Brazil’s Bolsonaro Plays Catch-Up With His Cabinet

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ended an extensive hospital stay on Wednesday, immediately boarding a flight to Brasilia lest he be missed. Whether his compatriots or cabinet took notice is another matter.

Sure, Brazilians were concerned for their leader’s well-being. Surgeons had to reconstruct his intestine, after a near fatal stabbing during the campaign last year. What’s more, Bolsonaro’s absence was punctuated by feuds among members of the headstrong administration and the vociferous First Family, who bickered on social media and beyond.

Yet as it happens, Bolsonaro’s absence may have been just what the doctor ordered. While Donald Trump’s tempestuous style of leadership burned through the graybeards he’d appointed, the man touted to be his tropical disciple can barely keep up with his cabinet.

No one had a clue how a right-wing populist with a penchant for offensive sound bites, zero executive experience and the sketchiest of plans would run Latin America’s biggest nation. The long bet was that cooler heads like economic super minister Paulo Guedes, former judge Sergio Moro and perhaps even the handful of retired generals would prevail to keep Brazilian democracy safe and solvent.

Sure, Bolsonaro wasn’t AWOL during his hospital stay. Ditching protocol, he declined to transfer executive duties during his 17-day internment to his vice president, retired general Hamilton Mourao. Even bed-ridden and tethered to feeding tubes, he met ministers, signed official papers, and lit up Facebook and Twitter with vitriol and partisan cheer — over the protests of his physicians and sharp media rebuke. “Governing is not Tweeting,” the conservative daily O Estado de Sao Paulo remarked in a lead editorial Tuesday.

Meantime, the business of government clearly was being handled elsewhere. Justice Minister Moro has rolled out an ambitious bill to combat corruption and common crime and is talking up the initiative in congress. Any day now, Guedes is expected to finalize an aggressive plan to overhaul the loss-making pension system that would require Brazilians to work longer for retirement benefits.

The fractious congress is touted to back the plan, thanks to the clout of Rodrigo Maia, the lower house president and legislative veteran who is outside of Bolsonaro’s political orbit but holds affinities to Guedes’s brazen market-friendly agenda — a lot more brazen than the one Bolsonaro has been willing to defend. (Consider Bolsonaro’s decision Wednesday to cave to dairy farmers’ demands for steep tariffs on cheap powdered milk from the European Union.)

Notably, Mourao allowed that the armed forces is also on board for pension reform, a key concession from Bolsonaro’s most cherished constituency, which traditionally has pushed back against plans to curb its perks and privileges.

Perhaps most surprising is the role former military men are playing in shaping the overall government reset. During the campaign, as Bolsonaro ostentatiously packed his kitchen cabinet with former four-star generals, critics warned of the imminent erosion of democratic liberties and the return to the days of authoritarian rule.

In fact, Bolsonaro’s generals are turning out to be something of an institutional ground wire, neutralizing dissidents in the ministry and damping ideological flamethrowers. Mourao has emerged as the unlikely moderate in a ruling entourage of Jacobins. Contradicting the stern Evangelical Protestant voter base, he defended women’s freedom of choice to end an unwanted pregnancy. He decried the homophobia that drove openly gay federal lawmaker Jean Wyllys to forsake his congressional seat and abandon Brazil; Bolsonaro had hailed Wyllys’s departure as “a great day,” while his second son Carlos sent him off with “Go with God, be happy” tweet.

Mourao scuttled Bolsonaro’s Trump-inspired campaign promise to transfer the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a move that would have antagonized Brazil’s customers and allies in the Arab world), and downplayed Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo’s mystical broadsides against “globalism.” He recently called martyred Amazon rubber tapper and rainforest champion Chico Mendes, murdered by a rancher in 1988, “a part of Brazilian history” — a slap at Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who had recently dissed Mendes as irrelevant.

“The military ministers are the closest thing Brazil has to adults in the room,” Monica de Bolle, an economist who heads Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me. “If not for the generals, our chances of seeing pension reform would be much diminished, and we would get lost in the mish-mash of ultraconservatism of Bolsonaro and his sons. The generals don’t want that, nor frankly do most Brazilians.”

Mourao’s counter-offensive has fueled talk of a deeper course correction to Bolsonarismo’s excesses or, more darkly, a play by a dissident political faction. “Mourao understands that campaigning is one thing, and governing quite another. He’s beginning to try out for the part of statesman,” political analyst Octavio Amorim, at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, said in an interview.

Such an evolution might help to mute the cacophony of the ideologues in Brasilia and pass salutary reforms to revive the underperforming economy. Yet it also counters Brazilian political tradition and ultimately may clash with the constitution itself. Never mind the risk of military mission creep, a gambit that would be bad for the armed forces’s brand and for democracy.

 “Brazil has a presidential system, which means the head of state must build a governing coalition, marshal a legislative majority and sort out political disputes,” Amorim said. “Bolsonaro has the mandate. The problem is no one knows yet what sort of government this will be.” Look no further than Bolsonaro’s first day back on the job, when son Carlos called the president’s General Secretary and former campaign strategist a liar, threatening to tilt the governing coalition further into disarray. Mourao—who else?--once again called for a truce.

Able leaders, of course, can leverage uncertainty to keep allies in line and rivals off balance. “It’s quite another thing for a leader himself to be the source of uncertainty,” said Amorim. Brazil’s grownups still have their work cut out for them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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