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‘Trump of the Tropics’

Critics of Brazil’s new president unfavorably compare him to Donald Trump, but Jair Bolsonaro’s win also marks a move away from socialism and shows the rise of evangelical influence

‘Trump of the Tropics’

Flanked by first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro waves to crowds after his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 1 in Brasília, Brazil. (Andre Penner/AP)

When Fabiane Maria de Jesus stopped to buy bananas on her way home from church on a May afternoon in the Brazilian resort town of Guarujá, the wife and mother of two didn’t know it would be one of the last acts of her life.

As she walked home, de Jesus tucked her Bible under one arm and offered a banana to a boy in the street. Within moments, a gang of locals descended on her, beating de Jesus to death. A crowd gathered to watch. She was 33.

The ruthless 2014 assault wasn’t the plot of drug lords or gangbangers. The crowd included ordinary locals reacting to a wild rumor: A tale had circulated about a blond woman carrying a satanic book and kidnapping children.

The vigilante attack was part of a disturbing trend: Each day in Brazil, mobs kill or attempt to kill at least one suspected lawbreaker. That means Brazil has the highest number of known lynchings in the world, according to University of São Paulo sociologist José de Souza Martins. In many cases, the suspected crimes are as minor as stealing a phone.

Part of the mob mentality likely stems from the mass impunity for criminals: Ninety percent of murders in Brazil go unsolved. In some cities, many victims of armed robbery don’t bother reporting the crimes to authorities. Vigilantism is sometimes a brutal, last-straw response to a lack of law and order.

Police living through Brazil’s economic downturn say they’re underfunded and understaffed and often go unpaid. In 2016, some police officers in Rio de Janeiro greeted tourists arriving for the summer Olympics with signs warning, “Whoever Comes to Rio Will Not Be Safe.”

Indeed, lynchings are a small part of a bigger picture of violence in Brazil often driven by drugs and gang violence: The country of 209 million endured nearly 64,000 murders in 2017. That brings Brazil’s rate of homicide to 30 murders per 100,000 people. The U.S. rate in 2015 was 5 per 100,000.

Jair Bolsonaro—who became Brazil’s president on Jan. 1, 2019—offered a caustic response to the country’s dizzying violence during his presidential campaign last August: “If the government needs to hire someone to kill off criminals, I’ll do it for free.”

Two months later, Bolsonaro won the election in a landslide.

His often-bombastic language has earned Bolsonaro, 63, comparisons to President Donald Trump, including the nickname “Trump of the Tropics.” Bolsonaro relishes the comparison. He skewers “fake news,” taunts political opponents, and tells voters, “Just like [Trump] wants to make America great, I want to make Brazil great.”

Bolsonaro has also made sharply offensive comments in the past: In an interview with Playboy magazine in 2011, he said he wouldn’t be able to love a son he learned was homosexual. He’d rather his son be dead. In 2014, he said a congresswoman had called him a rapist, and he angrily responded by saying she wasn’t worthy for him to rape her.

The rhetoric wasn’t enough to cost Bolsonaro the election, likely because the majority of Brazilians loathed the alternative: a candidate committed to continuing with Marxist-infused policies that have proven toxic for a nation with a front-row seat to the calamitous collapse of socialist Venezuela.

The story of how Brazilians—including many evangelicals—came to embrace the controversial Bolsonaro includes boom and gloom: boom for the massive growth of Protestant evangelicals and their growing influence in politics, and gloom that voters saw in the socialist ideas once gripping the most influential nation in Latin America.

Werther Santana/Estadao Conteudo/Agencia Estado via AP

A group of vigilantes attacks a man accused of stealing a cell phone in São Paulo. (Werther Santana/Estadao Conteudo/Agencia Estado via AP)

MANY MEDIA OUTLETS WERE APOCALYPTIC about Bolsonaro’s victory. They pointed to examples of the retired army captain’s sharply offensive rhetoric and his nostalgic regard for the country’s military dictatorship that ended in 1985. Despite over three decades of democratic government, some pundits predicted he’ll drag the country back to military rule.

