In the days after Jair Bolsonaro won the October runoff contest to become president-elect of Brazil, I received some notable mail from supporters offended by the negative media coverage of their choice for a new chief executive.
A letter from a man in São Paulo, who described himself as “a gay person,” read: For the “first time in my life I voted [with conviction] . . . on both the first and the second round. I woke up 6AM on two cold Sundays happily doing it. I voted for Bolsonaro emotionally and with gratitude in my heart.”
Behind the emotion there was reason. This is “the first time a government [will provide] freedom of market and freedom of choice to us. . . . By that I mean understanding that’s what people want and realizing that’s what will drive the economic direction in this new administration.”
On Tuesday the center-right Mr. Bolsonaro became Brazil’s 36th president. As I read inauguration coverage here in the south of the country I wondered if the new president grasps the soaring expectations he has created. Brazil has let go a primal scream for freedom.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s critics claim that his “right wing” views, shaped by his experience in the military, will put Brazil’s liberal democracy at risk. In the lead-up to the vote, this media hysteria reached a fevered pitch.
It hasn’t diminished. But it has lost its force, in part because it has exposed the bias of the chattering classes, at home and abroad. Brazilians rightly ask where these champions of democracy were when the Workers’ Party governments of former Presidents Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff were financing the Cuban military dictatorship and its satellite Venezuela.
Brazil’s institutions have matured in the 30-plus years since the end of its own military government. This has been a democratic process, driven by civil society’s thirst for pluralism, tolerance and self-government.
The judiciary and federal law enforcement are increasingly independent. Proof of progress is the federal investigation dubbed Operation Car Wash, which exposed the corruption of a range of powerful business executives and high-ranking politicians in a landmark bribery case. So blind was Lady Justice that even the popular Mr. da Silva couldn’t escape responsibility for his role in the scheme. He’s now in jail.
The same institutions are more than likely to check a power-hungry president on the right. It won’t take as long either. The establishment fawned over Lula. Mr. Bolsonaro will be on a short leash.
The legitimate concern is whether the new president can deliver on his promises to better protect human life and to shrink a monster state that devours dreams.
The São Paulo letter-writer put it bluntly: “Socialism just didn’t work out around here.” Another letter came from a man in Europe who had emigrated seven years ago because Brazil was a dead end.
Foreigners, he said, couldn’t know what it feels like seeing “your 94-year-old-grandfather cry in front of you, heart heavy with sadness and longing, but wishing you prosperity elsewhere, for the country he had once known, was no longer there.” He told of a struggle “to try and build a life from scratch, after the age of 27, in a foreign land, all but alone.”
The Brazilian transplant pined for home and he had no doubts about the roots of his misery, which included worries about his family exposed to rampant crime. “My country was destroyed, economically, in safety and, most importantly, morally, during the last 16 years and I can only remember my green and yellow origins in a context that ends in 2002.” A Brazilian expatriate in Florida put the emphasis on corruption: “It is not a good feeling to be robbed and deceived like we were during [the Workers’ Party] years on office.”
Mr. Bolsonaro won because he promised to abandon the socialist dogma, including ideological excuses for violent crime. Social conservatives, who have suffered the left’s intolerance of their values, count among his supporters. But this rebellion runs far deeper. It goes to the heart of what Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises called “human action.” Brazilians are demanding their basic rights to property and life.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s economy minister, Paulo Guedes, gave his first official address on Wednesday. He said “private-sector pirates, corrupt bureaucrats and creatures from the political swamp have conspired against the Brazilian people.” He pledged reforms to open the economy, privatize and deregulate, and rein in government spending.
On Friday Mr. Bolsonaro fueled skepticism about his market bona fides when he expressed “concern” about Boeing ’s bid to buy aircraft manufacturer Embraer. Brazilians are trying to decide whether he misspoke or let slip latent economic nationalism. If it’s the latter, it should worry even his critics, as well as the millions who voted for him.
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