Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

System Failure: Behind the Rise of Jair Bolsonaro

Reading Time: 10 minutesHow a retired Army captain rose from a marginal apologist for torture and dictatorship to a serious contender for Brazil’s presidency.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Ueslei Marcelino

Reading Time: 10 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on transparency and the 2018 elections

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It was a sunny Tuesday morning in Rio de Janeiro, and Flávio Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil’s arch-conservative presidential candidate, was patiently explaining to me when torture is okay.

“I’ll give you an example,” he offered. “I have two small daughters, five and three. If a criminal kidnaps my daughter and starts sending a piece of ear, a piece of finger to my house, and the police catches one of the criminals from that gang of kidnappers, and if he doesn’t tell where she’s being kept — I’m going to volunteer to torture that guy!”

“I’m not in favor of torture as state policy, but in certain situations any human being …” His voice trailed off. “You weigh what is the more important value in your life: Is it your daughter, or the right to remain silent? Do you understand?”

This was vintage Bolsonaro: a grim, apocalyptic view of law and order. A clever, possibly sincere nod to democratic convention (“I’m not in favor of torture, but  …”). And a simple, easy-to-understand message that, in a country with 19 of the world’s 50 most violent cities, makes even some moderate Brazilians say: You know what? He may be right!

It’s a message that horrifies advocates of human rights and democracy, as well as those who say there are more effective (and legal) ways to fight crime. But it has helped make the Bolsonaros the most successful family in Brazilian politics at a time when much of Latin America and the world are experiencing an explosion of nationalist, anti-establishment fervor.

Flávio, 36, is a state legislator in Rio. Carlos, 35, is a city councilman. Eduardo, 33, is a federal congressman representing São Paulo. Yet the real story is the family patriarch, Jair, a 62-year-old retired army captain and congressman. Just two years ago, he was widely lampooned as an embarrassing, hatred-spewing sideshow, but today he is a leading contender to become Brazil’s next president. Polls for this October’s election put him in second place, with about 20 percent of the vote — good enough to make a runoff in a fragmented, still unsettled field. Among Brazil’s wealthiest, best-educated voters, Bolsonaro is — believe it or not — the preferred candidate by a healthy margin, polls show. Voters age 18 to 25 adore him most of all.

Bolsonaro’s sons, Eduardo, Flávio and Carlos, left to right, are also politicians.

In the final months of 2017, I spent numerous hours interviewing the Bolsonaros and their supporters, hoping to better understand the family’s surprising rise and the larger forces behind it. In doing so, I’m sure I will be accused of “normalizing” their views by those who insist media should “deny a platform” to the more intolerant voices in our politics. To which I’d reply: Say, how did that work out with Donald Trump? It was only after the 2016 election that American liberals reached for Hillbilly Elegy and similar chronicles to understand Appalachia, the Rust Belt and other troubled areas key to his victory. For those eager to make sense of a Brazilian version of this phenomenon now, before votes are cast: Welcome. This story is for you.

What did I find? The most obvious hypothesis, that Bolsonaro is part of a global trend that gave us Trump, Brexit and other right-wing nationalists like Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, is true in many ways — but it falls apart in others. Indeed, the Bolsonaros are above all a Brazilian phenomenon, a product of not only the country’s severe economic, institutional and criminal crises since 2014, but also of its successes in the decade prior. And at the risk of giving away the ending, I came away with one conclusion above all:

Jair Bolsonaro could win. He could absolutely win.

Rogue’s Appeal

For his supporters, much of Jair Bolsonaro’s appeal lies in his origin story: Catholic, small-town and working class, with a consistently cavalier approach to rules and decorum. “Jair has the mind of an average Brazilian,” said Rodrigo Sias, an economist in Rio who is close to the family, “and people just love that.”

Born in 1955 in a small town in São Paulo state, his parents originally wanted to name him Messias, or “Messiah.” But a neighbor suggested “Jair,” after a midfielder on the Brazilian national soccer team, so Messias became his middle name instead. Jair’s father was a practicing dentist with no professional training, which was somewhat common in that era, but also illegal. The family bounced around as he looked for a place to work in peace, before finally landing in Eldorado Paulista, a banana town in the Atlantic rain forest. Gunfights occasionally broke out in the town plaza, forcing Jair and his five siblings to take shelter under their parents’ bed.

Bolsonaro visits a security and defense fair in Rio de Janeiro.

As Brazil’s 1964–1985 dictatorship drew to a close, Bolsonaro enlisted as a parachute infantryman and rose through the ranks — slowly. His commanding officer described him as a man of “excessive financial ambition … lacking logic, rationality and balance.” In 1986, while still in the army, Bolsonaro wrote a column for Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine, decrying low military salaries. The article landed Bolsonaro in a military prison for 15 days for insubordination. It also launched his political career. Casting himself as a champion of the military’s rank-and-file during the chaotic, hyperinflationary early days of civilian rule, he was elected to Rio’s city council and then became a congressman in 1991.