Before he ever took office, Foreign Policy magazine compared Bolsonaro to Nazis. The New York Times declared Brazil had shifted to a dictatorship. And The Washington Post sought to explain: “How the unthinkable happened in Brazil.”

But the unthinkable had begun happening years ago. Decades of Marxist-infused, socialist-leaning rule have left the country in financial straits—thus the underpaid police officers, crippling recession, and 13 million unemployed. And it has also presided over monumental government corruption: One former president is in jail and another was impeached. 

Bolsonaro promised an alternative: He said he would rein in government spending, clean up corruption, and restore public safety. James Roberts, an economic expert and Latin American analyst at the Heritage Foundation, thinks alarmism over Bolsonaro misses a bigger story.

“The bloom is off the rose of socialism in Latin America,” he says. “People have seen it for what it is—and it has been a disaster.”

Bolsonaro’s success also points to another big story: Evangelicals were pivotal to his victory. That’s significant in a nation with the highest population of Catholics in the world, but it’s also emblematic of the massive growth of evangelicals in Brazil over the last 30 years. The percentage of Brazilians identifying as evangelical has grown from 6.6 percent in 1980 to more than 25 percent today.

In another decade, Catholics may be a religious minority in Brazil, marking one of the largest religious shifts in decades.

Ian Cheibub/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Men pray at a Pentecostal church service in Rio de Janeiro. (Ian Cheibub/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

IF BOLSONARO is the “most unlikely president of a major country in modern times,” as Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute suggests, Brazil might once have seemed a most unlikely democracy.

Portuguese explorers landed in the territory in 1500, naming the land after the Brazil tree native to the region. The country eventually gained its independence from Portugal (which had also imported Catholicism), and it went through a series of governments.

In 1964, the country entered a military dictatorship that lasted for the next 20 years. Bolsonaro entered the country’s military academy in the 1970s, and he eventually rose to the rank of army captain.

The economy improved for a time, even as military leaders censored critics—sometimes with violence. The economy flagged in the early 1980s with global inflation, and after widespread protests the military allowed a transition to civilian rule in 1985.

Bolsonaro served in the military until 1988 and then pursued a career in politics: He served as a city councilman in Rio de Janeiro from 1989 to 1991, and then won a seat in the country’s legislature in 1991. He held it until he won the presidency in 2018.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was booming in Brazil in the 1980s, particularly with the rapid expansion of the Pentecostal churches. Some churches were conservative. Others were liberal. Many embraced a so-called prosperity gospel that promised material wealth to its adherents.

For years, evangelicals had followed the informal slogan: “Believers don’t mess with politics.” But as they gained numbers in the 1980s and the country transitioned to civilian rule, influential pastors changed their minds. The Assembly of God churches began endorsing candidates to run for office as lawmakers started working on the country’s new constitution.

Eventually they formed a bloc of evangelical legislators that includes more than 90 lawmakers today.

But a socialist mindset was also on the rise, and as economic prosperity dipped again, the Marxist-infused Workers’ Party gained popularity and power in national politics, and it held the presidency from 2003 to 2016.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as “Lula”) vastly expanded government outlays, and his popularity grew. But with the massive spending, the economy suffered. Still, Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency in 2010.

But a massive corruption scandal soon rocked the nation: Prosecutors uncovered a web of bribes and money laundering that ensnared dozens of politicians from across the political spectrum—including Lula. He reported to prison for a 12-year sentence in 2018.

Meanwhile, prosecutors charged Rousseff with corruption in a separate case, and the Brazilian legislature removed her from office in 2016.

‘The bloom is off the rose of socialism in Latin America. People have seen it for what it is—and it has been a disaster.’—James Roberts

The chaos roiled disillusioned Brazilian voters, and it wasn’t long before Bolsonaro took a step that would help launch him toward the nation’s highest office: He literally took a plunge.

On a May morning in 2016, Bolsonaro donned a white robe and waded into the murky, green waters of the Jordan River. Pastor Everaldo Pereira, a well-known minister and a politician in the Social Christian Party, dipped Bolsonaro under the water.

