Brazil's Bolsonaro Sees a Star Rise in Controversy-Hit Cabinet

(Bloomberg) -- In the first few months of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, his cabinet delivered more than its fair share of controversy, infighting and slow starts. For investors, Brazil’s new infrastructure ministry stands out as a notable exception.

Since January, the ministry has auctioned 23 major assets including airports, port terminals and a railway, raking in 8 billion reais ($2 billion) in concessions for the government. It’s no small sum at a time Brazil is looking to lure private investments to help revive an economy struggling with sluggish growth after years of recession, still high unemployment and persistent uncertainty.

Tarcisio de Freitas, the 43-year-old army engineer at the helm of the ministry, has emerged as one of the few bearers of good news in the administration, helping Economy Minister Paulo Guedes push forward an agenda of downsizing the state to fix public accounts. Now, he’ll tackle a second round of concessions that includes six ports, 22 airports and some 14,000 kilometers (8,699 miles) of highways, announced by the government on May 8.

Freitas, who held lower-status positions under former Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, is described as a technical, hard-working minister with a sense of urgency to solve problems. He’s also seen as a skilled negotiator with a deep knowledge of state bureaucracy, which sets him apart in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, which is filled with names from smaller parties or even complete outsiders to Brazilian politics.

“Ask him about any place in Brazil, and he’s physically been there,” says Marcos Lutz, the chief executive officer of Cosan Ltd., a conglomerate that controls Brazil’s largest railway operator. “He’s done things with speed and assertiveness, mobilizing whoever he has to make things happen.”

Much like Bolsonaro, Freitas is a former military captain, taking part in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti in the mid-2000s. The two also share a taste for social media -- following the minister on Twitter or Instagram means being informed on every restored bridge, every meeting with authorities, every trip around the country.

In March, when hundreds of trucks hauling soybeans got mired in mud along an unpaved stretch of a highway crossing the Amazon forest, Freitas flew to Para state to meet drivers while the army worked to restore the road.

“We will work hard for this to never happen again,” Freitas tells truckers in a video posted on his Instagram account, promising that the so-called BR-163 highway will be fully paved by next year. “This road was opened by General Geisel,” -- a reference to former President Ernesto Geisel, who in the 1970s ruled Brazil during the military dictatorship -- “and it will be completed by Captain Bolsonaro.”

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When truck drivers started protesting higher fuel prices last month, bringing back bad memories from last year’s massive strike, Freitas was the one chosen by Bolsonaro to cut a deal, helping to avoid another planned nationwide stoppage.

His agenda also includes a plan to double the country’s railway capacity and a series of new road, port terminal and airport concessions. He’s advocated for changes in legislation to encourage investments, including one allowing the construction of privately-owned railroads.

Foreign investors are “dying to invest in Brazil,” but waiting for “a gesture” to assure them of the country’s stability, the minister said at a conference last month. Freitas was referencing Bolsonaro’s flagship pension reform proposal, which he says he has discussed with more than 300 congressmen. Investors see the overhaul as key to restoring trust in the South American nation.

While this year’s much-lauded infrastructure concessions had already been in the works before Freitas took over, he has so far been one of the few in Bolsonaro’s staff pushing forward with his agenda. More than that, he’s sidestepped the controversy and culture wars that have marked the government so far, said Claudio Couto, professor of political science at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.

“It’s like the saying goes: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” Couto said. “In a government so confused and with so many unqualified and ideological people, he stands out.”

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