Before long, Bolsonaro began grabbing headlines with his incendiary rhetoric: diatribes against minorities, nostalgia for the dictatorship, and a call in 1999 for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to be shot for privatizing state assets (for a partial list, see the box below). But he was so distant from real power, in a Congress that also included a professional clown and several legislators accused of kidnapping and even murder, that few paid him much attention. “He said awful things,” said Ignacio Cano, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and frequent Bolsonaro critic, “but he was marginal and pretty much considered harmless.”

In retrospect, however, Bolsonaro was building a base of conservative Brazilians who felt ignored — or maligned — by the post-dictatorship establishment. “It was ridiculous; politicians acted like the right didn’t exist at all,” said Beatriz Kicis, a prominent Bolsonaro supporter. The 2000s and early 2010s were a prosperous period for Brazil, but they also saw a big expansion of government, rising street crime, and corruption scandals under the leftist Workers’ Party. In that climate, Bolsonaro’s diatribes earned him admirers in much the same way Trump’s embrace of “birtherism” first caught the attention of American conservatives. “It’s a legitimate revolt against those who have control over media, politics and culture,” said Rodrigo Constantino, a Veja columnist.

Even so, that’s not enough to fully explain how Bolsonaro got within striking distance of the presidency. To answer that riddle, you have to go to Brasília.

Family Business

In September, I spent two hours in the office Bolsonaro shares with his son and fellow congressman, Eduardo. Cramped, sparsely decorated, and shielded from Brasilia’s blazing sun by the wispiest of curtains, at first it seemed unremarkable. But the clues were there.

First, near the door: A sign proclaiming “I support Car Wash,” a reference to the investigation of state oil company Petrobras that uncovered more than $5 billion in graft — Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal ever. Nearby, in a reference to the federal judge overseeing the case, a ribbon in the colors of the Brazilian flag read, “Faith in Moro, faith in Bolsonaro, faith in Brazil.”

The Car Wash probe, which contributed to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and has sent numerous other powerful politicians and tycoons to jail, remains immensely popular on the Brazilian street despite some recent setbacks. In an October poll, 94 percent of respondents agreed the investigation should “continue to the very end, whatever the cost.” In other surveys, corruption has frequently appeared as voters’ top concern, even at a time when unemployment is above 12 percent and the national health care system is in collapse.

When Rousseff was ousted, ending 14 years of Workers’ Party rule, many Brazilians hoped politicians would finally clean up their act. But her replacement, President Michel Temer, has been charged with racketeering and obstruction of justice (which he denies), narrowly escaped impeachment himself, and now has an approval rating of just 5 percent. One of Temer’s former top aides was jailed after police found suitcases stuffed with $16 million in cash in an apartment he used; other allies were caught on tape plotting to sabotage Car Wash. One of the only prominent national politicians who has not been implicated is  … you guessed it. In polls over the past year, Bolsonaro’s rise has almost exactly tracked Temer’s decline. “We now know he is our only hope for clean government,” said João Pereira da Silva, a student who had been waiting outside his congressional office for four hours, hoping for a glimpse. “Everybody else here is trash.”

(Editor’s note: After this issue went to press, Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo published an investigation alleging Bolsonaro and his three sons had accumulated at least $4.5 million worth of property in recent years. Bolsonaro denied wrongdoing. The political effect of the revelation was unclear.)

That afternoon, I watched as one of Bolsonaro’s aides spliced text into a video for social media, with the candidate standing in front of a Brazilian flag.



“They call him everything but CORRUPT.”

Indeed, the Bolsonaros’ use of social media is the other main ingredient to their success. Bolsonaro now has 4.8 million followers on Facebook, 1.7 million more than any other presidential candidate and eight times as many as Temer. Videos show him smiling and mobbed by mostly young supporters; the tone is defiantly anti-establishment, but inclusive and shrouded in patriotism. During the two hours I spent in that office, all eight Bolsonaro aides appeared to be working on social media or other outreach — WhatsApp groups, Twitter, press releases and so on. Critics say the Bolsonaros do little actual legislative work; but in a Congress that recently hit 5 percent approval, an all-time low, that might be seen as a badge of honor.

On these platforms and in his speeches, Bolsonaro has linked corruption with rising street crime under a broad umbrella of rule of law. It’s a message that resonates in a country with more than 60,000 homicides per year and an economy that has shrunk 10 percent on a per-capita basis since 2014. “He tells young people, ‘You’re gonna have a job with me, a gun with me, you’re gonna be able to walk the streets at night,’” said Priscila Pereira Pinto, who runs a pro-business think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “The kids love it. He makes it seem simple.”

