Brazil’s far-right Bolsonaro reaches for an unlikely title: President of the Poor

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For many Brazilians, Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency has been no fairy tale. Since his convincing victory in 2018, he has stood accused of encouraging massive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and undermining the free press. A Senate panel recommended he be charged with crimes against humanity for willful mismanagement of the coronavirus, which he dismissed as a “little flu.”

And yet, to the surprise of some, the same welfare critic who once suggested that one cure for poverty was birth control has also sought to reinvent himself as something of a fiscal Robin Hood, taking from Brazil’s public coffers to give to the poor. The most recent and greatest effort of his is a potential historic, some would say disastrous, revision to Brazil’s social safety net. Critics fear that it could lead to Brazil losing its national piggy bank.

Bolsonaro’s Auxilio Brasil, or Brazil Aid, program would beef up financial assistance to the less fortunate ahead of next year’s election. The social spending spree is so expensive that it will exceed Brazil’s fiscal ceiling. Both legislative houses must approve the rejiggering state finances necessary to make this possible. It cleared the lower house, and now it will move to the Senate. The Senate has offered a fast airing.

The cornerstone of Bolsonaro’s hastily slapped together social agenda, Auxilio Brasil will replace Bolsa Familia, the much-hailed aid effort cobbled together nearly two decades ago by his political archenemy, leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two may square off in a clash of political titans in next year’s presidential vote. Although neither has publicly declared his intentions, many Brazilians believe they will be running. The success or failures of Auxilio Brazil are likely to become a major topic during the campaign trail.

Yet even some of Bolsonaro’s critics concede the far-right leader should be credited with doing right, at least for a time, by Brazil’s poor during the pandemic — even if he appeared to do so in a reach for political gain. While Congress was discussing support for the poor last year, Bolsonaro seemed to see an opportunity. Bolsonaro’s government had suggested a modest bonus to the poor in response to the pandemic. Congress was not impressed. Bolsonaro refused to let Congress down and offered to match Congress’s offer.

The result became a globally watched experiment in poverty reduction. By August of last year, as monthly cash assistance for some families reached the equivalent of about $232, extreme poverty hit a historic low of 2.3 percent. In fact, a World Bank report found that out of the 22 million people lifted out of poverty across Latin America by pandemic-related government transfers in 2020, 77 percent of them were in Brazil. Compare that to less generous pandemic assistance offered under leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, where 3.8 million more people fell into poverty during the pandemic.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that he should not have done something along these lines,” Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, told me of Bolsonaro’s pandemic efforts for the poor. You might have to offer that one to him. It was too much and poorly designed. It did help him boost his popularity.”

Bolsonaro’s popularity, in fact, shot through the roof, as the poor backed him in record numbers.

“He became a hero,” Ricardo Fernandes, a 31-year old actor from Rio de Janeiro’s City of God favela, told the Guardian last year. However, as the aid decreased, millions of Brazilians fell back into poverty. Bolsonaro lost popularity and his approval rating plummeted.

With elections looming next year, he appears to have learned that you can buy popularity.

“He is obsessed with the idea that he needs to give out money in order to boost his popularity,” Zucco said.

Doling out cash or food baskets, particularly ahead of elections, is a common political ploy in parts of Latin America. Bolsonaro’s reforms to the social safety net could have a longer-lasting impact on Brazil.

Apparently eager to stake his own claim to being a president of the poor, Bolsonaro offers more money to more families in his new program. But critics like Zucco say it has substantial failings — not least of which is that it would be funded for only one year, requiring a new vote in 2022 to keep it alive.

“The government has not explained how it will implement the new benefits or who will be responsible for their implementation, evaluation and monitoring,” Luciana de Souza Leao, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, said in a university publication. This program is bound to fail. Poor families will be the most affected since they will have to navigate a system that not even policymakers seem to understand besides dealing with the uncertainties about the program’s future.”

It is also very expensive, appearing designed less as a vehicle for long-term poverty reduction and more as a quick way to win votes in the favelas, or urban slums. Calling Bolsonaro bad for Brazil’s economy, the Economist also noted that his spending bill allots a “large chunk” of extra money to financing “opaque budget amendments that grant overpriced public-procurement contracts to individual legislators in return for their support for president.”

As the Financial Times reported, investors are dismayed by the prospect of heavily indebted Brazil exceeding its mandatory spending ceiling — passed in 2016 to rein in budgets and enforce longer-term financial health.

“Bolsonaro has always been against Bolsa Familia — he always hated it as the typical ‘money for lazy people’, etc.,” Filipe Campante, a Brazilian professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told the Financial Times. “But at the same time he knows he needs to give people something so he can have a shot at reelection.”

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