Brazilian president's 'guru' picks a fight with generals

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

He can have his acolytes named as ministers in the Brazilian government while undermining others with a tweet, and all from self-imposed exile in the United States: Olavo de Carvalho, a firebrand right-wing writer and polemicist, exerts major sway over President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, where his vitriol has sparked a face-off with military leaders.

Carvalho, often dubbed Bolsonaro's "guru," was recently honored with the country's highest award, the Order of Rio Branco, a prestigious recognition granted "for distinguished service and merit."

The honor highlighted the close bond between the head of state and his advisor, and has prompted a furious reaction.

On social media, Carvalho is known for his insults and all-out attacks against Bolsonaro's foes, both real and imagined.

"Whatever son of a bitch in the government is disloyal to President Bolsonaro is disloyal to the Brazilian nation," the 72-year-old former astrologer said on Twitter recently from his home in Richmond, Virginia, where he has lived since 2005.

Writing last week about New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who successfully campaigned against Bolsonaro visiting his city, Carvalho said: "He's a piece of garbage. This bully belongs in jail."

A virulent anti-communist, Carvalho has wide-ranging networks inside Brasilia's corridors of power.

In January, he had Bolsonaro appoint two of his protegees to cabinet.

Ernesto Araujo was named foreign minister, while Ricardo Velez briefly served as education minister, vowing to root out "cultural Marxism" from society before being sacked for being too controversial.

Carvalho has numerous "disciples" and a million followers on social media, which he appears addicted to, sometimes churning out as many as 12 tweets an hour.

- 'Betting on chaos' -

For roughly the past decade, he has produced online commentary on politics and philosophy while disparaging the mainstream outlets, which he has called the "shitty media."

Carvalho did not respond to a request to talk to AFP.

"He lives off provocation and offense. That is his strategy, to start as many fights as possible, including inside the government," said Maud Chirio, an historian at the Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallee University. "He's betting on chaos to regenerate what he sees as a decadent society."

Steve Bannon, the far-right provocateur who served as Donald Trump's advisor before falling out with the US president, has described Carvalho as "one of the great intellectual conservatives of the world."

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker and son of the president, shares Carvalho's views, as well as his enthusiasm for firearms.

But the latest target of the Brazilian polemicist has been high-ranking military officers who feature prominently in the current government.

"If things go on like this, in six months (the government) will be wiped out," he said in March, alluding to what he saw as plans by the generals in the administration to betray the president.

With the backing of Bolsonaro's other son Carlos, who serves in Rio de Janeiro's assembly, Carvalho just launched a violent campaign against retired general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the government secretary, who is defending imposing some restrictions on the Internet.

"Control the Internet, Santos Cruz? Control your mouth, you piece of shit", he tweeted on Sunday.

Another retired military leader, the vice president Hamilton Mourao, who surprised many by espousing moderate views, has also been targeted by the "guru."

Carvalho has slammed him as an "idiot" and a "despicable charlatan" as well as "an embarrassment to the armed forces and to Brazil."

The unflappable vice president merely responded by saying that Carvalho should "restrict himself to what he knows: astrology."

- 'Gone too far' -

But for most of the military men surrounding the president, Carvalho has overstepped this time.

Carvalho "has gone too far" General Eduardo Villas Boas, the former chief of staff, told the daily Estado de S.Paulo this week. "He shows a total lack of respect for the armed forces."

Bolsonaro was finally forced to react, calling on both parties to "turn the page" on their differences.

Given his public admiration for the military, Bolsonaro, himself a former army officer, has tried to remain apart from the latest fray launched by the "icon" whom he has thanked for helping him come to power.

"Bolsonaro should say which side of the fence he is on," the newspaper O Globo said on Wednesday, given the "despicable" attacks by Carvalho.

"The president should defend his government," the newspaper's editorial said.

But for Chirio, the historian, Jair Bolsonaro has since taking office appeared as "a weak figure lacking in leadership... incapable of thumping the table and restoring his authority."