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'Trump of the tropics': Who is Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro?

Jair Bolsonaro Source: Getty

As the Amazon rainforest experiences record numbers of fires, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has come under intense international scrutiny.

To some, he is a dangerous dictator.

To others, he is the man to fix various social and political crises facing Brazil.

Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has been coming under increased international scrutiny for his response to the devastating fires in the Amazon rainforest, with some even accusing him of being directly responsible.

His approval rating plunged to 29.4 per cent in August from 38.9 per cent in February, a poll published this week shows, indicating a large number of Brazilians are unhappy with his performance.

But who is Mr Bolsonaro, and what does he stand for?

‘Trump of the tropics’

Mr Bolsonaro’s election in October 2018 marked a major shift in Latin American politics, ending nearly two decades of centrist and left-wing governments.

The ex-military man began his political career in 1991 as a backbencher for the far-right Social Liberal Party.

Over the years, he steadily gained attention through a string of high-profile outbursts, capitalising on public dissatisfaction with successive governments and how they dealt with crime, corruption and the economy.

The 63-year-old’s nationalist and often inflammatory rhetoric, social media presence and admiration for United States President Donald Trump have earned him the nickname, “the Trump of the tropics”.

He supports increasing police and military powers, and is a vocal opponent of gun control, marriage equality, pay equality, immigration and abortion.

Jair Bolsonaro gives a thumbs up to supporters alongside his wife Michelle in 2018
Jair Bolsonaro gives a thumbs up to supporters alongside his wife Michelle in 2018
AP

While those views have seen Mr Bolsonaro gain something of a loyal following, they have also attracted plenty of critics, who accuse him of misogyny, homophobia and racism. 

He said in 2014 an opposition congresswoman was “so ugly that she [did not] deserve to be raped", and in 2011 said he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.

He has also referred to refugees from Africa, Haiti and the Middle East as the "scum of humanity”.

Mr Bolsonaro was stabbed at a campaign rally in September, reportedly losing 40 per cent of his blood.

The attacker said he was on "a mission from God".

Various polls showed Mr Bolsonaro's support increased in the aftermath of the incident.

Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed during a rally in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, 06 September 2018.
Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed during a rally in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, 06 September 2018.
AAP

Environmental and Indigenous record

Mr Bolsonaro indicated on the campaign trail he wanted to abolish the country’s environment ministry, pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord and open the Amazon to development as a way to boost Brazil’s economy.

Since Mr Bolsonaro took to office in January, the Brazilian agency in charge of enforcing environmental regulations has been considerably quieter.

In July, Mr Bolsonaro accused the ministry of science of lying and sacked its director when it published data showing a big increase in Amazon deforestation.

“The numbers, as I understand, were released with the objective of harming the name of Brazil and its government,” he said.

Critics of Mr Bolsonaro also point to his attitude on Indigenous rights.

He has repeatedly questioned the existence of protected Indigenous reserves and said territories are too large in relation to the number of people who live there.

That, in conjunction with his reluctance to commit major resources to fight the Amazon fires, has some Indigenous elders concerned genocide could be around the corner.

“We haven't seen this type of fire before Bolsonaro, and we think that many mining companies and timber companies feel that Bolsonaro is supporting them in doing this," environmental activist Raoni Metuktire said this week.

"It has to stop, we cannot continue like this.”

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Brazilian Indigenous chief slams Bolsonaro for role in Amazon fires
Brazilian Indigenous chief slams Bolsonaro for role in Amazon fires

International pressure

Some members of the international community are concerned Mr Bolsonaro’s government is not doing enough to fight the fires in the Amazon, which have now been burning for three weeks.

Those sentiments were echoed at the G7 summit this weekend, where members pledged $29 million (AUD) to help.

Mr Bolsonaro immediately rejected the offer, but said he would reconsider if French President Emmanuel Macron apologised for criticising him at the G7 summit.

Mr Bolsonaro has downplayed the Amazon fires by saying it is the time of the year when farmers use fire to clear land.

Emmanuel Macron and Jair Bolsonaro during a meeting on world economy at the first day of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan in June.
Emmanuel Macron and Jair Bolsonaro during a meeting on world economy at the first day of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan in June.
AP

He also suggested, without evidence, non-government organisations purposely started the fires to shame his government for cutting their funding.

"I am under the impression that [they] could have been set by the NGOs because they asked for money,” he said.

Those comments led to the booing of Mr Bolsonaro's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, at a Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week session last week.

Donald Trump endorsed Mr Bolsonaro's response to the fires raging in the Amazon and pledged "full and complete" US support.

Mr Bolsonaro "is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil - Not easy," Trump tweeted. "He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!"

Mr Bolsonaro thanked Mr Trump for his support: "We're fighting the wildfires with great success. Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development."

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