CAVAN HOGUE. Brazil – somebody down there loves Donald.

Feb 7, 2019

The newly elected Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, is a right wing, socially conservative former army officer who is a fan of Donald Trump and is following many of his foreign policy adventures like pulling out of the Paris Climate accords and moving his embassy to Jerusalem. John Bolton is anxious to forge close military ties with Brazil. Bolsonaro has taken measures to replace indigenous rights by commercial agriculture and mining in the Amazon basin which poses a threat to both the people and the environment. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Jair Bolsonaro has been elected President of Brazil after a Trump-like campaign. His policies pose threats to the Amazon. He is far right in his views on social issues in the Trump/Duterte mould only even more so. He is homophobic and anti-feminist for a start. As a former army captain he wants things done in a military manner.  In foreign policy he will move the embassy to Jerusalem, pull out of the Paris climate accords and is offering the US a military base in Brazil. He has got China offside by visiting Taiwan first. His foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, praised Trump for saving Western Christian civilisation from radical Islam and cultural Marxism.  John Bolton wants to forge a military alliance with Brazil and Colombia to contain Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – the “Troika of Tyranny”.  He said on a visit that “we look forward to a dynamic relationship with Brazil”. You get the message?

When the Pope divided the newly discovered lands into two halves in 1494 by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal got the western part of South America which is now Brazil. While the Spanish Empire eventually broke up into many countries, Brazil remained whole as it is to this day. However, there are vast differences amongst its major regions and the race situation is complex. When the original inhabitants known usually as Amerindians were found unsuitable as plantation fodder, African slaves were introduced and their descendants form a large part of the current population. There was considerable inter-breeding with both Amerindians and Africans by the Portuguese and some of the old families have Amerindian blood even if identified as white. Many Brazilians are of mixed race. Unlike in North America, there are no formal structures like segregation. Whites have kept their privileged position by not formalising it. Publicly at least, racial prejudice is relatively relaxed but it doesn’t hurt to be white. Today, while the correlation is not 100% there is a clear concentration of one particular race in a region. The poor tropical north is dominated by those of African descent while the prosperous cooler south by white immigrants. São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere,  has a large Arab and Japanese community while Rio is strongly mixed with a large mulatto population. Again, while there is not a complete correlation, white people tend to be richer than black people. Whites are not just the descendants of the Portuguese but include many European immigrants like Bolsonaro’s Italian forebears. The Amazon basis is home to the remaining Amerindians many of who live a traditional life style and some of whom have possibly never seen an outsider. They live in small groups scattered throughout the Amazon basin. The vast Amazon forest is a vital part of the world climate system.

The history of Brazil is a history of exploitation of the native population and destruction of the ecosystem. Pioneers treated the Amerindians as vermin to be exterminated and the forest as something be logged and/or cleared for large agricultural plantations. Governments have from time to time tried to do something about the situation and set up Government Ministries of Indian Affairs. They have faced an uphill battle with limited funds and power against illegal logging and private armies. Jair Bolsonaro has come down heavily on the side of the exploiters. One of his first acts was to strip powers from Funai, the body responsible for protecting indigenous rights. Its ability to identify and draw boundaries of indigenous land has been handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture which is responsible for the development of agriculture and very much on the side of large agricultural firms.  The rest is being given to the Ministry of Human Rights led by an evangelical pastor who will no doubt be more interested in converting them to his brand of Christianity than protecting the traditional rights of Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people. Bolsonaro has pledged to refuse any new land rights and to open up existing land to mining and farming. He has compared indigenous people to animals trapped in a zoo!  He is clearly more interested in jobs and profits than climate change. Sound familiar? While the fate of Amazonians is of obvious concern to them, the reduction of the Amazon forest is of concern to the whole world.

Bolsonaro has promised to attack corruption and violence which is what got him the votes of the other races. His methods are probably going to mirror those of Duterte in the Philippines and he is an unabashed admirer of Donald Trump. Not a very promising start but he was elected by an electorate fed up with political corruption, incompetence, violence and declining living standards under years of ineffectual democratic government. Perhaps Bolsonaro’s victory has something to do with the kind of thing we are seeing in other democracies but in Brazil it is worse. His ability to deliver clean, efficient government and higher living standards remains to be tested but this will be of more interest to voters than the fate of the Amazon basin and its inhabitants. A country which has so much to offer in so many ways deserves better.

Cavan Hogue worked for six years in Latin America. He has travelled in Brazil and has a long standing interest in Brazilian history and culture.

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