Amid such promises, supporters seem willing to overlook his past sins. Pereira, who lived for years in New York and expressed grave doubts about Bolsonaro, nonetheless called him “hilarious.” Sias, the economist, said his controversial statements were mostly “bad jokes,” not meant to be taken literally. Others love Bolsonaro for lashing out against what they describe as an oversensitive, rights-obsessed culture forced down people’s throats by the Workers’ Party. Kicis, a retired Brasilia prosecutor, enumerated grievances from “gender ideology” to “legalized pedophilia” before then volunteering that “there is no racism in Brazil.” We argued about this for a long while until she finally threw up her hands. “You see? You see? Jair won’t try to legislate how people feel!”

As I prepared to leave the Bolsonaros’ office, a 20-year-old student poked in and asked for flyers he could hand out at school. “I can’t study Christian philosophers, because the leftists who control my school won’t let me.”

“Cool, man,” said Eduardo Guimarães, the press adviser. He grinned as he watched the young man leave. “There goes another happy voter.”

Damage Control

With his base seemingly locked down, Bolsonaro has tried to appeal to the more moderate voters he’ll need to win a runoff in October. It’s not clear he’ll succeed. A December poll showed him with the second-highest rejection levels of any candidate, behind only former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party. Women made up only 36 percent of Bolsonaro’s supporters, the poll showed. “He’s disgusting,” said Marta Rondon, an insurance saleswoman in Rio. “I don’t think there are enough men in Brazil to elect him president.”

As Bolsonaro’s opponents begin to take him more seriously, they have become more vocal. Robson Dias, a former commander of Rio’s police, told me his proposals to increase gun ownership and give police “carte blanche” to kill suspected criminals “would just toss the country into an even greater fratricide.” Sérgio Moro, the highly popular judge overseeing Car Wash, has issued several recent warnings about the fragile state of Brazilian democracy, which associates said were prompted at least in part by Bolsonaro’s rise.

In response, the family has insisted they will respect democratic institutions and minorities. “He’s not against gays … he’s against the LGBT agenda,” Flávio Bolsonaro told me, citing a recent controversial gay-themed art exhibit in São Paulo. He said his father would push reforms to give police greater freedom to operate, as well as tougher jail sentences. When I expressed concern about overcrowding — Brazil’s prison population has grown 160 percent since 2000, while few new jails have opened—Flávio shrugged. “They’ll fit, just squeeze them in a little more. They’ll fit.”

Meanwhile, the family has undertaken a charm offensive with the business community, including foreign investors. At an October meeting in New York at the Council of the Americas, one of the organizations that publishes AQ, Jair Bolsonaro outlined a basic vision for a small state, privatizations and lower taxes. (The event was off-record, but an audio recording was leaked to the Brazilian press.) The agenda was in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s past statements — he had, after all, once advocated shooting a president for privatization — but he said his views had evolved. “I’m not an economist,” he said more than once, vowing to name a strong team of advisers.

Inevitably, he was asked about past controversies, including his 2003 statement to a female legislator that “I won’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” Bolsonaro calmly explained that the legislator insulted him first, but also expressed a degree of regret. “I was out of line,” he said. “Sometimes I lose myself with words, and I apologize.” This was misleading. Bolsonaro has bragged about his statement in years since, and even repeated it on the floor of Congress in 2014, leading to his censure and a $3,000 fine. But in a world of ephemeral outrages where Trump’s Access Hollywood video (“Grab them …”) was forgotten within two weeks, I wondered if a little contrition might just be enough.

This more moderate, conciliatory Bolsonaro stayed firmly on message when I interviewed him for about 20 minutes afterward. When I asked about his previous threats to shut down Congress, he called them a “figure of speech” that he would not allow in practice. He called for greater trade — “You can’t be closed, like North Korea” — and said he was “concerned” about deforestation in the Amazon. He saved his toughest talk for recent scandals, calling Temer “one of the fathers of corruption,” and criticizing his peers in Congress for “turning a blind eye … in the name of governability.”

Bolsonaro spoke to AQ’s editor-in-chief, Brian Winter, in October.

By year’s end, some previously skeptical business leaders, in Brazil and abroad, were starting to come around. One described Bolsonaro as a “defense of last resort” if Lula were not prevented from running by his legal troubles and still led polls by mid-2018. Bolsonaro’s law and order message was also showing signs of traction in the impoverished northeast, Lula’s traditional base but also home to the sharpest increases in homicide rates over the past decade. A new poll showed the military is now by far Brazil’s most respected institution; satisfaction with democracy there is the lowest of any country in Latin America.

On my way out of Brazil in September, I had a great conversation with my Uber driver — about soccer, Rio beach culture and jazz. The conversation turned to business, and he told me his take-home pay was down 40 percent. Vast swathes of the city were now off-limits because of shootouts and robberies. “You see this decay, this moral crisis, these politicians who steal and don’t do anything for us,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m looking at voting for somebody completely new.”

“Who?” I asked.

He looked in the rearview mirror and smiled. “Have you heard of Jair Bolsonaro?”


Reading Time: 10 minutes

Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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Tags: Bolsonaro, Brazil, Elections 2018
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