Bolsonaro, a Combative ‘Soldier,’ Gets Off to a Rocky Start in Brazil

Bolsonaro, a Combative ‘Soldier,’ Gets Off to a Rocky Start in Brazil

BRASÍLIA — “I wasn’t born to be president,” Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said during a recent address at his official residence. “I was born to be a soldier.”

The tone used by Mr. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, was lighthearted. But the message underscored how turbulent his first few months as president have been.

In just over 100 days in office, he has used up much of his political capital, with little progress on crucial issues to show for it. Brazilians are growing impatient.

The president, a right-wing populist, was swept into office with an expansive mandate for change by voters fed up with political corruption, violence and the lingering effects of a deep recession.

Kim Kataguiri, a libertarian federal lawmaker whose influential Free Brazil Movement backed Mr. Bolsonaro’s candidacy enthusiastically, called his performance a major disappointment.

“We’re already in a period of stagnation,” he said. “The markets are predicting that Brazil will not be able to meet its obligations, control its public debt or receive investment.”

Mr. Bolsonaro’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, and the vice president canceled an interview to discuss the administration’s first 100 days.

Many in Brazil — friends and foes alike — believe Mr. Bolsonaro has been his own worst enemy.

“It’s not the opposition that is creating crises for them,” Marcelo Freixo, a leftist federal lawmaker, said of Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration. “They’re creating their own crises.”

Take Mr. Bolsonaro’s attempt to tackle one of the biggest challenges of his presidency: reforming the nation’s insolvent pension system, which economists see as a ticking bomb that the world’s ninth-largest economy must defuse to avert a crisis.

Paulo Guedes, Mr. Bolsonaro’s finance minister, recently told lawmakers that Brazil spends 10 times as much on pensions as on education, a situation that amounts to “sending a plane across the ocean without fuel.”

Mr. Bolsonaro was credited with putting forward a bill that would significantly trim the generous benefits, which allow some Brazilians to retire before they turn 50. He has also broken with a past practice that often fueled corruption, in which presidents doled out ministries, high-paying government jobs and discretionary funding to parties across the political spectrum to build coalitions and pass bills in Congress.

“My outlook for the future: We won’t approve the pension reform, we will slip into a recession and the government will be left hemorrhaging,” Mr. Kataguiri, the libertarian legislator, said in an interview.

Senior government officials argued in interviews that the stormy relationship with Congress is a sign Brazil is undergoing a necessary, if chaotic, transformation on Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch.

Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired general who serves as Mr. Bolsonaro’s secretary of government, a cabinet-level position, said Congress must adapt to a new reality.

Mr. Moro presented to Congress a proposed overhaul of the criminal code, which includes tougher anti-corruption measures. And the state has begun to transfer senior drug traffickers from prisons with lax security to facilities where they can no longer run their trade behind bars.

Yet those measures often have been overshadowed by infighting, intrigue and controversial statements by top members of the administration.

Perhaps no one has done more to fuel the tumult than Olavo de Carvalho, a conservative Brazilian writer who peddles political commentary and conspiracy theories by uploading videos and tweets from his home in Virginia. Mr. Bolsonaro credited Mr. Carvalho with propelling “the revolution” that brought him to the presidency while he sat next to him at a recent dinner in Washington.

But Mr. Bolsonaro’s high regard for Mr. Carvalho is not universally shared in the administration — in large part because of Mr. Carvalho’s fringe views.

Mr. Carvalho has claimed that Pepsi is sweetened with the cells of aborted fetuses; that legalizing same-sex marriage leads to legalizing pedophilia; and that calamitous natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 earthquake in Haiti may be divine punishment for practicing African religious traditions.

Two of the ministers who joined the government at Mr. Carvalho’s suggestion have generated similar controversies, which critics within the government see as self-defeating.

Soon after taking office as education minister, Ricardo Vélez, a little-known, ultraconservative academic, said in an interview with a newsweekly that Brazilians who travel abroad behave like “cannibals” who steal things from hotels and life vests from planes.

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