Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Taguatinga, Brazil. (Photographer: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg)

Bolsonaro Takes the Reins in Brazil in Nationalist Surge

(Bloomberg) -- Former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as Brazil’s president on Tuesday with the promise to tackle rampant crime, corruption and economic malaise in a wave of nationalism that’s sweeping Latin America’s largest country.

Scores of supporters flocked to attend the ceremony in the nation’s modernist capital despite light rain at the beginning of the proceedings. Nearly two months after his election victory, around 75 percent of Brazilians think Bolsonaro, 63, is on the right track, according to an opinion poll.

Judging by the list of visiting dignitaries, world leaders seem to be less excited. Only around a dozen heads of state or government flew in for the event, and none of them are part of the Group of 20 largest economies. The presidents of Mexico and Argentina, Latin America’s second- and third-largest economies, did not attend.

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Bolsonaro in a tweet, writing that he "made a great inauguration speech" and that "the U.S.A. is with you!" Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the administration’s representative in Brasilia.

"I summon every legislator to the mission of rebuilding our nation, freeing it of the yoke of corruption, crime, economic irresponsibility, and ideological submission," Bolsonaro told Congress after taking the presidential oath. Himself a longtime congressman, he said he would work toward sustainable public accounts, pursuing free-market principles and efficiency without an ideological bias.

In the wake of the worst recession on record and years of corruption scandals, Bolsonaro’s tough campaign talk on law and order as well as his promise of a clean government had resonated with a population deeply disillusioned with traditional parties.

Since his victory in a second-round vote Oct. 28, he has assembled a stripped-down cabinet made up of an astronaut, an anti-corruption czar, retired military officers, and a group of liberal economists. They were sworn in on Tuesday evening. Roberto Campos Neto has yet to be confirmed as the next central bank chief by the Senate.

While markets initially rallied on Bolsonaro’s victory, the Brazilian currency has given up most of the gains recorded since his strong first-round showing Oct. 7. Investors are cautiously waiting for more evidence that his market-friendly economic proposals can actually be implemented, particularly a planned pension overhaul that would cut spending and help balance the budget in the long run.

"If we don’t approve the pension reform in the first half of the year, we’ll face stormy waters," Joice Hasselmann, who was recently elected to the lower house for Bolsonaro’s PSL party, told reporters in Brasilia on Tuesday.

Contrasting with his sharp-tongued criticism of the political establishment during his campaign, Bolsonaro went through most of the usual pomp and circumstance, including a motorcade down Brasilia’s main avenue, a speech in Congress, the exchange of the presidential sash and handshaking with VIPs. Despite initial security concerns following his stabbing by a fanatic in September, he paraded in the 1950s Rolls Royce convertible traditionally used on this occasion.

The Myth

In a second speech to crowds outside the presidential palace after receiving the presidential sash, Bolsonaro said the Brazilian people on Tuesday had begun to free themselves of socialism, a reference to more than 13 years of left-wing rule that began in 2003.

Supporters greeted Bolsonaro, chanting "the myth" and "the captain has arrived."

The president gave few concrete examples of policy initiatives but his chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said earlier that the president’s first measures would be decrees to cut bureaucracy.

Bolsonaro’s speech was preceded by that of his wife, Michelle, who briefly stole the show when she addressed the crowd in Brazilian sign language, read out by an interpreter. She prompted applause when she responded to the crowd’s demand to kiss her husband. Michelle, who learned sign language because of a deaf uncle and practices it during service at her church, said she would work to help the physically-challenged people.

In a sign of Brazil’s pro-U.S. and anti-socialist foreign policy about-face, Bolsonaro withdrew invitations to the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela and said he wouldn’t receive any representative from Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega is cracking down on human rights groups, reporters, and demonstrators.

In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent several days in Brazil and joined Bolsonaro last Friday in visiting a synagogue in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro repeatedly expressed admiration for Israel and said he’s considering moving the Brazilian embassy there to Jerusalem.

"I swear by God it’ll be the best of all Brazilian governments," said Jose Gentil, a 71 year-old retired Air Force official who traveled from the northeastern city of Fortaleza with his wife and daughter for the inauguration. "The expectation of the Brazilian people is very big."

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