebutted by his ministers.

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Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former army captain, won election in October and was sworn in on January 1 as Brazil’s first far-right president since 1985, when the military dictatorship gave way to a civilian democracy.

Many Brazilians and investors applauded the first steps of his far-right government, which included bold measures that embrace a nationalist vision close to that of US President Donald Trump. But subsequently, Bolsonaro and his cabinet seemed to sow confusion and cacophony during their first week in office.

In an interview to media outlets on Friday morning, the country's new leader first announced having signed a decree raising a tax on financial operations. But the measure was surprisingly rebutted four hours later by his chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni, who said Bolsonaro had “made a mistake” and there would be no such raise.

The confusion was worsened by a purge the new administration subsequently launched. Government contractors deemed to not fully support the new administration's far-right politics or seen as left-leaning are to be dismissed. The move left the staff of the presidency in temporary disorder during an already tumultuous day, according to local newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

A US military base in Brazil?

The tax-rise dissonance came a day after Bolsonaro said in an interview to SBT TV network that he would be willing to allow a United States military base in Brazilian soil, as a way to counter Russian influence in Venezuela. The measure would mark a sharp shift in direction for Brazilian foreign policy and its military, the latter having traditionally been a zealous guardian of national sovereignty.

Those comments were not well received by the country’s armed forces and took officers by surprise, senior army officers said to local magazine Veja. “The president has not discussed this with the defence minister," spokeswoman for the ministry of defence Major Sylvia Martins said on Saturday. The Brazilian army is an important part of Bolsonaro’s government – 7 out of 22 ministers are retired military officers.

The cabinet said Bolsonaro would nevertheless discuss the base offer with  president Trump during an expected visit to Washington in March, local newspaper Estado de S. Paulo reported.

Retirement age confusion

During the same interview, Bolsonaro also stated that the retirement age was not what his economic team wants and that it would reach 62 for men and 57 for women by the end of his term. But these figures are not backed by any study or political proposition, according to Folha de São Paulo. They are also lower than the minimums of 65 for men and 62 for women that were previously proposed by ex-president Michel Temer.

Adding to the confusion, Bolsonaro’s economy minister Paulo Guedes had until now backed Temer’s reform. Lorenzoni also appeared to walk back what Bolsonaro said, saying it was just one option and that no final decision had been made by the president's economic team.

A governnment with “very simplified answers”

The impression left was that Bolsonaro's first week was marked by moves aimed at appealing to his socially conservative base made up of evangelical Christian, pro-gun and pro-business groups, but with little underlying strategy.

"You get the idea that the government has been taken over by people who don't have an idea what Brazil's most serious problems are, who are tackling issues most of which aren't important. When they do take on important issues, they have very simplified answers”, political analyst at the University of Sao Paulo Maria Herminia Tavares de Almeida said to AFP.

NGOs and minorities targeted

On his first day of office on Wednesday, Bolsonaro targeted minorities and rewarded the powerful farm lobby when he handed the responsibility to demarcate native lands to the Agriculture ministry. The agency in charge of indigenous affairs (Funai) had until then sole responsibility for this.

The new administration also targeted NGOs working in the country through control over public funds given to such groups. An executive order issued last week gave Bolsonaro’s team potentially far-reaching and restrictive powers over NGOs.

"The government's intention is to optimise the use of public funds and bring more benefits" to the people assisted by the NGOs, Government Secretary Carlos dos Santos Cruz said in an interview to local website G1 on Monday. He denied the intention was to restrict their activity.

No stable majority

Despite a tumultuous first week, observers said the real test will begin in February, when the new Congress starts work. For Bolsonaro is backed by an unstable majority of 255 deputies, according to a study – his conservative Social Liberal Party has only a tenth of the seats in the 513-member Chamber of Deputies. As such, the president will have to negotiate with lawmakers from several parties in order to approve reforms.

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