It wasn’t Bolsonaro’s first baptism: He grew up Catholic (and still identifies as Catholic), but he says he often attends an evangelical church with his wife. It’s also not Bolsonaro’s first marriage—he’s been divorced twice and has five children.

Some saw Bolsonaro’s baptism during his Israel trip as an attempt to impress evangelicals ahead of a presidential run. Whatever the case, evangelicals paid more attention to the agenda he proposed: He said he would oppose expanding legalized abortion and would press back against a homosexual agenda already well under way: Brazil legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.

When it comes to his offensive language, evangelicals confronted a dilemma similar to the one some Christians grappled with during Trump’s 2016 presidential contest. But Breno Macedo, a Brazilian and a Presbyterian pastor, said when evangelicals and other voters considered the alternative, “I think Brazilians woke up to the pit that Marxism is.” 

Bolsonaro grimaces right after being stabbed in the stomach during a Sept. 6 campaign rally in Juiz de Fora. 

DRAINING THE PIT won’t be easy. Reforming the economy will require cutting the nation’s out-of-control spending, including in its pension system. Bolsonaro has already tapped Paulo Guedes, an economist who worked on a team of University of Chicago–trained experts (known as “the Chicago boys”). The team helped the nation of Chile transform its economy into one of the most successful in Latin America.

On corruption, he’s tapped Sérgio Moro, the prosecutor who led the investigation that exposed dozens of politicians. Some see the appointment as revealing Moro’s sympathies toward Bolsonaro, but others say it’s notable Bolsonaro is tapping a prosecutor who has already brought down two presidents.

James Roberts from the Heritage Foundation thinks the recent corruption investigations and prosecutions should temper fears that Bolsonaro intends to pivot toward a military dictatorship, though Bolsonaro does speak with fondness about the era of military rule.

‘I think Brazilians woke up to the pit that Marxism is.’—Breno Macedo

Curbing rampant crime may prove one of the most difficult tasks, but Brazilian voters ranked crime as their top concern ahead of the election. Bolsonaro proposed giving police more authority to shoot suspected criminals. The idea has drawn scrutiny from those who fear police would abuse it.

The president has also said he’ll relax gun laws and allow more Brazilian citizens to carry weapons legally. He says it’s an important way for citizens to protect themselves. Others worry it could deepen the cycle of organized crime and vigilantism.

Whatever the approach, the new president isn’t a stranger to violence. Last September, as Bolsonaro campaigned in the streets of Juiz de Fora a few weeks ahead of the election, an assailant stabbed a knife four inches into Bolsonaro’s abdomen. A handful of Bolsonaro’s supporters beat the attacker until police dragged him away.

Bolsonaro sustained life-threatening injuries and never returned to the campaign trail. Instead, he released videos on Facebook and Twitter as he recovered. But the stabbing stoked his popularity among many supporters who saw Bolsonaro’s recovery as miraculous and his street cred as established.

It wasn’t lost on some that his middle name is “Messias”—which means Messiah.

Bolsonaro isn’t a Messiah. Like others, he’s a deeply fallible man, and his country needs more than political and economic reform. Brazil’s deeper need is for cultural and spiritual reform, and on that count, Macedo, the Presbyterian pastor, says he’s encouraged to see the growth of evangelicalism.

While false theology still abounds, the pastor says he’s excited about a growing interest across denominations to study how the Bible applies to all areas of life: “There’s never been a time in Brazil when evangelicals have studied so much” about worldview.

Many evangelicals are hopeful about Bolsonaro’s agenda, but Macedo knows lasting change comes from a different source: “We want people to embrace faith in Jesus Christ, and that is the ministry of the church, not the state.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Comments

  • Katie
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 10:40 am

    This is fascinating, thank you for your thorough report.

  • DCal3000
    Posted: Sat, 01/26/2019 10:21 am

    I really enjoyed this article; one of the best in-depth reports on Bolsonaro and Brazilian politics that I have ever read.

  • OnemoreSB
    Posted: Mon, 01/28/2019 04:07 pm

    Very good article, thank you (from someone who grew up in Brazil).